The More Talented Brewers Bullpen | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The Brewers prevailed in their Opening Day contest against in the Braves, in a game that featured three of the Brewers’ best bullpen pitchers pitching sequential scoreless frames.  Last year’s best Brewers reliever, Brandon Kintzler, handled seventh-inning duties doing what he does best: induce ground ball outs.  LHP Will Smith, who the Brewers received in their trade with the Royals for Norichika Aoki, mowed down the lefty-heavy top of the Braves batting order in the eighth, and Francisco Rodriguez, who the Brewers just can’t quit, successfully saved the game in the ninth.

So, as is often the case, the Brewers bullpen has faces both old and new.  We already previewed the relievers overall for you last week.   Today, I’d like to talk a bit more about their individual pitches.  MLB Gameday, courtesy of PITCH f/x, will already tell you which pitches each reliever is throwing.  What Gameday won’t tell you in which pitches each reliever should be throwing. By doing so, we can pick out the pitches that are most effective and the pitches that exist primarily to offer some variety.  We can also compare some of this year’s departures to their replacements.

To do so, we’ll use the same basic method we used for last month’s study of starting pitchers.  Using Fangraphs data, I downloaded the values for all major league pitchers who threw at least 40 innings as a reliever last year. (There are 161 of them). I then looked at most of the significant pitch categories tracked by PITCHf/x , including:

  • 4-seam fastball (FA)
  • 2-seam fastball (FT)
  • Sinker (SI)
  • Split-Finger Fastball (FS)
  • Slider (SL),
  • Curveball (CU)
  • Changeup (CH)
  • Knuckle-Curve (KC) and
  • Knuckleball (KB).

To qualify for this study, a reliever needed to use an off-speed pitch (including a splitter) at least 10% of the time, and a fastball (except the splitter) pitch at least 15% of the time. Using standard deviations, I then “binned” each relievers’s pitch type into one of three categories, as compared to other relievers:

  • Plus: a pitch in roughly the top third by effectiveness in the league
  • Average: a pitch in the middle, either slightly above or below the mean
  • Minus: a pitch in roughly the bottom third by effectiveness in the league.

Here’s how the relievers that pitched over 40 innings for the Brewers last year rated:

Brewers Reliever Plus Pitches Average Pitches Below-Average Pitches
Brandon Kintzler 1 (SI) 2 (FA, SL)
Jim Henderson 1 (FA) 1 (SL)
Alfredo Figaro 1 (FA) 1 (SL)
Burke Badenhop 2 (SI, SL)
Michael Gonzalez 1 (FA) 1 (SL)

From a top-level view, this confirms much of what you’ve probably already suspected: Alfredo Figardo and Michael Gonzalez weren’t very good; Jim Henderson was living dangerously for much of the year as the staff’s supposed elite reliever; Burke Badenhop was Mr. Average; and Brandon Kintzler was quite good.  In fact, this confirms something about Kintzler I thought often last year: with one plus pitch and two average pitches, Kintzler’s stuff is arguably rotation-worthy.  His maximum-effort delivery and injury history make that unlikely to ever happen, however.  It’s also notable that the Brewers could really have used somebody with a halfway-decent slider, a curious thing to lack in any bullpen.

Fortunately, the Brewers went out and sought some upgrades.  For 2014, the Brewers subtracted out Figaro (demoted), Badenhop (traded), and Gonzalez (not resigned).  In their place, we have Francisco Rodriguez (who returns after the Brewers flipped him for a decent prospect halfway through last year), Will Smith (who was received from Kansas City in the Aoki trade), and Tyler Thornburg.  Look at what this group brings, by comparison:

Brewers Reliever Plus Pitches Average Pitches Below-Average Pitches
Francisco Rodriguez 1 (CH) 1 (CU) 1 (FA)
Tyler Thornburg 1 (CU) 1 (FA) 1 (CH)
Will Smith 2 (FT, SL) 1 (FA) 1 (CU)

A bit of a different look, isn’t it?  With a plus change-up that confounds lefties, Rodriguez is a definite upgrade from Burke Badenhop.  Similarly, there is no doubt that Tyler Thornburg is superior to Alfredo Figaro. Will Smith is much better than Michael Gonzalez, particularly against left-handed pitching.  Admittedly, the numbers for both Thornburg and Smith both have some projection in them.  Thornburg’s numbers last year were so terrific, I decided in fairness to include his fairly subpar 2012 numbers  to balance him out.  Even then, he offers a plus pitch (his curve), along with an adequate mid-nineties fastball and a change-up to keep hitters honest.  Will Smith actually had only 29 innings last year, so he, too, may not be quite as good as these number suggest.  But, the stuff he did display, including two plus pitches, leaves little doubt that 10 more innings would still rank him as a very good reliever.

By “stuff” alone, the Brewers seem to have definitely upgraded their ability to keep runs off the board in late innings.  As I wrote a few months ago, while much was made of the Brewers so-called “bullpen overhaul” in 2013, the bullpen’s improved performance was largely just luck.  Luck has a nasty habit of evening out in future seasons, so it is nice to see the Brewers refusing to stand pat, and taking concrete steps to make themselves better.  Hopefully, the upgrade will have a concrete impact in a season where the Brewers just may make some noise.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw. 

All data is from Fangraphs.

Share Our Posts

Share this post through social bookmarks.

  • Delicious
  • Digg
  • Newsvine
  • RSS
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati