Status Report: Brewers’ Right-Handed Relief | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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Following Friday’s blockbuster deal between the Cubs and A’s, trade season is in full swing. Sitting atop the NL Central makes the Brewers potential buyers. So, over the weekend, Ryan Topp sketched out the Brewers’ situation. As he noted, right-handed relief pitching is near the top of the Crew’s wish list. While Doug Melvin kicks the tires on right-handed relievers, let’s take stock of the current state of the Brewers bullpen.

There’s no denying that the Brewers bullpen has been a strength of the team. Even though they rank 14th overall with a 3.47 ERA, the underlying metrics paint a better, more representative, picture. For example, the pen’s 3.29 xFIP is the best in all of baseball, while their 3.00 SIERA ranks second behind only the Yankees. Another good sign is that the Brewers’ bullpen ranks second in the league with a 16.5 K-BB%. Simply, the pen has done a good job at both missing bats and avoiding free passes. Almost a quarter of batters faced (24.2 K%) end up striking out. Meanwhile, only 7.7% of batters have drawn a walk. That’s the third best bullpen BB% in baseball.

Also important to note is how much wear and tear the Crew’s pen has received. Even amidst the interesting Wei-Chung Wang roster experiment, the Brewers’ bullpen ranks in the bottom third of the league in both IP (251.2 IP / 23rd in MLB) and pitches thrown (4,114 pitches / 23rd in MLB). Of course, Wang only accounting for 15 IP and 316 pitches does mean that the other members of the pen have been shouldering a majority of the work.

Here’s a quick breakdown of all of the Brewers’ relievers with, at least, 10 IP –

Francisco Rodriguez 42.1 2.34 2.17 24.8% 159
Will Smith 40.2 2.21 2.70 19.2% 210
Zach Duke 34.2 1.56 1.49 30.1% 287
Brandon Kintzler 31.1 4.02 3.80 5.8% 93
Tyler Thornburg 29.2 4.25 4.61 5.3% 88
Rob Wooten 27.0 4.67 2.97 15.0% 80
Wei-Chung Wang 15.0 12.60 4.53 4.8% 33
Jim Henderson 11.1 7.94 2.11 26.0% 53

With league average being 100 ERA+, it’s pretty clear who the standouts in the Brewers’ bullpen have been. Francisco Rodriquez, Will Smith, and Zach Duke have all had incredibly strong first halves. Each has a sub-three SIERA, a K-BB% ratio near or above 20%, and a RA9 in the low twos. (RA9 counts all runs allowed, earned & unearned.)

So, with K-Rod entrenched as the closer, the Brewers are left with two southpaws as their best and most reliable arms out of the pen. Even though Smith and Duke can be trusted to get out right-handed hitters, it’s far from an ideal situation. Thus leading to Melvin’s not so secret search for an impact right-handed reliever for the seventh and eighth inning.

Though a move for a right-handed reliever seems likely, the situation isn’t so desperate that Doug Melvin needs to make a move out of desperation. Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg are currently on the DL but could return to provide help. Rob Wooten’s peripherals hint at an impending improvement, and there’s still hope that Brandon Kintzler can regain last year’s form.

So, before the buying begins, here are some cliff notes on the Brewers’ current stable of right-handed relievers.

Brandon Kintzler
2014 numbers –

31.1 4.02 5.34 3.96 3.80 1.53 5.8%

Brief Breakdown –
With a 1.3 fWAR, Brandon Kintzler was, by far, the Brewers’ most valuable reliever in 2013. After a strong first two weeks of the season, Kintzler hit the DL with a shoulder strain. Since his return on April 27th, Kintlzer has managed a 4.78 ERA / 5.92 FIP / 4.22 xFIP.

What needs to change —
Kintzler needs to miss more bats. His 4.5% swinging strike rate (SwStr%) is well below both his career norm and the league average of 8.7%. This also accounts for the seven-point dip in his strikeout percentage to 11.6 K%. Also, when batters swing, they’re connecting more than ever off Kintzler. The 94.5% contact rate on pitches in the strike zone (Z-Contact%), .308 AVG, and .315 BABIP prove that Kintzler is currently not fooling many batters.

What is encouraging –
Though he’s struggled, Kintzler’s walk rate (5.8 BB%) and ground ball rate (56.5 GB%) are both near last year’s numbers. His line drive percentage (18.5 LD%) is lower than last year’s, though that has come at the expense of a higher fly ball rate (25.0 FB%). And those fly balls are turning into home runs at an alarming rate of 22.2% HR/FB. If his home run rate comes down, while his BB% and GB% stay steady, Kintzler should improve. Kintzler is the rare case where a few more line drives and a few less fly balls might be a good sign.

Rob Wooten
2014 numbers –

27.0 4.67 2.63 3.33 2.97 1.41 15.1%

Brief Breakdown –
After not making the Brewers’ opening day roster, Wooten admitted that he was “devastated”. Wooten made five scoreless appearances at AAA before Kintzler’s DL stint opened the door. As the season progressed, and Kintlzer struggled, Ron Roenicke has used Wooten in higher-leverage situations.

What needs to change –
Wooten’s luck. Wooten’s .381 BABIP is second only to Wang’s amongst active members of the Brewers’ bullpen. He also sports a 66.5 LOB%, which needs to improve for him to keep getting important innings.

What’s encouraging –
Wooten allowed eight of his fourteen earned runs in only two outings. That partly explains why FIP, xFIP, and SIERA think he’s better than his current ERA would indicate. Wooten has also struck out 22.1% of right-handed hitters he has faced while only walking 3.9%. Those are encouraging signs going into the second half of the season.

That said, if Wooten continues to be the best right-handed option out of the pen, expect Melvin to make a move. That is nothing against Wooten, who only has 54.2 innings of big league experience. If Wooten’s the best right-hander standing, some veteran support down the stretch would be helpful.

Tyler Thornburg
2014 numbers –

29.2 4.25 3.79 4.90 4.61 1.52 5.3%

Brief Breakdown –
Blocked from earning a role in the starting rotation after the off-season acquisition of Matt Garza, Tyler Thornburg became an important part of the Brewers’ bullpen to start the season. Thornburg allowed one earned run in April and compiled a 0.61 ERA / 1.82 FIP / 3.12 xFIP and 21.8 K-BB%. Since April, Thornburg has a 7.80 ERA and walked 16 compared to only 11 strikeouts. On June 6th, Thornburg hit the DL with right elbow inflammation and hasn’t thrown a pitch since.

What needs to change –
First, Thornburg needs to get healthy. Though the Brewers are in need of right-handed relievers down the stretch, there is absolutely no incentive to rush him back. If he does return, Thornburg must have the confidence to attack the strike zone. During his dominant April, Thornburg threw 51.9% of his pitches in the zone. In May and June, his Zone% dipped to 38.6%. Thus accounting for part of the huge uptick in his BB%.

What’s encouraging –
Thornburg’s dominant April, combined with his stellar end of the 2013 season, has Brewers’ fans excited about where he fits into the team’s future. If healthy, and attacking the strike zone, Thornburg has shown that he has the stuff to be a valuable bullpen arm.

Jim Henderson
2014 numbers –

11.1 7.15 4.61 2.41 2.11 1.59 26.0%

Brief Breakdown –
Jim Henderson, the Brewers’ presumptive closer coming into the season, lost his job to K-Rod on opening day after the coaching staff wasn’t encouraged by his spring training performance. Henderson struggled through the first month of the season while still flashing the strikeout skills that first earned him the closer role. Right shoulder inflammation sent him to the DL on May 2nd, only for a setback to occur after his first minor appearance on May 23rd. Henderson returned to the mound last Thursday. Then pitched 1.1 innings on Sunday and recorded three Ks.

What needs to change –
With only 11.1 IP, and an injury under his belt, it’s hard by just looking at the numbers to distinguish between what’s an injury issue, what’s a performance issue, and what’s a product of a small sample size. Henderson did noticeably lose a tick off his fastball, down to an average of 93.9 MPH. He also struggled mightily against left-handed hitters, who sat all over his fastball/slider combo, and bashed their way to a slash line of .400/.529/.786 with a .546 wOBA.

What’s encouraging –
With a 26.0 K-BB%, a struggling Henderson still managed to strike out many more batters than he walked. Even with the lost velocity, he still managed a 14.4 SwStr%, right around his career norm. Finally, Henderson’s 2.41 xFIP and 2.11 SIERA say that he still has the underlying skills to succeed. Besides a big trade, Henderson’s successful return and reemergence could have the biggest impact on the Brewers’ bullpen in the second half.

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