It shouldn’t be surprising that the Brewers are off to a solid 18-13 start to the season, but what has been surprising is the way they’ve gotten here. An offense that was greatly improved on paper has disappointed, ranking only 10th in the NL in runs scored. Conversely, the Brewers rank second in team ERA. This is surprising given all the hand-wringing over the starting rotation in the off-season and spring training. However, the Brewers’ starting rotation is only 9th in the NL in WAR.
So it’s not the hitting, and it’s not the starting pitching. Is it the defense? Sort of. Due to a string of error-riddled games in mid-April, the sentiment has been mostly negative toward the Brewers’ defense. However, due largely to outstanding range at shortstop, center field, and third base, the Brewers are top 5 in the NL in most advanced defensive metrics.
But defense is not the reason the Brewers are tied for first place. The credit for that belongs overwhelmingly to the bullpen, which has been stupidly good to this point of the season.
Simply stating that the Brewers have had the best bullpen in the league hardly does it any justice. The Brewers have had far and away the best bullpen. Let me count the ways:
- The Brewers’ pen has contributed 2.5 wins above replacement this season. The number two team in WAR is Arizona with 1.5.
- They’re number one in strikeout percentage, number three in walk percentage, and number four in home run rate.
- They’re number one in xFIP at 3.00. The next closest team is San Diego at 3.47.
- They’re number 2 in WHIP, behind only Arizona.
They aren’t even getting particularly lucky, ranking right in the middle of the pack on batting average on balls in play at .284. Arizona, the only team with a lower bullpen WHIP, has a fluky .236 BABIP, by far the lowest in the league.
This all becomes even more incredible when you consider:
1) Only the Padres and Marlins’ bullpens have thrown more innings than the Brewers’
2) They’re doing this without their best reliever from last year!
All without Knebel
If I were to tell you that the Brewers would have a dominant bullpen in 2018, you’d likely assume that meant Corey Knebel was repeating his excellent 2017 campaign. The fact that the Brewers are doing this without their All-Star closer is mind-boggling. Knebel is due back within a couple weeks. If he is able to regain his form, and there really isn’t a reason to think he won’t (his injury was a strained hamstring; nothing arm-related), it makes it that much more likely the Brewers will remain a great bullpen well into the summer.
It’s Josh Hader’s world, and we’re just living in it
On one hand, it seems ridiculous that I’m almost 500 words into a post about the bullpen and haven’t mentioned Josh Hader by name yet. On the other hand, there’s been so much written about Hader lately, that there almost isn’t anything new to say. To sum up, a conscious decision to throw more sliders and essentially scrap his changeup has transformed Hader from a very good reliever to an otherworldly one. Last year, Fangraphs had Hader at 81.5% fastballs and 11.3% sliders. This year, those numbers are a nice 69.0% fastballs and 30.0% sliders.
The impact is apparent. Last year, it was clear that hitters began to sit on fastballs against Hader. It was a good strategy with how frequently he threw them, and on occasion, hitters were able to capitalize (even though his fastball was still an effective pitch). This year, nobody is sitting on anything. The increased prevalence of his slider has hitters totally off balance and uncomfortable.
On Monday, Hader had a slider that looked like it started behind Joey Votto and ended up right on the outside black for a totally unfair strikeout.
How good is Josh Hader?
Here’s Hader buckling Joey Votto on an outside Slider. 😳😱 pic.twitter.com/uDQsFAZsRL
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 1, 2018
And it’s not just lefties! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone swing fully at a ball this far short of home plate. Not that mock Adam Duvall here, but it’s hard not to laugh at this!
Josh Hader, Dirty 80mph Slider. pic.twitter.com/v3BxvVpdL1
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 1, 2018
Just because I keep getting asked, I’ll quickly address the question that has dominated sports talk circles the last couple weeks. No, I wouldn’t make Hader a starting pitcher. This is for a few reasons:
- He’s basically a two-pitch pitcher right now, and it’s generally very difficult for a two-pitch pitcher to succeed as a starter.
- He hasn’t always been efficient with his pitches. His pitches per plate appearance can be high, which is not unusual for a power/strikeout pitcher. In a starting role, it’s easy to envision his pitch count climbing pretty quickly.
- Hader would likely need to dial back on his pitches as a starter in order to preserve some stamina to go longer than the 2-3 innings he’s been pitching out of the bullpen. That would likely decrease his effectiveness as well.
- Craig Counsell said it best when he said (paraphrasing): If he’s a starter, other teams decide who he faces. If he’s a reliever, I do.
- And this is really the most important point: He’s historically great right now in his current role. Why would you want to change anything right now?
I’m going to move on because there’s plenty about Hader all across the baseball internet, but all you need to know is that he’s been the best relief pitcher in baseball this season and quite possibly the Brewers’ MVP.
More than just Hader
If it weren’t for Hader becoming one of the biggest stories in baseball this year, Jeremy Jeffress would be receiving a lot more attention. Hader is first in the NL in WAR among relievers, but Jeffress is tied for sixth at 0.6. He has an outstanding walk rate of 5.5%, and he has yet to allow a home run. If it seems like Jeffress has been big in clutch situations this season, that’s because he has. He has stranded 90.9% of inherited base runners and is actually number one in all of baseball in win probability added, essentially meaning his appearances, given leverage/situation, have contributed more toward wins than any other reliever. It’s easy to overlook with Hader being otherworldly, but Jeffress has been excellent as well.
Matt Albers is essentially the Anthony Swarzak replacement for the 2018 Brewers, and he’s been very solid at a fraction of what Swarzak got in free agency. He’s the third Brewer in the top 30 of reliever WAR in the NL. Similarly to Jeffress, Albers is succeeding by not walking batters and limiting home runs. His walk rate of 4.9% is 15th in the NL.
Jacob Barnes is having success just like in the beginning of 2017, although this year he’s getting there a bit differently. Last year, he was more of a fly ball pitcher and therefore became home run prone as the season went on. This year, he has a 62.8% ground ball rate, good for 10th in the NL. Limiting fly balls helps limit home runs, and his home run rate is just over half of what it was last season.
Dan Jennings has been another valuable addition. A more conventional LOOGY-type reliever, he was picked up after the Rays waived him right before the season. His ground ball rate is up (top ten in the league) and his walk rate is way down from last year. More importantly, he’s death to lefties, who are currently posting a .340 (!) OPS against him.
Taylor Williams hasn’t had the same success in terms of overall results, but there are signs that indicate he could become a weapon as the season moves on. He’s walking far too many batters right now (5.79/9 innings), but he’s also striking out a ton of hitters (15.43 k/9). It’s clear that he has great stuff, and if he can harness his wildness even a little, he could be another high leverage pitcher that Craig Counsell can use.
So is this sustainable?
The short answer is no, at least not to this level. It is important to note that we’re talking a handful of innings for all of these pitchers; none of them have exceeded even 20 innings yet. There’s a lot of variance to come as the sample sizes grow larger. The most obvious candidate for regression is Hader, simply because nobody has ever had a strikeout rate as high as his currently is. Relievers will also give up home runs, something the Brewers haven’t done much at all out of the bullpen to this point. So, yes, there will be some regression–the Brewers aren’t going to continue to be 40% better than the second best bullpen in the NL.
However, there are a number of reasons to believe the pen should be very good all year. Many people are rightfully citing the bullpen being overworked as an indicator that it could wear down–a fair point, as the Crew is third in the NL in innings pitched by relievers. However, I am not overly concerned about workload at this point for a few reasons.
First, Counsell is managing relievers in a way that is maximizing their appearances. The Brewers have been using relievers in multiple innings frequently. This has minimized the number of games the pitchers have pitched, which minimizes the number of times they have to warm up/throw before entering a game. Theoretically, this should limit their workload. Relievers talk often about how it’s not just in-game work that wears them down; repeatedly getting up and throwing with purpose in the bullpen can also be taxing.
Let’s look at some numbers. The Brewers have four relievers in the top 50 for innings pitched–Hader 3, Barnes 15, Jeffress 23, and Albers 39. However, only Jeffress and Dan Jennings are in the top 50 for appearances. That the Brewers were able to limit appearances like this without Knebel and behind a starting rotation that averages just 5.26 innings per start is extremely impressive. It’s also a testament to Counsell’s bullpen management.
When you add in the fact that Knebel is returning soon, the Brewers should have plenty of arms to go around for the long haul. The rotation could also improve upon Jimmy Nelson’s return, which could lesson the workload for the pen.
It won’t be at this otherworldly level all season, but I expect the Brewers’ bullpen to be very strong all year and a main reason they compete for the playoffs.