Throwing Out the Bullpen | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

This summer, one key rule has kept our humble Ohio City home in order: when the Brewers are leading after 7, GO TO BED! It’s a useful rule, given that Brewers games typically start around 8:10 PM on eastern time, and it ensures that I can get a good night’s sleep each and every night. The rule has the added benefit of allowing me to sleep peacefully, knowing that should the Brewers blow the ballgame, I can be just as upset reading about it the next morning. Needless to say, I’ve gone to bed a happy camper only to find a startling Brewers loss too many times this summer.

Last night, the Brewers added another blown save to their rancid collection of bullpen performances. After Fastballer Mike Fiers pitched 7 scoreless innings (featuring approximately 81 fastballs and cutters in 112 pitches!), Corey Hart homered in the last of the 7th to give the Brewers a one-run lead. Ryan Braun doubled home Norichika Aoki in the 8th, adding an insurance run after Francisco Rodriguez held the game in his half of that inning. In a throwback to some other blooped-to-death bullpen outings, closer John Axford allowed 3 runs in the top of the 9th, thanks to two walks and three singles (2 groundballs, 1 flyball). Unfortunately, the result was another late inning loss for the Brewers, solidifying their complete reversal in one-run ballgames.

How do the Brewers improve their bullpen?
This is my basic investigation today. I am inclined to believe that the Brewers need to reorganize the roles for their relief pitchers, but the fact of the matter is, it is unclear exactly how that task ought to occur.

Theoretically, relievers can be aligned any number of ways. A manager could conceivably design his bullpen around “bases clean” or “runners on” situations, using certain relievers for certain types of situations on the basepaths. A manager could also conceivably design his bullpen around days of rest or warm-up pitches required for his relievers, differentiating between durable, everyday relievers and those that might need more regulated assignments. Of course, there are numerous historical bullpen models, too; a manager could choose one specific relief ace, and use that pitcher whenever he feels the game is on the line or requires his arm (the 1970s bullpens were not unlike this model). A manager could even denote any number of specialists and assign relievers according to one specific inning or role.

Clearly, given Ron Roenicke‘s managerial patterns over the last year and a half, the type of bullpen the Brewers will use is closest to that last option (one might say most managers use their bullpens this way). Relief assignments (for the most part) are handed out based on game situation (leading or trailing) and inning (pre-7th/long, 7th, 8th, and 9th, of course). Even though any analysis of Brewers relief pitching will need to keep this type of template in mind, we have an opportunity to judge Brewers relievers according to their other situational accomplishments (or usage patterns by Roenicke).

In the following list of key Brewers relievers, I included several different judgments for Brewers relievers. First and foremost, I noted their most frequent inning for entering the game. Secondly, I noted their percentage of outings entered when the game is within one-run. (In some ways, this is more important than save opportunities, because even though tie games or one-run deficits do not show up as save opportunities, clean performances during those opportunities are more crucial than putting up zeroes during 2-or-3-run leads, when a reliever typically has a little ground to give). Third, I noted their inherited runners and inherited runners scored.

If you are thinking, “none of this really has to do with the relief pitcher,” well, you’re correct. Most of these categories, including the number of inherited runners a reliever faces, are simply under managerial control. However, by noting managerial patterns, we can then judge actual reliever performance to determine which pitchers might be good candidates for a closing position (or which relievers are flexible, or which relievers require set roles).

John Axford (39 G): .872 entered in 9th, .590 one-run games, 2 IR / 2 IS.
Francisco Rodriguez (45 G): .911 entered in 8th, .600 one-run games, 7 IR / 0 IS
Manny Parra (38 G): .316 entered in 7th, .421 one-run games, 19 IR / 9 IS
Kameron Loe (39 G): .385 entered in 8th, .385 one-run games, 20 IR / 8 IS
Jose Vera (41 G): .463 entered in 7th, .439 one-run games, 16 IR / 3 IS
Tim Dillard (34 G): .412 entered in 8th, .206 one-run games, 15 IR / 3 IS

Musical Chairs
Judging from the list above, there are two key elements challenging the Brewers’ bullpen:

(1) Distribution of one-run games and late-inning appearances is too rigid. Even within a bullpen with specific roles, the Brewers’ bullpen could benefit from some relaxation of the “set-up / closer” transition between the 8th and 9th inning.

The strengths of Manny Parra, Jose Veras, and even Tim Dillard could be used to fortify late game relief.

(2) The model of flexibility used in the 7th inning (and with the middle relievers) can be used to influence decisions in the 8th and 9th inning, too. This is one feature of MLB bullpen usage that I can never quite grasp; once managers move beyond their major relievers, they use their remaining relievers in situations that relate to their strengths. Dillard and Veras are strong examples in this regard; both relievers receive assignments across various innings and situations, but they also thrive in situations where runners need to be stranded. This type of strategy can be used to strengthen late inning relief.

Consider last night’s game, for example. There really is not a good reason to leave Axford in the game to surrender walks and hits with runners on base, when there are pitchers in the bullpen that arguably work better with runners on base. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but a reliever such as Veras or Dillard would have been a sound choice to bail out Axford. On the other hand, the Cardinals could have smoked Veras or Dillard, exploiting their weaknesses. However, given that they clearly had Axford’s number, I’m not sure that simply sticking with the closer for the closer’s sake was the right call.

Here is a concrete example of how bullpen flexibility can help diffuse difficult situations. Instead of sticking with the closer “because he’s the closer,” managers could use some of their runners-stranded specialists to close out saves.

Sidebar: Labor Considerations
In this regard, I think an overhaul of the save statistic would help change managers’ minds, too. Since there are now set arbitration structures and salary levels set by great closers, relievers such as Axford have clear professional goals for the types of contracts that they can potentially sign. Axford, for instance, was a great candidate (entering this season) to beat Jonathan Papelbon‘s first-year arbitration figure for MLB closers. We can certainly say that this shouldn’t influence Roenicke’s in-game decision making, but in some regard, taking saves away from Axford harms his professional development. This might seem like nonsense, but I think if we follow managerial trends in MLB, we will find that elite-pay structure closers are given the benefit of the doubt in save situations.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One way to change this would be to hand saves out to each and every reliever that pitches in a save opportunity, rather than differentiating between saves and holds. In this way, managers could use their very best relievers in tight, game-changing spots in the 7th and 8th without taking “saves” away from them. In general, if all save opportunities were considered “saves” and not “saves” and “holds,” managers would have more incentive to manage their bullpens according to the best possible match-ups.

Side bar Bonus: In Shouse We Trust

While I have a sidebar running here, let’s honor the great Brian Shouse and his fireman abilities with the ’07-’08 Brewers:

Shouse (142 G): .359 entered in the 8th, .366 one-run games, 138 IR / 38 IS.

Who is the next closer?
Given Roenicke’s managerial style, if anyone steps into the closer’s role to relieve Axford for a little while, that new closer will be Francisco Rodriguez. Not only is Rodriguez one of the most highly regarded relievers in the Brewers’ bullpen, but he was previously a career closer that could benefit from some save opportunities to solidify his legacy among MLB relievers.

Roenicke has some interesting candidates to help the Brewers win close games in the 9th inning.

(1) Manny Parra’s strike out, walk, and home run ratios make him a strong candidate to open the 9th inning when the bases are clean. Given his ability to pitch multiple innings, he could also be a good candidate to pitch the 8th and the 9th against batting orders that feature numerous left-handed bats.

(2) Jose Veras’s walk rate is alarming, but he genuinely shines with runners on base. Furthermore, as Ryan Topp noted last week, he fits the big-time strike out potential of the Brewers’ bullpen (one might say that he embodies that big-time strike out approach in the Brewers’ middle innings). Veras is a great candidate for a late inning fireman, and he should see more one-run games.

(3) You’d be hard-pressed to find more Tim Dillard apologists than on this very website. Beyond that, Dillard’s ability to limit the damage by keeping the ball in the park and not walking too many batters makes him a good candidate for 2-or-3-run leads in the 8th and 9th innings. If Axford and Rodriguez remain the top guns in the late innings, Dillard is one of the best candidates to relieve those two when they need a break, or when a good situation presents itself (say, a two inning save when the game is within a couple runs, and the other team is heavy on the righties).

One way or another, the Brewers need to revamp their bullpen. The organization can point to this stretch of ballgames as a key opportunity to get the Milwaukee nine back into contention; without reconsidering some of their relief roles, it’s unlikely that the Brewers will be able to impact the NL Central standings before the end of July. It’s one thing to believe that the Brewers are not entirely out of the hunt, but it’s another thing to enact that ideal on the field. If there is a disconnect between strategy, roles, and ability, the Brewers will not be able to close the NL Central gap and defend their 2011 division championship.


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