The Milwaukee Brewers are in first place this season thanks in large part to their surprisingly potent lineup. The offense is dangerous from top to bottom, featuring a whopping 9 players that have taken at least 75 plate appearances and own a wRC+ of better than 100. They lead the league with 66 home runs, rank 2nd in the MLB with a collective .818 non-pitcher OPS, 3rd with 233 runs scored, and 7th with a 35.5% hard contact rate. Even as Ryan Braun and Eric Thames have been in and out of the lineup for most of the month, players like Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, and Jesus Aguilar have gotten hot to pick up the slack and keep Milwaukee consistently in the “W” column.
Slingin’ David Stearns reportedly believes that this team should continue to remain competitive as the season wears on, but the pitching has been a bit of cause for concern. Only four teams have had their starting rotations work fewer than the 230.0 cumulative innings that Milwaukee’s starters have pitched, and the rotation ranks near the bottom of the league with a 4.58 ERA. They have been more middle of the pack by FIP, at least (4.35 ranks 15th), but the fact that the starters are averaging are averaging less than 5.1 innings per game is certainly less than ideal. In fact, if things continue at their current pace, the Brewers would have one of the most used bullpens of all-time:
It's still very early in the season, but right now 5 teams are relying on their bullpens for a historic % of their innings pitched pic.twitter.com/arJ9QFRpIJ— Neil Paine (@Neil_Paine) May 22, 2017
Despite the extraordinarily high usage the ‘pen has endured - recording nearly 42% of Milwaukee’s outs this season - they have actually been pretty solid as a unit. The group ranks 10th in the MLB with a 3.79 ERA and 15th with a 4.03 FIP, and even those results are a bit skewed by the struggles of the since-departed Tommy Milone and Jhan Marinez. The club has gotten outstanding results from Corey Knebel (18 ERA-, 32 FIP-), who has been one of the best relievers in the MLB this year, along with above-average run prevention from Jacob Barnes (75 ERA-, 67 FIP-) and Oliver Drake (65 ERA-, 68 FIP-) in the late innings, as well as (somehow) both Carlos Torres (66 ERA-, 91 FIP-) and Jared Hughes (95 ERA-, 102 FIP-) in the middle relief.
Obviously the easiest way to mitigate burning these guys out would be for the starting pitching to improve at eating innings. The return of Junior Guerra on Friday should help a staff that has only 14 quality starts combined (29th in MLB); he averaged more than 6.0 innings per start last season while posting a 65 ERA-/86 FIP-. Things remain a bit shaky beyond that, however. Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson have been up-and-down and Zach Davies has struggled for most of the season; Matt Garza, meanwhile, has looked terrific in his five starts but is coming off two consecutive sub par seasons.
Expecting the current starting staff to improve drastically over the work they have turned in so far doesn’t appear to be a wise bet. Neither is assuming that a prospect who may be called up from the minors, someone like Brandon Woodruff, would automatically be an upgrade to the rotation. David Stearns has said he would consider making an outside addition if the club’s play warrants it come trade deadline time, but it’s still a bit to early in the season to get an accurate gauge on what caliber of player he would pursue to supplement the current roster.
As their starters continue to struggle to complete five innings in the meantime, however, the Brewers do have another avenue they can look at to help relieve some of the strain on the the relief corps: utilizing more multi-inning firemen.
Both Rob Schahill and Carlos Torres have averaged more than one inning per relief appearance for the Brewers so far this year. Wily Peralta made his bullpen debut by firing two dominant innings against the Cubs last week. Another six arms on Milwaukee’s 40 man roster - Tyler Cravy, Paolo Espino, Josh Hader, Taylor Jungmann, Jorge Lopez, and Brent Suter - are currently working as starters or are averaging more than an inning per appearance while working in the minor leagues.
With Milwaukee’s starters routinely failing to complete 6.0 - or often even 5.0 innings - having a couple hurlers in the bullpen that are capable of bridging the gap to the high-leverage crew is a huge boon to this pitching staff. Wily Peralta struggled mightily as a starter in recent seasons, but he offered a glimpse of how effective he could be in shorter stints where he only has to go through a lineup one time. Questions remain about both Josh Hader’s command and his changeup, so using him as a multi-inning reliever would help ease his transition into the big leagues as he continues his develop. Tyler Cravy and Brent Suter have already experienced some modest success as major league swingmen. Having players like these in the bullpen to soak up innings during short starts should help take some pressure of the guys who figure to handle the late innings.
The Milwaukee Brewers have been one of the best teams in baseball this season in spite of a below-average starting rotation that has regularly failed to pitch deep into games. A high-octane offense and solid bullpen have helped Milwaukee overcome this major weakness, but the club will have to be careful about overworking their relief corps. It will be up to David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell to figure out how to best deploy their unique crew of multi-innings relievers in order keep their pitching staff fresh throughout the season as Milwaukee chases their first playoff birth in 6 seasons.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, updated through 5/23