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The Milwaukee Brewers are bullpening, kind of

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Craig Counsell is relying heavily on his relievers, but by design.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Coming into the 2018 season, plenty of talk was generated by the Tampa Bay Rays and their “bullpening” plan. The team would deploy a four-man rotation with starters on quick hooks, and then when a fifth starter was required, the game would be covered by cobbling together some relief arms and shuttling players back and forth from the minors to the bigs.

The Brewers did not come out and announce any such plan prior to the 2018 season, but something different seems to be going on with Milwaukee’s pitching staff. All winter long manager Craig Counsell and GM David Stearns downplayed the need to bolster their pitching staff, preaching the message of simply finding the right pitchers to help the club get to 27 outs each game. For awhile now Counsell has downplayed the role of starter versus reliever; he prefers to call his hurlers “out-getters”, with his starting pitcher each game tabbed as the “initial out-getter.” This viewpoint and Counsell’s usage of his pitchers has been cause for much consternation in the early part of the 2018 regular season, but the reality is that the way the club has deployed their pitching staff so far is almost surely by design.

Through yesterday’s off day, Milwaukee’s starters had worked 65.2 innings across 13 games with a 4.66 ERA. The starting staff was the biggest question mark surrounding the club coming into the season, and the early work by that group has done little to alleviate that worry in the eyes of the casual fan. The 5.02 innings per start that the club has averaged ranks as the 6th-lowest total in the league, which in turn has caused the bullpen to be one of the most oft-used in the league. But what if that’s on purpose?

Starter Usage

Starter Innings Pitched Batters Faced Pitch Count
Starter Innings Pitched Batters Faced Pitch Count
Anderson 6 22 97
Chacin 3.33 20 69
Suter 5 20 83
Davies 5.67 24 88
Anderson 4 21 82
Chacin 5.67 26 91
Suter 5 27 96
Woodruff 3.67 18 95
Davies 6 24 101
Anderson 6 23 89
Chacin 4.67 21 83
Suter 5.33 23 87
Guerra 5.33 20 86

The table above shows a breakdown of the first 13 starts made by Milwaukee’s pitchers this season. As you can see, only once so far has a starter topped 100 pitches - Zach Davies (101) in his start against the Cubs on April 7th. Only four other times beyond that has a starter topped even 90 pitches in an outing. Chacin was recently pulled from a start at 83 pitches while he was an out short of qualifying for the winning decision; Junior Guerra was yanked from his first appearance of the year with a three-run lead while having thrown only 86 pitches. On average, a Brewers’ starter is only tossing 88.23 pitches per game so far in 2018.

Perhaps more telling than pitch counts is total batters faced in each game. Only two times so far this year has a starter been allowed to face more than 25 batters, and those occurrences came in back-to-back games: Chacin (26) on April 4th against the Cardinals and Brent Suter (27) on April 5th against the Cubs. The average start by a Brewer this year has had the initial out-getter face 22.23 batters, which translates to navigating through a lineup less than two and a half times per outing. The leaguewide struggles when working a third time through a batting order are well-known and oft-discussed. On a per-game basis, only four teams in the National League have had their starters face fewer opposing batters. 2017 ended with Milwaukee's starting rotation ranked 8th in MLB by fWAR and 10th in ERA; they also collectively faced the 6th-fewest batters per start at 22.88.

The Brewers elected not to invest heavily in their starting rotation prior to the start of the year even though it was outwardly perceived as a weakness after the loss of Jimmy Nelson. But owner Mark Attanasio was quoted as saying the pitching staff as a whole would perform “well above replacement level," and so far that’s been true thanks to Milwaukee’s bullpen. Even without Corey Knebel, the relief corps ranks as MLB’s #1 unit by fWAR. The Brewers’ bullpen has soaked up the 5th-most innings in the league (56.1) while posting a 2.72 ERA and 3.01 FIP.

The strategy of pulling your starter earlier has worked so far for the Brewers because of how much flexibility their cache of arms provides. The dynamic Josh Hader is obviously the most notable weapon, having allowed only two runs so far in 7.2 innings covering five appearances with an outrageous 17 strikeouts. But others like Jeremy Jeffress, Dan Jennings, Jacob Barnes, Oliver Drake, and Matt Albers have been effective while showing that they can work multiple innings and consistently retire batters from both sides of the plate. Milwaukee has also predictably taken advantage of minor league options and has shuttled players back and forth from the farm; Adrian Houser, Taylor Williams, and Jorge Lopez have all been summoned (and in Houser’s case, sent back down) already within the team’s first 13 contests, and each member of that trio is capable of going more than one inning effectively.

Milwaukee’s lack of offense in the early going this year (their 3.38 runs per game ranks 12th in the NL) has made the recent blown saves especially glaring, but in reality one can’t really ask for more out of the bullpen than the level of production that they’ve already been providing this season. We aren’t seeing exactly the same bullpening strategy that Tampa Bay is using here in the Cream City, but it’s pretty clear that Craig Counsell wants to get to his relievers early and often. The idea has worked so far for the 7-6 Brewers, who has seen their pitching produce a cumulative 3.76 ERA so far by limiting what they ask for from their starters and leaning on the league’s best (so far) bullpen. As the season goes on, time will tell if Counsell will be able to effectively manage the individual workloads and keep his pitchers healthy and effective, or if Milwaukee's bullpen will wilt while being tasked with so many innings.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs