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How the Milwuakee Brewers have used their bullpen through three weeks

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Bullpen usage has been a point of concern so far this season. How well is Craig Counsell managing it?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers bullpen has received a lot of criticism so far this season, and some of it is deserved. They have seven losses so far, meaning at least seven games where they had a tie/lead and blew it. Their walk rate is 2nd worst in the majors at 5.51 BB/9. They’ve also had to do this while pitching the second most innings at 79.1 IP. There’s also reasons for optimism. A BABIP of .317 suggests they’ve been a little unlucky, especially when one factors in that they’ve allowed a below-average hard contact rate of 28.7%. An ERA of 3.52 and FIP of 3.66 are around the league average. It’s a bullpen that could be great, if used properly.

Let’s take a look at the stats of the individual relievers through three weeks:

Brewers Bullpen Through Three Weeks

Carlos Torres 4.15 11 0 0 13.0 13 7 6 2 8 8 5.53 1.667
Jacob Barnes 0.00 11 2 1 11.1 4 1 0 0 4 14 1.51 0.706
Jared Hughes 3.60 10 5 0 10.0 13 5 4 0 6 4 3.90 1.900
Jhan Marinez 4.50 9 1 0 10.0 11 7 5 1 8 8 5.32 1.900
Corey Knebel 1.93 10 1 0 9.1 6 2 2 0 6 14 1.85 1.286
Neftali Feliz 5.87 9 8 5 7.2 5 5 5 2 3 9 5.12 1.043
Brent Suter 4.91 5 0 0 7.1 9 4 4 0 4 5 3.58 1.773
Oliver Drake 2.57 5 3 0 7.0 8 4 2 0 4 10 1.77 1.714
Tommy Milone 9.00 1 0 0 2.0 3 2 2 0 0 2 0.92 1.500
David Goforth 0.00 1 1 0 1.0 0 0 0 0 1 0 5.90 1.000
Taylor Jungmann 13.50 1 0 0 0.2 2 1 1 0 1 1 8.90 4.500

It’s a mixed bag in the bullpen so far. There have been some bright spots, relievers that have put together great seasons in their time so far. However, there are also some relievers who have struggled. The issue so far appears to be reliever selection. The relievers getting the most work are the ones that have struggled the most. Let’s dive a little deeper into that.

At this point in the season, Carlos Torres is the reliever that has received the most work. He’s made ten appearances and pitched twelve innings, but only recorded a 4.15 ERA and 5.53 FIP in that time. It makes sense that Craig Counsell would go to Torres early this season, as he was one of the most reliable relievers in 2016 (2.73 ERA, 3.75 FIP in 72 appearances). That being said, the numbers aren’t showing up as well so far in 2017. His K/BB ratio has plummeted from 2.50 to 1.00, which reflects an increased walk rate (3.3 to 5.5 BB/9) and decreased strikeout rate (8.5 to 5.5 K/9). In addition, he’s allowed two home runs this season, and is averaging 1.62 baserunners an inning. He’s allowed runs in four appearances and only had one where he allowed no baserunners at all. So far, the results have not been there for Carlos Torres.

The other reliever that has received a lot of Craig Counsell’s trust so far this season is Neftali Feliz. Though he has made less appearances than some of the other relievers (7.2 IP in 9 appearances), he’s been trusted with the “closer” role for now. While he has made five saves, he’s also been responsible for blowing two leads. In Feliz’s case, though, the results seem worse than they are. Most of the damage came in one appearance (4 runs allowed vs. the Cubs on 4/19), and he’s put together four clean appearances so far. The 9:3 K/BB ratio is in line with what he did last year as well. In this case, Feliz is suffering a little from the small sample size, and time may normalize his numbers a little more.

On the positive side, there are two relievers that have been performing extremely well. The best of the two is Jacob Barnes, who has been very strong to start the season. He hasn’t allowed an earned run yet, and his 1.51 FIP shows that the results are legitimate. He has a strong K/BB ratio of 14:4, and to add on to that, he’s only allowed a total of four hits this season. Barnes has mostly been given the seventh inning so far, with a few chances to close out on days Feliz isn’t available. He’s been cashing in on those opportunities well, and the results from the minors have translated nicely.

The other reliever performing well so far is Corey Knebel. After a rough 2016 that resulted in him getting demoted to the minors for a little while, Knebel has come out strong in 2017. He also has an impressive 14:6 K/BB ratio, and he’s only allowed six hits and two runs in his ten appearances. In addition, he’s averaging nearly 1 12 strikeouts per inning. So far, Knebel is being trusted with the eighth inning, and he’s delivering on that trust. The combination of Barnes and Knebel has been a great one to this point in the season, and we’ll have to hope that it continues.

Next up are the relievers that have been relegated to mop-up duty. The first of those is Jared Hughes. Acquired right before the start of the season, Hughes has mostly been used when the Brewers are down, with eight of his ten appearances coming in losses. The usage is justified, as the results haven’t been good. His 3.60 ERA hides some of his problems, such as a 4:6 K/BB ratio, 13 hits allowed in 10 innings, as well as five runs (four earned) to date. The one positive is that he hasn’t allowed a home run yet, so his FIP is a respectable 3.90. Only three of his appearances have been perfect innings. If Hughes can avoid the home run ball, there’s hope for his improvement, but the control is concerning and needs to be addressed.

It hasn’t been much different for Jhan Marinez. He’s seeing less work than Hughes (8.2 IP in 8 appearances), and his numbers aren’t good. His 4.50 ERA and 5.32 FIP are a reflection of those struggles. Marinez is nearly averaging two baserunners an inning with a 1.900 WHIP, he’s showing control problems with a 8:8 K/BB ratio, and he’s already allowed seven runs (five earned) and a home run this season. He’s also been relegated to mostly mop up duties in losses, and with the only relievers with options performing well (Jacob Barnes and Corey Knebel), he could be on the way out if the Brewers need to make a roster move.

One player that will be interesting to watch as the season unfolds is Oliver Drake. Since coming to the Brewers, he’s posted some nice numbers. He’s had a healthy 10:4 K/BB ratio, and is also averaging over 1 12 strikeouts per inning. That reflects in his 1.77 FIP with the Brewers this season. He’s only made five appearances so far, so small sample size alerts are definitely present here. However, if he keeps this up, this could turn into a nice pickup by David Stearns.

A few more notes to finish up the bullpen. Brent Suter appears to be the traveling reliever so far this season, going between Triple-A and the Brewers as needed. He still needs some work (4.91 ERA/3.58 FIP), but is good for now as a traveling reliever. Tommy Milone has returned to the bullpen, and we’ll have to wait and see how he performs in there now. David Goforth and Taylor Jungmann have also made an appearance each, and are both in the minors for now.

At this point in the season, I would classify the Brewers struggles as more of an anomaly than anything else. The need to go deep into games has forced them to use their less reliable relievers more often, and that can be rectified by the starters pitching through the sixth more often. There are some choice issues that need to be fixed, such as relying on Carlos Torres so much. He should be moved into a lesser role for now, to work through his issues. There’s hope for a turnaround from Neftali Feliz, though I don’t know if he’s best suited for the “closer” role right now. That being said, I don’t have an issue with him remaining there for the time being, assuming he does get better. The two best relievers (Barnes and Knebel) are being used as much as they should, and the struggling relievers (Marinez and Hughes) have been relegated to a less important role. For now, there’s not much the Brewers need to fix with their bullpen, but we’ll see how it plays out as they get more games under their belt.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs & Baseball-Reference. Stats are current as of games played through April 24.