Craig Counsell clearly wanted to win Wednesday’s series finale against the Cincinnati Reds. His Milwaukee Brewers desperately needed the victory to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Queen City Nine and stay near the top of the playoff standings, and the offense was able to overcome another poor start by Jhoulys Chacin by plating three runs in the fifth inning to take a 5-4 lead. With the one-run lead intact as the seventh inning rolled around, Counsell handed the ball to his closer, Josh Hader, to secure what was shaping up as a three-inning save.
Hader mowed through the heart of Cincy’s lineup, punching out five batters in his first two innings. But then a funny thing happened. Hader’s spot in the batting order came up in the bottom of the eighth, and he was — gasp — pinch-hit for as Freddy Peralta warmed up in the bullpen?!
Counsell called upon Fastball Freddy to close out the game in the top of the ninth. He struck out Jose Peraza to start it. Then Phillip Ervin whiffed. And finally, after a nine-pitch battle, Joey Votto lined out left for the final out. The one-run triumph, and Peralta’s first career big league save, were secured.
After the game, Counsell indicated to reporters that using Freddy in the ninth was something that he’d been contemplating for a few weeks now. Peralta was seemingly removed from the rotation for good after his start on June 11th, and starting with his next game on June 17th, he’s made 11 highly successful appearances out of the bullpen. Over his last 19.2 innings, Freddy has worked to a stellar 2.29 ERA and 73 FIP-. He’s struck out 26 batters against nine walks in that time and turned in his fifth consecutive scoreless outing in yesterday’s tilt.
The evolution that Peralta’s stuff has gone through this season is truly astounding. He got tons of strikeouts last season using a fastball that averaged a pedestrian 91.6 MPH as a starter thanks to his natural cut, his deceptive delivery, and the mind-boggling extension that his 5’11” frame creates on the mound, making the pitch nearly ‘invisible’ as some batters have described. The cut, deception, and extension are all the same this season, but Peralta has dialed things up in a big way in the velocity department. Freddy was routinely hitting 98 MPH during yesterday’s outing, and since his transition to the bullpen in mid-June, he is averaging well over 95 MPH with his four-seamer. His swinging-strike rate, which sat at 10.8% last season, in now up to 13.4% over his most recent stretch in the ‘pen.
Even with injuries to Chacin and Brandon Woodruff in the rotation, Counsell professed last night that he prefers to keep Freddy in high-leverage relief going forward. The manager has seemingly been grooming the diminutive right-hander for the closer’s role since the season resumed after the All-Star break, gradually pushing his appearances closer and closer together until he worked the first back-to-back games in his professional career — MLB or minor league level — on July 20th and 21st. And if Freddy can continue to show that he is up to the task, it will undoubtedly have a major impact on the relief corps down the stretch.
Should Peralta get installed as the ‘Closer,’ that frees up Hader to go back to the role he thrived in last season — pitching as a multi-inning fireman at whatever point in the game he is needed. The injury to Corey Knebel and the inconsistency of Jeremy Jeffress have made the ‘Electric Dudes’ of 2018 feel like a distant memory, and Counsell has had difficulty finding arms other than Hader than he can trust in high-leverage situations. If Peralta can be counted on to get the big outs like Hader, then that allows CC to move guys like Jeffress and Matt Albers and Junior Guerra into the middle innings after the starter, where they are needed.
Peralta’s emergence may also change the calculation for David Stearns when it comes to the upcoming trade deadline. Slingin’ Stearns will still want to add to his cache of relievers, to be sure, but if Peralta is for real, the conversation can shift from focusing on an expensive ‘proven closer’ like Will Smith or Ken Giles to a more ancillary piece like Joakim Soria and Anthony Swarzak of years' past. That would allow the exec to use his best ammunition to upgrade a starting rotation that may now need two additional arms from outside the organization.
Freddy Peralta entered the year with designs on being a major contributor in the starting rotation. While he’s shown glimpses of excellence as an initial out-getter, his inconsistency working through a lineup multiple times ultimately doomed those hopes for him and the organization, at least for this season. Now armed with a heater that is hitting 97-98 but is perceived by the hitter as 100+ MPH because of his extension, Fastball Freddy appears to have successfully found his new niche at a pivotal time. “Freddy Peralta — Closer” could be a game-changer for the Milwaukee Nine down the stretch as they attempt to defend their NL Central crown.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs