Slow Stearns

After the infamous Weathergate day at Wrigley Field (May 20, 2017), or the day Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt penned and defended his “fewer strike outs, more wins” jinx, Milwaukee has a record of 7-10 despite a 69 RS / 70 RA run differential. In that time, the bullpen produced six rather loud losses, losses which included both blown leads and blown tie games (or sometimes a combination of both!). Part of the problem with these losses is that the rather ragtag group of waiver claims, underperforming expensive veterans, low cost veterans, and young upstarts that populate the bullpen have been tasked with a high number of consecutive close games; eleven of these 17 games have been within two runs during the sixth inning or later (including six of the last eight games).

Although the starting pitching staff has been preventing runs like they’re paid to do so over the last 17 games, eight of the Brewers’ last 17 games also featured a Brewers starter who failed to work through the sixth inning. It’s difficult to quantify the exact workload strain that this type of effort places on the bullpen, but basically Milwaukee relievers have had to face (1) an increasingly high number of very close games (especially games with no margin for error) and (2) a solid percentage of relatively short starts. However, point #2 is arguably misleading, as the average National League starter is working 5.6 innings per start; entering Thursday afternoon’s start, Milwaukee’s rotation averaged 5.43 IP/GS). Anyway, this combination has not worked for the pitching staff, creating a disconnect between their solid overall performance (approximately 15 runs prevented for the season) and actual results (recent flare ups of bullpen losses.

[As an aside, it should be added that the bats have simultaneously gone quiet, basically negating the pitching staff’s solid runs prevention performance over the last 17 games. If you’re looking for culpability, the last 17 games go -10 RS / +11 RA.]


Player Up Down
LHP B. Suter 4/4 4/9
RHP M. Blazek - 4/5
RHP T. Jungmann - 4/6
RHP D. Goforth 4/9 4/16
LHP B. Suter 4/21 4/24
LHP B. Suter 5/15 5/19
RHP P. Espino 5/19 5/20
RHP T. Cravy 5/20 5/21

Even if a parenthetical note that the bats are performing much worse than the arms should be the main focal point, bullpen losses are almost always louder than any other shortcoming for a ballclub. Beyond personnel culpability, however, it is also worth noting that GM David Stearns stopped using a popular strategy that remained from the offseason: namely, Stearns stopped the shuttle between Class-AAA Colorado Springs and Milwaukee, and therefore stopping rotating the 40th roster spot with pitching depth. This despite some overall performances certainly worthy of a cut (see Neftali Feliz), relievers with options remaining (see Jacob Barnes or Corey Knebel), or previous “roster’s edge” candidates (see Rob Scahill), ex-starters (Wily Peralta), or placeholders that do not necessarily have an essential role in “the process” (see Jared Hughes, Carlos Torres, or Oliver Drake).

The trouble here, entering Thursday afternoon, is that (for obvious reasons) Stearns was not going to option Barnes or Knebel, as those two relievers could certainly be part of the next contending Brewers core and represent (1) two of the best arms in the bullpen in terms of scouting and runs prevention and (2) two of low-cost future options reserved by the club. Carlos Torres and Oliver Drake also represent some middle ground in “the type of bullpen Milwaukee needs to design,” which is to say that Milwaukee will always need to try and collect as many relatively low-cost acquisitions or “scrap heap” trials as they can fit onto the roster. Drake has an intriguing profile and throws a splitter, meaning that the organization has an extra eye on his arsenal and mechanics.

Starting Rotation Runs Prevented GS IP R RnPrv DRA DRA_RnPrv cFIP cFIP_RnPrv
C. Anderson 12 70.3 25 12.26 4.79 -0.16 0.97 1.12
Z. Davies 12 63.1 33 0.44 5.87 -7.71 1.13 -4.35
J. Nelson 12 70.3 29 8.26 3.57 9.37 0.87 4.84
M. Garza 8 44.7 23 0.69 5.25 -2.38 1.04 -0.95
T. Milone 3 21 15 -3.87 6.96 -5.11 1.08 -0.89
P. Espino 2 8 6 -1.76 7.71 -2.61 1.09 -0.38
J. Guerra 4 19.7 5 5.44 5.28 -1.12 1.05 -0.52
Park Factor 4.77 297.1 21.46 -9.72 -1.13

Whatever the roster rationale, Stearns abandoned his revolving door ideology at a crucial point for the club. The Brewers continue to have an underlying run differential that paces the club in the upper-80s for win totals, and their daily run differentials do not provide a harsh regression (thus far the mean run differential for the 2017 Brewers is approximately 85 wins). Stearns is tasked with managing a winning roster; this does not mean that he needs to abandon “the rebuild” (although the rebuild is over), or abandon “the development process” (although it’s difficult to see how offering Tyler Cravy or Jorge Lopez more opportunities at the big league level during a season in which “winning does not matter” somehow harms the long-term “process” more than keeping this current bullpen together). Given the cash that Mark Attanasio and the ownership group have stashed during the rebuild, cutting Feliz and eating the money probably frees a greater opportunity for another organizational arm than the value returned by whatever 40 OFP prospect someone might dream of swapping for Feliz at the deadline.

It simply is time to bail out the bullpen, a bullpen that has provided a valiant effort to the upper reaches of their abilities, unearthed some true MLB roles (especially for Knebel and Barnes), and generally not harmed the club over the full scope of the season (most of the bullpen’s -5 runs prevented currently are thanks to Wily Peralta’s shift from the rotation to the bullpen for accounting purposes). Yet this will require a difficult move for Stearns, who has revolved the roster into a position where his next cut may be relatively tough compare to the previous shuttle to Colorado Springs. For example, while the runs prevented do not look pretty for the bullpen, both Deserved Runs Average (DRA) and cFIP (contextual Fielding Independent Pitching) suggest an underlying performance in which the bullpen should come around:

Brewers G IP R RnPrv DRA DRA_RnPrv cFIP cFIP_RnPrv
W. Peralta 13 49.7 34 -7.66 4.59 0.99 0.97 0.79
C. Torres 31 32 18 -1.04 5.21 -1.56 1.04 -0.68
C. Knebel 31 30 4 11.90 1.67 10.33 0.61 6.20
J. Barnes 31 30.3 14 2.06 2.26 8.45 0.82 2.89
N. Feliz 27 26 20 -6.22 5.61 -2.43 1.03 -0.41
J. Hughes 24 22.7 12 0.03 3.84 2.35 0.89 1.32
J. Marinez 15 16.7 12 -3.15 4.67 0.19 1.02 -0.18
O. Drake 25 22.3 13 -1.18 3 4.39 0.89 1.30
R. Scahill 12 17.3 9 0.17 6.44 -3.21 1.09 -0.83
B. Suter 5 7.3 4 -0.13 8.57 -3.08 1.24 -0.93
D. Goforth 1 1 0 0.53 2 0.31 0.65 0.19
T. Jungmann 1 0.7 1 -0.63 12.15 -0.57 1.05 -0.02
Park Factor 4.77 256 -5.32 16.14 9.65

On the other hand, it is difficult to argue against Stearns’s overall strategy. The GM is arguably doing exactly what he should be doing for the 2017 Brewers: assembling as many cost-effective relievers as possible and seeing if they can steal a future MLB role. For fans clamoring that one should expect the bullpen to decline after losing Tyler Thornburg, Jeremy Jeffress, and Will Smith within the span of two trade windows, it is worth pointing out that each of Thornburg, Jeffress, and Smith were either role castoffs (ex., failed starters) or second-chancers that took a rather extended path to excellent bullpen performance. Struggling through 2017 with the likes of Drake, Scahill, or even Torres could be worthwhile if the underlying analysis of mechanics, approach, and stuff reveal that an excellent reliever could pop-up in 2018 or 2019. In the meantime, the bullpen *is not* that bad, it’s simply that the brutally unforgiving fan memory will remember the blown saves much more than the ten recent games in which the offense scored four or fewer runs.

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