It was clear from the outset that the sixth inning was going to be pivotal for this Brewers team. Starting pitching has been the top worry for the club since Jimmy Nelson’s injury last season, and the sixth inning is usually when things get shaky for all but the sturdiest of starters. Very often, this is when the heart of the lineup bats for the third time, and navigating them often means the difference between coasting through the game’s final third or furiously engaging in a comeback attempt.
Indeed, the sixth inning has been a killer for the Brewers a couple of times this year. They already trailed 3-0 by the sixth inning on Monday, April 16th against the Reds, but a six-spot allowed by Oliver Drake in the sixth after a short outing by Brent Suter ensured there would be no comeback by the Milwaukee nine. It was the sixth inning that torched Zach Davies’s start in Monday, April 2nd’s home opener against the Cardinals. After Davies allowed four singles, Brandon Woodruff gave up a three-run homer to Paul DeJong that put the Brewers down by six.
Sunday’s game against the Marlins was threatening to go down into this category. Junior Guerra, who was brilliant through five frames, stumbled to start the sixth inning, which saw the Brewers clinging to a 2-1 lead. Craig Counsell showed no hesitation in calling on Jeremy Jeffress from the bullpen, and he delivered. Jeffress struck out Brian Anderson, popped out J.B. Shuck, and then struck out the red-hot Lewis Brinson to hold the lead. Per FanGraphs, Jeffress’s performance added a ridiculous 33.8 percent to Milwaukee’s win probability Sunday night. It only confirms what Christian Yelich said after the game: “J.J. did a great job for us today. That was kind of a turning point in the game, and he was able to get out of that.”
The depth of Milwaukee’s bullpen looks like it is going to be the permanent solution to the sixth inning problem. Brewers relievers thus far have done some fantastic work in the sixth inning. Jacob Barnes, Dan Jennings, Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress have faced a combined 29 batters in the sixth innings and allowed just three hits and a walk with seven strikeouts. All told, these four pitches have combined for a +0.54 Win Probability Added (WPA) over just eight innings worth of work across their sixth inning appearances in 2018.
The only reason this is a tenable strategy for Milwaukee is because of the depth of this bullpen. Between Hader, Jeffress, Barnes, Jennings and Matt Albers, the bullpen currently features five relievers with at least 10 innings pitched and a sub-2.00 ERA. The return of Corey Knebel will only bolster this deep squad, and Adrian Houser and Taylor Williams have showed potential in their few appearances this year. Additionally, multiple members of this bullpen, particularly Hader and Jeffress, are comfortable throwing multiple innings in an appearance.
Bullpen usage like what we’re seeing from the Brewers this year has often derided as perhaps great in theory, but unrealistic in execution. The roles are too tough to juggle. Great pitchers don’t want to be forced to the middle innings; if they can’t close, they want to be the setup men for the nearest access to saves, the major way to get paid as a relief pitcher in today’s market. This year’s Brewers are proving that doesn’t have to be the case. Jeremy Jeffress expressed his desire to come into the game for situations like Sunday’s, a high-leverage situation in the sixth inning: “Those are big outs. Those are the things we live for. Definitely the things I live for. I can be myself in those situations. I can be who I am.” (Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak, April 22, 2018).
I love this approach from the Brewers for a couple reasons. First of all, it maximizes the talent on hand in Milwaukee’s bullpen. However, it also allows pitchers like Junior Guerra, who can get through the lineup once and possibly even twice without issue, to shine. Largely thanks to Jeffress’s bailout job, Guerra still owns a 0.56 ERA. A lot of what separates aces from mid-rotation starters is their ability to stay strong deep into games. While the Brewers will probably need a few seven-plus inning starts from pitchers like Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, and eventually Nelson if they are going to contend for a division title, it is critical that Craig Counsell can have enough confidence in his bullpen to go to Jeffress in the sixth inning if things break down, as they did for Guerra on Sunday.
The bullpen has been a huge reason for the Brewers success and their 14-9 record through Sunday (a huge shoutout, also, to the Marlins; the Brewers are 8-9 against the rest of the league). Their success thus far may not be sustainable, but the talent in this unit is undeniable, and the club’s willingness to use their top relievers whenever they are needed will be key to a postseason run in 2018. Expect the sixth inning to be a regular turning point for these Brewers, as it was Sunday. If Jeffress and the rest can keep winning these exchanges, Milwaukee will have a real shot at October.
Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USA Today Sports Images