The conclusion of the 2016 season had everything: long balls, long relief, a couple of blown saves, and an extra-inning rally in a pear tree — all of which helped the Brewers narrowly avoid 90 losses. (Hey, 73-89 ain’t too shabby.)
Worst Play: Oddly enough, the player who nearly blew the game for the Brewers was (arguably) the team’s most reliable contributor. Thanks to Domingo Santana’s eighth-inning blast, Milwaukee carried a 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, where Tyler Thornburg would hopefully seal up the W. The righty allowed a leadoff single, then set down Carlos Gonzalez and Tom Murphy on strikes, but not before the runner advanced to second on a wild pitch. Down to their last out, the Rockies made that advancement count: Jordan Patterson lined a single into right field, bringing in the run and advancing to third on Andrew Susac’s throwing error.
Patterson’s single/error (-.478) dropped the Brewers’ chances of winning from 83.7 percent to 35.9 percent. It was the single biggest play of the day for either team, and for Thornburg, it was the worst play of his career by Win Probability Added. At the end of the day, it didn’t make a difference — and Thornburg getting an inning-ending groundout to strand the runner at third helped matters — but the untimely hit still cost the Brewers.
Thornburg entered 2016 without much major-league experience to his name, thanks to a series of injuries and incompetent play when he made it onto the field. He broke out this year, with a 2.15 ERA and 2.93 DRA across 67.0 innings, and he slotted in nicely as the team’s closer after Jeremy Jeffress went to Texas. But he did relinquish eight leads on the year, which a reliable reliever should avoid. (I’ll talk more about Thornburg’s 2016 in a moment.)
Best Play: The Brewers wouldn’t stay down for long: In the very next inning, they took back the lead for good. After Chris Rusin retired the first two hitters, Orlando Arcia tallied his third hit of the game, a double down the left-field line. That brought Susac back to the plate, where he redeemed himself for his earlier misplay. On a 1-1 changeup, he drove a tie-breaking home run into the seats in left, the first long ball of his Brewers career.
Susac’s dinger (+.432) upped the Brewers’ win probability from 45.0 percent to 88.6 percent. It didn’t matter that Jake Elmore grounded out to end the frame — with Corey Knebel coming on in the bottom of the tenth, the Brew Crew was in line for victory. Knebel held up his end of the bargain, setting down the side in order to close the book on Colorado and end Milwaukee’s year on a high note.
Susac’s offense probably isn’t his strongest feature — he’s always done a phenomenal job framing-wise in the minor leagues, although that ability hasn’t yet made the leap. Still, it helps to have a solid bat from a backstop, which he’s possessed thus far in his major-league career. If his injury woes don’t hold him back, he could become a serviceable replacement for Jonathan Lucroy. And hell, Lucroy had an offensive breakout in Miller Park; maybe Susac could develop into a weapon at the plate as well as one behind it.
Trend to Watch: Craig Counsell wanted to make the final game of 2016 a bullpen affair, meaning no pitcher (ideally) would see the lineup turn over. Together with the trip to extra innings, that brought eight Brewers pitchers to the mound; combined, they struck out 11 and issued only three walks. I want to narrow in on the penultimate Milwaukee hurler in this game: Thornburg, who blew the save for the eighth time this season.
The run that Thornburg allowed on Sunday was part of a larger trend. He permitted an opponent to cross the plate in each of his last four outings of 2016, which inflated his ERA for the year from 1.55 to 2.15. And those weren’t flukes, either: All year, Thornburg had trouble limiting solid contact. According to FanGraphs, he had a hard-hit rate of 36.3 percent, one of the worst marks in the majors. Sooner or later, that was bound to lead to some runs.
How can Thornburg move away from this in 2017? He should start by moving his fastball up in the zone, where it gets a lot more whiffs and a lot less hits. In 2016, he kept his four-seamer down in the strike zone a lot; while that served him pretty well overall, as the low ERA attests, it can leave him vulnerable to implosions like the one on Sunday. It would also aid his cause if he improved his slower offerings — the curveball and changeup — both of which registered negative run values for the year as a whole, per FanGraphs.
The Brewers will probably revamp their roster in the offseason, bringing in more relievers to compete with Thornburg and his fellow holdovers. Thornburg obviously has the inside track due to his strong 2016 and history with the club, but he won’t stick as closer if hitters keep squaring him up like this. John Axford and Jim Henderson taught us about the volatile nature of relievers; hopefully Thornburg won’t be another cautionary tale in that mold.
Up Next: The playoffs! Toronto takes on Baltimore in the AL Wild Card game tomorrow at 7 CST, and the Mets and Giants duel in the NL Wild Card game on Wednesday. In a breathtakingly miraculous turn of events, the Cardinals didn’t make the playoffs this year; that means we’ll have to wait until the Wild Card winner takes on the Cubs to have an active rooting interest.