On Sunday, with the Division Series on the line, Craig Counsell turned once again to Jeremy Jeffress in the ninth inning, this time with a six-run lead. While Jeffress has been a lights-out closer throughout September and dominant all season long, it would have been his fourth inning pitched in as many days, after throwing two shutout innings to close out Game Two against the Rockies. It wasn’t without drama, as a missed fly ball in left field and a walk to Matt Holiday brought in Josh Hader to close out the final two outs, himself finishing off 2 and ⅓ innings pitched in the four-day series.
The story of the Brewers’ remarkable winning streak that has carried them into the playoffs and now a League Championship Series matchup with the Dodgers has been the dominance and run-prevention of the bullpen. With a matchup looming against a much stronger team offensively than the Rockies (the Dodgers finished the season fifth in MLB in runs scored per game and first in True Average), not to mention a longer series and therefore more outs to “get,” it’s fair to ask how sustainable the heavy bullpen usage looks to be for the rest of the postseason.
Inning limits seem to be an inexact science at best, given what we know publicly. There may be a slight effect in terms of injury prevention when drastic inning increases are managed by teams. But beyond injuries, suffice it to say that given the toll pitching takes on the human body (with the caveat that every pitcher is different), generally pitchers approaching substantial workload increases are more likely to fatigue. This makes sense on an intuitive level.
|Name||Career High IP||2017 IP||2018 IP||+/- from 2017|
Among likely Brewers to make the NLCS roster as non-starting “out getters,” most of the pitchers seem to be in relatively good shape with regard to their innings in the previous season and well within their career highs, with a maximum of 14 games left in the season. Knebel, Burnes, and Woodruff in particular are encouraging in terms of how many innings they may have left over last year’s totals. Freddy Peralta has already pitched over 20 innings more than his 2017 season and might be managed more carefully, especially if the Brewers see him as a starter moving forward.
The real danger zone may be with Jeremy Jeffress, who, despite sitting out a few games to manage minor injuries toward the end of the season, is 11 innings above what he pitched last year. That may not or may not be a factor moving forward, but it is [checks math] a higher workload. As such, there could be fewer opportunities for Jeffress to cover multiple innings. Combined with his recent minor injuries that made him unavailable in Game 163, and his performance so far in October, it’s worth keeping an eye on the next area of the pitching staff to consider for the aggressive bullpenning Brewers.
This is where there is a small area of concern for Jeffress’ availability moving forward to the degree he has been used so far this season.
|Name||2018 Average FB Velocity||October 2018 Average FB Velocity||MPH +/- in October|
|Josh Hader||95.26||97.35||+ 2.09|
The one-mile per hour difference on Jeffress’ four-seam fastball might not be anything, and in fact comes with a major caveat of a sample size of just 15 times that he’s thrown it in October. But coupled with the recent minor injuries and increased workload, it certainly stands out among the other Brewer relievers, who are mostly throwing harder in October than they have in the season overall.
As a unit it seems like the Brewer bullpen isn’t suffering from any fatigue just yet in October. Somewhat unbelievably, Josh Hader is actually up two ticks on his fastball, and the young and promising duo of Burnes and “secret weapon” Woodruff are also up pretty significantly. Basically, if Craig Counsell is looking just at in-game performance or the metrics that might imply fatigue among his relievers, there’s seemingly little to raise a red flag.
This is where the bullpen strategy gets a little tricky. During a 7-game series, how will the Brewers manage their run-prevention strength with also needing to cover more innings overall?
Playing a strictly “bullpen game” as the Brewers did in Game 1 of the Division Series is still workable but may be a bit more difficult to pull off when there are just simply more outs to cover. For example, if after Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley pitch Games One and Two, and Counsell decides to bullpen Game Three, he could find himself without Woodruff and Burnes for games Four and Five, leaving a shorthanded staff presumably with Gio Gonzalez and/or Zach Davies toeing the rubber to start Game Four. Perhaps a Game One bullpen game is in the cards again, as it would allow the Brewers to put their best pitcher, Johnny Wholestaff, up against Clayton Kershaw, and then have Chacin go for Game Two. That would allow the bullpen to get some extra rest for the travel off-day to Los Angeles before Game Three.
My head hurts.
At any rate, there are more decisions to consider in a longer series that has 3 games in a row, and it will also likely limit the number of relievers the Brewers are willing to burn for multiple innings at a time.
The bullpen overall looks to be in good shape given their usage so far in the season and at least by velocity, there doesn’t seem to be much drop off in production, either. The Brewers will, however, need some kind of help from their bats or a third starter especially in the middle 3 games of the series in Los Angeles if they want to maximize meaningful innings for their best run-preventing weapon.