It was a tale of two halves for the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen in 2011. Before the break, the Brewers struggled to a 3.92 ERA in relief, but dropped that number down to 2.43 afterwards. Quite a bit of that difference was due to personnel changes, most notably the the acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez and the return to health of Takashi Saito. It also helped that closer John Axford had a better second half than first, as did Kameron Loe. The memory of the second half and the fact that Rodriguez unexpectedly returned after accepting arbitration has many people, like ESPN.com’s Buster Olney, expecting big things from the 2012 unit. Just how justified is the faith many have in the bullpen to “shorten games?”
Axford clearly established himself as one of the truly elite relief pitchers in the game, at least as much as anyone can, given the volatility of relief pitching. After a few early season hiccups, he converted his last 43 regular season save attempts until giving up a 1 run lead in the 9th inning of game 5 of the NLDS. His 1.95 ERA was possible due to a swing-and-miss repertoire that produced an outstanding 10.2 strikeouts and 7.2 hits per 9 innings. While there is still room to tighten up the command, even if he suffers an unlucky season on balls in play, the K:BB ratio is good enough to support very effective run prevention numbers. When paired with Rodriguez at the break, the duo teamed up to allow only 3 blown leads, and the damage was never enough that the team lost a game.
Overall, Axofrd and Rodriguez combined to pitch 102 2/3 innings, posting 1.93 ERA. Those expecting a repeat performance may need temper their expectations, if only slightly. While he certainly earned most of it, Axford’s 1.95 ERA was a bit below what one would expect based on his FIP (2.41) and xFIP (2.85) numbers. He also benefited from giving up runs at the right times over those final 43 saves, never giving up enough runs to blow a lead he was given. In other words, if he pitches basically exactly as he did last year, one would expect a few more runs to score overall and a few more 1 run leads to be blown along the way. Not a major regression, but some sort of backslide would be normal. Of course, he could also improve as a pitcher and maintain or even better those numbers, though that is obviously a pretty tall order.
On the K-Rod side of the equation, it’s important to remember that he was a better pitcher in Milwaukee than he was in New York, allowing more than a run fewer per 9 after the trade. Of course, the Brewers figure to get more innings from him this year than last, but it’s unlikely he’ll be as good over the full season as he was in the second half. None of this is to say that we should expect the K-Rod/Ax late inning duo to be “bad” in 2012. It’s always possible, because of injuries and the general instability of reliever performance, but not particularly likely given their ages. In the end, it’s just that doing what they did as a duo in the second half of the season is really hard to repeat, even for the very best of relievers, so it’s best to project a bit cautiously.
Moving on to the rest of the bullpen, there have been some significant changes with this group, but they do have some very important things going for them. The loss of Saito and LaTroy Hawkins removes two pitchers who posted sub 2.50 ERA’s in 2011, but the pair combined to only pitch 75 total innings between them, or roughly the innings output of only one workhorse reliever. To replace them in the 7th inning, Doug Melvin went out and traded for Jose Veras from the Pirates. Veras is a classic power pitcher in that he’ll rack up big strikeout numbers, and will struggle with free passes at times. He also seems to be showing a growing issue, at least in his peripheral numbers, towards problems with left-handed batters, though that may have been simply a small sample size issue. Speaking of problems with left-handers, the much maligned Kameron Loe is back for another season. He struggled at times in the first half when pressed into duty as “8th inning guy”, but thrived in the second half in a more mid-inning role. He had an almost 100 point difference in OPS allowed between right-handed and left-handed hitters. Also, if Tim Dillard sees time in the big league pen, he’s another guy who can get right-handers out with aplomb but should rarely see lefties when it really matters. All three can rack up the strikeouts while limiting the walks, at least against righties.
Just how much the right-handed middle inning guys have to see lefty batters is going to depend a lot on the performances of two obviously talented, but yet-to-produce southpaws, Zach Braddock and Manny Parra. At their best, they can be extremely difficult to hit for batters of either hand. Both have also dealt with physical and mental setbacks to their careers over the years. Parra missed all of 2011 to injury, but made huge strides in 2010 once committed to the bullpen full time. Oddly for a lefty, he’s actually had more success in his career against right handers, but the numbers in relief have been good for either hand. Braddock’s sleep disorder issues in 2011 are well chronicled, and obviously greatly harmed his numbers when he was on the mound. He is capable of completely humiliating even the best left-handed hitters when he’s on, though, which should give manager Ron Roenicke a powerful weapon out from that side if he’s right in 2012 and if Ron chooses to use it.
Playing matchups with his relievers was not something Roenicke did very often in 2011. Part of that was due to the fact that he didn’t have a lefty reliever for long stretches of the season, and when he did it was a player struggling with some sort of major issue. Part of it is also due to the fact that Roenicke has said many times that he likes “set roles” for his relievers. Given, though, that the 8th and 9th innings appear to be set and that he figures to have at least 1, if not 2, lefties to use now, it would seem a wise time for a reevaluation of the “set roles” policy. If done creatively, it seems quite possible that 6th and 7th innings could become a matchup nightmare for other teams. The starters should often be able to hand over leads to the pen well into the 6th and 7th innings, and when they don’t the team has super swing man Marco Estrada ready and waiting to fill the gap. Estrada was better starting than in relief in 2011, but the differences weren’t big. If he maintains his strikeout to walk numbers, he should be a very capable inning eater and spot starter.
Beyond that, there is plenty of young upside potential relievers in the system. Brandon Kintzler was on his way to a breakout in 2011 before an elbow injury hit. He’s struggling though some issues in it again this spring, but if he regains his health, he has a ton of ability. Mike McClendon and Frankie De La Cruz both pitched in the majors last year and could be called upon again. Lefty Juan Perez was making some noise before being sidelined with a collapsed lung over the weekend. The real wild cards, though, are some starting pitching prospects who could possibly be called on the relieve in the majors this year if circumstances warranted. Tyler Thornburg is the most notable, but Cody Scarpetta or Amaury Rivas could also play their way into the role. It’s even possible that starter Wily Peralta could find time in the big league pen this year if a need arises or the team just wants to reward him late and doesn’t have a starting slot available. Finally, there is the wildcard that is Santo Manzanillo, who has high 90’s velocity going for him. Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein mentioned on a recent podcast that he’s been told by a scout that Manzanillo could pitch in the majors this season. So even beyond the likely opening bullpen, there is plenty of potential impact depth waiting for the chance to show what it can do.
Add it all up, and it’s not hard to see the Brewers with a very effective bullpen in 2012. Even with the tough task of living up to 2011, the back end tandem of Axford and Rodriguez still figure to be among the best late inning duo’s in the game, and the team probably gets more innings from the pair than they did last year. The middle innings are full of guys who can strike batters out and make the lives of same handed hitters miserable. There is plenty of interesting depth in the minors waiting for it’s shot. As we’ve covered in this space before, one of the big keys will be sorting all this depth out and getting the best guys out there as much and as quickly as possible. Managing a bullpen correctly is one of the more difficult things a manager has to do, and as a result it often helps separates the good skippers from the bad. The talent certainly seems to be there for a successful unit, but with bullpens there is always a good deal of luck that goes into the final result. Like fans of any other team, Brewer backers will just have to hope for more good than bad from their relievers in 2012.