The bullpen for the Milwaukee Brewers had what seems like its first couple of hiccups over the weekend, in what’s been an otherwise impeccable season to this point. The relief corps coughed up four runs in Friday’s 8-3 defeat at the hands of the White Sox, and then served up another four late runs in yesterday’s 6-1 loss to Chicago. The Sox took two out of three games this weekend against Milwaukee down at Guaranteed Rate Field, the first time the Brewers had lost a series since the beginning of May.
How Craig Counsell has used his bullpen has been a major talking point early on in the 2018 season. He pulls his starters before they complete six innings on most days, leaning heavily on his deep unit of out-getters in the bullpen in nearly every contest. Counsell’s forward-thinking usage of his relievers has caused some concern regarding over-usage, and at this point in the season the bullpen has already soaked up 225.1 innings, the fifth-highest total in the big leagues.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the Brewers are one of only eight teams that have played at least 60 games thanks to all the weird weather that’s gone on in 2018, so they have played more innings that most other teams. And while Milwaukee’s bullpen has indeed shouldered a heavy load, no individual player has been asked work an excessive amount. 418 individual relievers have worked in the MLB so far this season; just two Brewers - Jeremy Jeffress (29, t-8th) and Dan Jennings (28, t-16th) - rank among the top-100 for most appearances. Josh Hader (34.1, t-8th), Jeffress (30.0, t-19th), and Jennings (27.2, t-42nd) are the only three relievers who rank in the top-50 for most innings pitched.
The fashion in which Counsell has deployed his relievers this season while at the same time asking so much of them has been nothing short of masterful. Josh Hader has pitched in back-to-back games only once, and has pitched just twice on one day of rest. He has gotten at least two or more days of rest in between his other 17 appearances. Eight of Jeremy’s 29 appearances have come on zero days of rest, while 10 times he’s gotten a day of rest in between games and on 11 occasions he’s worked on multiple days’ rest. Only six of Jennings’ appearances have come in back-to-back games, and Matt Albers has worked without rest in between only three of his appearances. Closer Corey Knebel should be ultra fresh after spending more than a month on the shelf with a hamstring injury, and so far in his 12 appearances he’s worked in back-to-back games just three times. In years past, it would often feel like the same few pitchers were working almost every game. That hasn’t been the case in 2018.
The Brewers have spent most of the year carrying eight arms in their bullpen, and to this point they have used 22 different pitchers to eat up innings. Only the Rays, Braves, Angels, and Dodgers have deployed more arms. Having so many quality relievers at his disposal has helped Counsell to divvy up the workload in an effective manner, as has Slingin’ David Stearns willingness to utilize minor league options and the waiver wire to constantly shuttle in fresh arms. The fact that so many of the arms in the bullpen are capable of working multiple innings helps a great deal, too; of the 14 pitchers who have worked mostly in relief for Milwaukee this season, 10 of them are averaging more than one innings per appearance.
Just about every string that Counsell has pulled so far this season has been working. Even after stumbling a bit over the weekend, the Brewers are still the National League’s best team at 37-23. The club ranks eighth in baseball with a cumulative 3.52 ERA and the bullpen is the league’s third-best unit with a 2.68 mark. Counsell’s relievers as a group have been asked to carry most of the water for the pitching staff in 2018, but so far have proven up to the task thanks to his deft handling of his pitchers’ individual workloads. As long as the starters can continue to regularly pitch five or so effective innings, Counsell’s bullpen model should remain sustainable as the season moves forward without burning out any of his important pitchers.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference