The Brewers are gaining a reputation for becoming a bullpen squad, part of the MLB bullpen revolution, and rightfully so. Over the offseason, the Brewers lost out on all the major free agency starting pitchers, and never consummated a trade for one of the (presumably, oft-rumored) available aces, instead remaining satisfied with marginal moves involving (the highly underrated) Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley. Additionally, Milwaukee boasted one of the very best left-handed pitching prospects in baseball in 2017, but when his stuff backed-up at Triple-A Colorado Springs, it became bullpen or bust for Josh Hader; what was a curse of necessity is now a source of Runs Prevented wealth for the Brewers. In 2016, National League starting pitchers averaged approximately 5.60 Innings Pitched per start, a figure that dropped to 5.52 IP/GS in 2017 before landing at 5.42 IP/GS in 2018. Over the course of 162, those decimals add up.
Teams are eager to rely on their bullpens more frequently, and at 5.18 IP/GS for his starters, manager Craig Counsell is about as eager as anyone to turn away from the third time through the order as a starter.
|NL Starter OPS||2016||2017||2018|
If you’re new to baseball analytics, one of the best possible strategies to learn is the starting pitcher’s “times facing a batting order.” The table above demonstrates On-Base-Percentage plus Slugging-Percentage each time through the order for National League starting pitchers. This may seem like a trivial aspect of the game, but if you read the new midseason scouting reports emerging on your favorite arms, or even look into 2018 MLB Draft scouting reports, chances are you’ll see a line like “without a third pitch, a role in the bullpen could be most likely.” What you’re reading, in nearly any variation of this line, is the strategic idea that in order to beat MLB batters a third time through the order, a starting pitcher is going to need additional pitches to cross-up batters and make adjustments as the game deepens. Milwaukee left-hander Warren Spahn is classically attributed with the quote, “pitchers need two pitches, one they’re looking for and one to cross them up,” but even here Spahn was not quite right; a pitcher needs as many pitches as are necessary to adjust to their designated role. I imagine that if you’re Warren Spahn (perhaps much like Ben Sheets or Clayton Kershaw), life is rather easy with mostly two pitches; if you’re Dave Bush or Victor Santos or Zach Davies or pretty much anyone of the other 300+ starters that work in the MLB, life with only two pitches would probably be miserable.
But perhaps the stats speak on their own: last year, the average NL batter the first time through the order was Cory Spangenberg. By the third time through the order, the average NL batter was Christian Yelich. In order to keep batters closer to the Cory Spangenberg level of production, having command of that third pitch (with a quality “stuff” grade, too) will get the scouts ready to slap that “#3 SP” Overall Future Potential grade.
Manager Craig Counsell was handed a group of supposedly below average-to-horrendous starting pitchers according to most Brewers fans, but as most fans could have surmised from the 2017 squad, pitching was the strength of the organization. And indeed, pitching has continued to serve as the strength of the 2018 club, although statistics like Deserved Run Average suggest that the club may be due for some regression to the mean (in terms of preventing runs). But what was most important about the 2017-2018 offseason was that GM David Stearns built a pitching system, and Counsell’s eagerness to pull starters at just the right time has indeed reflected a machine-oriented approach to pitching. Setting aside the injured Zach Davies and the mechanics-ironing Chase Anderson, the 2018 Brewers starting rotation is lead by Chacin (4 Runs Prevented in 69.0 IP), Brent Suter (2 Runs Prevented in 63.3 IP), and Junior Guerra (approximately 9 Runs Prevented in 60.3 IP after Tuesday night). Counsell has pulled these pitchers early almost uniformly; the Table below compares each pitcher’s last major workload as a starting pitcher to their 2018 workload, in terms of facing a batting order multiple times:
|Brewers % of PA||1st Time||2nd Time||3rd Time|
This is what managing with an elite bullpen can do for someone: pretty much every night of the week, Counsell can give each starting pitcher the same workload. In contrast to the narrative of burned out bullpens, which Kyle Lesniewski has also studied at Brew Crew Ball, it is worth arguing that Counsell is providing starting pitchers with a clearer definition of a workload. In fact, the old saying for starting pitchers to “go as deep as you can into the game” is rather problematic; if your stuff isn’t there, you’re probably done after 100 pitches and five (or fewer innings), which will be offset by the great 7.0-to-8.0 IP evenings, or complete games. Counsell and the Brewers are almost giving their starting pitchers better role certainty than any “traditional” starting pitcher has ever had (at least in the last 30 years): “give me your best 16 outs.” This is how you turn Guerra, Chacin, and Suter in a 15 Runs Prevented machine, which is one hell of a low rotation, by the way, and exactly the type of performance that turns a low rotation into an entity that offsets the lack of a so-called “Ace” at the top.
Has it worked? The Table below demonstrates that while there are some hiccups along the way, this Big Three low rotation has indeed improved in at least one area of the game, and in some cases the third time through the batting order is receiving grand benefits. These stats are even before Guerra’s course correction at Cleveland:
|Brewers OPS||1st Time||2nd Time||3rd Time|
What is notable about minimizing a pitcher’s times through the batting order is that they can theoretically readjust their plan of attack. Someone like Guerra or Chacin no longer has to think about establishing his best stuff and figuring out what he’s going to do 100 pitches later; Suter might not ever have been expected to go that deep into ballgames, but even the Raptor-esque southpaw can arguably find some benefit in his ballgame by understanding that he needs to go 16 outs. Looking through Brooks Baseball pitching logs, it is arguably the case that what Counsell (and presumably Stearns, coaching staff, and the Front Office in this case) is doing is indeed turning each of these guys into….let’s call them “really, really long relievers who start the game”:
- According to Brooks Baseball, compared to his full season in 2016, Junior Guerra cut his splitter and slider usage (both below 15 percent!) while increasing his secondary running fastball (which Guerra selected approximately 23 percent of the time entering Tuesday night). As a result, Guerra is getting more whiffs on both of his fastballs as a group, and improving his slider whiffs without yielding too much value from his splitter. He’s also improving his pop-ups, suggesting batters are getting weak contact even though they are facing his fastball more frequently (presumably making Guerra more “predictable”).
- As covered by Andrew Salzman in the latest Weekend Recap at BPMilwaukee, Brent Suter is becoming a fastballl-first pitcher. The southpaw is firing what appears to be a near-cutting, rising fastball (think Jacob Barnes) two-thirds of his offerings, with good results in terms of improving swings-and-misses.
- By contrast, Chacin is much more of his previous self, with the caveat that he’s working his slider slightly more frequently than in 2017 while moving away from his primary fastball a bit. His outcomes with these pitches are rather similar as well, which suggests that even if the Brewers are deploying Chacin in a manner that is more systematic and potentially more radical, he is not deviating from what got him through a very successful 2017 campaign, earning him his excellent contract.
Milwaukee is receiving much deserved praise for their bullpen, which was expertly curated by David Stearns during his first two seasons with the club. Now the rewards are visible during what could become one of the most important seasons in franchise history, returning the club to their first extending contending window in quite some time. But it is worth emphasizing that Stearns was correct in assembling a starting pitching staff that could complement the relief staff, and together with the efficient fielders, the arms are a Runs Prevented machine. None of these moves were terribly difficult to make, either, which means that the most thrilling part of this series of moves is that they can be repeated in future seasons: Junior Guerra was Stearns’s very first acquisition, Brent Suter was a deep draft pick during the Doug Melvin era that was freed into a stunning big league role, and Jhoulys Chacin was a proven veteran signed off the margins of an underwhelming free agency class that nevertheless yielded some surprising contracts elsewhere. This is what systematic baseball can look like in Milwaukee, and it involves neither being “cheap” (Chacin signed a decent guaranteed deal) nor “dogmatic” about acquisition style (waivers, free agency, and draft are represented here). Most importantly for the prospect arms, both hyped (Corbin Burnes and Luis Ortiz) and unassuming (Freddy Peralta and others), the Brewers front office is gleefully demonstrated that nobody needs aces any longer. Bring your two best pitches for 16 outs, and let’s get on with it!
Photo Credit: David Richard, USA Today Sports Images
Baseball Reference. Player Pitching Splits, NL Pitching Splits, 2016-2018 [CSV].