Remember in the offseason, when everyone thought the Brewers’ bullpen might carry them to surprising success in 2016? Man, were we wrong. To this point, the Brew Crew has:
Of all the things that have collapsed for the Brewers this season, the bullpen may hurt the most. But instead of going up in flames, one of its members has continued throwing them. Despite some superficial struggles, Jeremy Jeffress has dominated in 2016 like never before. Since this club hasn’t given its fans too much to celebrate, let’s look at all the things he’s done well this season — and find out why he could be even better.
He’s perfecting the command-control combination
The unedumacated baseball fan thinks of “command” and “control” as the same thing. Oh, Greg Maddux? He had great command, or great control, or whatever. The two terms describe separate abilities, though, and the former requires more skill than the latter. Ben Jedlovec explained it better than I could, so I’ll just quote him:
A pitcher with control can throw strikes. He’ll usually get the ball over the plate, doesn’t often fall behind a hitter, and will rarely hand out free passes to first. In that manner, he remains in control of the at-bat. Hitters often get defensive against control pitchers, expanding their strike zone and chasing pitches they might lay off when facing pitchers with less control.
Command more specifically describes a pitcher’s ability to hit the catcher’s target seemingly at will. If the catcher sets up on the outside corner at the knees, a pitcher with good command will deliver the ball right on target and the catcher will hardly have to move. If a pitcher has command, he’s less likely to fall behind a hitter and issue walks, but he’s also rarely going to leave a pitch over the middle of the plate.
Pitchers who can put the ball in the zone and avoid walking people are great. Pitchers who can deceive their opponents — painting the corners and inducing chases — are even better. Jeffress’s 2016 performance puts him in the second group: Not only has he thrown strikes, he’s thrown quality strikes.
Last season, Jeffress posted a satisfactory walk rate of 7.7 percent, predicated on a 63.1 percent strike rate. While he threw only 45.5 percent of his pitches in the strike zone — the major-league average was 48.1 percent — he managed a 32.0 percent O-Swing rate, which kept him from piling up bases on balls. This season, 48.2 percent of his pitches have hit the zone, and 38.1 percent of his pitches outside the zone have netted swings. And as the cherry on top, he’s lowered his Z-Swing rate dramatically, from 63.5 percent to 51.3 percent.
Not only has Jeffress improved his control, he’s bettered his command as well. I don’t have Jedlovec’s fancy metrics to testify to that, but I do have Bill Petti’s location data, which shows a trend in the right direction:
|Out of Zone%
Jeffress hasn’t turned into some Phil Hughes-type, who mindlessly throws strikes and hopes for the best. He’s proven this year that he can use his arsenal to trip up his adversaries. By staying on the edges of the strike zone, Jeffress ensures that he’ll get a good amount of strikes, and by eschewing the heart of the plate — where, on average, 21.1 percent of MLB pitches have gone this season — he’s immunized himself against gopheritis. This combination is pretty lethal, if he can maintain it.
Of course, that’s a sizable “if.” In particular, most pitchers won’t pair a high O-Swing rate with a low Z-Swing rate. Last season, out of the 438 hurlers with at least 500 pitches, only Andrew Miller finished above 35 percent in the former (37.3 percent) and below 55 percent in the latter (50.5 percent). Plus, Jeffress has actually allowed a fair amount of solid contact in 2016 — at 29.7 percent, his hard-hit rate barely trails the 30.1 percent major-league average. Still, the process has gotten better, and eventually the results should fall into line. Jeffress has already shrunk his walk rate to 4.3 percent; pairing that with better contact management would make him a nightmare.
His strikeouts should return
On the note of process not matching results… While Jeffress has done a superb job with regards to walks, he hasn’t really discovered his strikeout stroke. 17.0 percent of the batters he’s faced this season have gone down on strikes, compared to 23.5 percent last season. Even ground-ballers such as Jeffress need some punchouts to keep their numbers down, and the absence of Jeffress’s Ks might disturb the casual fan.
Below the surface, though, things look fine. Jeffress has seen his whiff rate drop off a bit — he’s dealt swinging strikes for 11.1 percent of his pitches, according to Baseball-Reference, down from 12.5 percent in 2015. That nevertheless tops the 10.9 percent major-league whiff rate, making him somewhat unfortunate. And he’s even more unfortunate once we factor in the called strikes. Jeffress’s progress with his command has inflated his looking strike rate from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent, one of the best marks in all of baseball. With so many putaway pitches, Jeffress should have put a lot of hitters away; it’s just bad luck that he hasn’t.
In one key area, Jeffress has shifted away from strikeouts: ball-in-play-rate. During his 2015 breakout, 18.3 percent of Jeffress’s pitches went into the field behind him; in Year Two, that clip has inflated to 22.8 percent. This means Jeffress has had shorter battles — his pitches per plate appearance has dipped from 3.73 to 3.45 — and thus fewer chances to slay his opponents. When Jeffress does regress, he may not make it all the way back to where he was. But an average strikeout rate, from a low-walk, high-ground ball pitcher, has a ton of value. Jeffress could fit into the Luke Gregorson mold, and the Brewers would certainly enjoy that.
He hasn’t gotten that lucky
In a sample of 11.2 innings, luck plays a pretty big role. Maybe Jeffress, despite everything discussed above, has lucked his way into his 3.09 ERA and 3.46 FIP. He could have faced a bunch of easy hitters, or worked in a bunch of spacious parks, or run a low batting average on balls in play, or had catchers who framed exceptionally well. Any of these may have tampered with his numbers, except, well, they haven’t.
In 2015, the average batter to step in against Jeffress was just that — average. Overall, his opponents combined for a .258/.318/.400 triple-slash, which translated to a .262 TAv. The competition has stepped it up a notch in 2016, with an average batting line of .250/.322/.406 and a TAv of .266. He’s also played mostly at Miller Park, where he’s compiled 8.2 of his innings thus far. Last year, he racked up 33.2 frames at home and 34.1 on the road. If his foes and surroundings start to turn in his favor, he might start to catch a few breaks.
When it comes to hits, the blame falls on Jeffress’s teammates. He’s put up a .333 BABIP, which his aforementioned hard-hit rate can’t explain entirely. Milwaukee’s -1 DRS places 19th in the majors, while its -12.9 UZR ranks 27th; if they did a better job of turning balls into outs, Jeffress would have a shinier line. The story stays the same with framing: 68.3 percent of his pitches have gone for strikes, whereas we’d expect that figure to be 67.9 percent based on his Zone and O-Swing rates. The 0.4-percentage point difference between the two isn’t significant*, because both Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado have been mediocre receivers this year. As with his BABIP, Jeffress’s called strike rate would improve under more favorable conditions.
*MLB averages for 2016: 63.3 percent strikes, 63.0 percent expected strikes Admittedly, Jeffress hasn’t had everything go against him. In stranding 80.1 percent of his baserunners, he’s sustained the sequencing that aided him last season. And given the rise in his average pitch location, we might predict a lower ground ball rate than the 57 percent figure he’s tallied heretofore. At the end of the day, though, Jeffress seems to be an elite bullpen arm, lucky or not.
Rebuilding hurts, as any Milwaukee devotee knows by now. Watching your team trot out onto the diamond, knowing that they don’t stand a chance of winning, really drags you down. Until the Brewers return to relevance, fans will have to find their consolation in the few players worth cheering for. The team’s fire-throwing, edge-painting closer certainly fits that description.