The news broke on Wednesday that Devin Williams will miss the remainder of the 2021 season—including the entire postseason—due to a fractured hand that requires surgery. He sustained the injury when he punched a wall after the team’s post-clinch festivities on Sunday night.
The 2020 National League Rookie of the Year was having a strong follow-up to his award-winning campaign. Once again serving as Josh Hader’s primary setup man, Williams overcame a shaky start to the season to post a 2.50 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 2.89 SIERA, and a phenomenal 38.5% strikeout rate. He is without question the second-best reliever in Milwaukee’s bullpen, leaving the Brewers with a notable hole to fill at the back end of close games.
While the loss of Williams certainly makes the team’s path to a deep postseason run more difficult, it does not spell doom for the Brewers. Craig Counsell will now have to mix-and-match a bit more in the late innings, but this pitching staff still has arms who can capably take care of business in high-leverage situations. Here are some candidates to help build the bridge to Hader in the ninth inning.
The dream scenario is that one of the organization’s top pitching prospects turns into a beast in October. Ashby has moved past a rough debut outing to post a 2.90 ERA and 30.4% strikeout rate. His average sinker velocity has ridden up to 96.7 mph out of the bullpen. In essence, he throws what looks like an upper-90s screwball.
This is absolutely insane. Basically a 97 MPH screwball. pic.twitter.com/8aH4qe9RSL— Jack Stern (@baseball7310) September 4, 2021
The movement on the southpaw’s fastball is absurd, but he has actually leaned predominantly on his excellent slider. He has thrown it 39% of the time—more than any other pitch in his arsenal. Opponents have recorded just two singles against it, which is good for a .053 batting average and .077 wOBA. As a bonus, the pitch has generated a 43% whiff rate,
The obvious knock against Ashby is lack of experience. However, the Brewers received major contributions from Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta as relievers in the postseason very early in their careers. Ashby could very well follow in their footsteps.
Suter might not be the most popular pick for high-leverage work, but his body of work as a reliever has been more impressive than many people realize. In 137 career innings out of the bullpen, the Raptor has posted a strong 2.43 ERA, 3.53 FIP, and 3.94 K/BB ratio. This season, he has worked to a 2.71 ERA and 3.91 FIP in 69 2⁄3 relief innings.
While he has generally been very effective out of the bullpen for several seasons now, Suter is not a great option to use in big spots with men already on base. In those 69 2⁄3 innings, he has allowed 65 hits. While he generates a surprising amount of swings and misses for someone who throws in the mid-to-upper-80s, he is not the best pitcher to count on for a clutch strikeout. His strikeout rate is a tick below the league average. Suter’s greatest asset is his quick pace which disrupts the hitter’s timing. With runners on, he is forced to slow down and think about the running game, which limits this advantage.
Suter is more than capable of recording important outs for the Brewers in October, but he is best deployed in fresh innings with the bases empty. It would not be surprising to see him get more high-leverage outings moving forward.
All indicators point to him being healthy by the start of the postseason. Cousins is another rookie who could make a huge impact in some important games. According to Eno Sarris of The Athletic, the 27-year-old’s stuff ranks among the best in all of baseball. His signature slider has helped him limit opposing hitters to just 16 hits in 30 innings while racking up 44 strikeouts.
The catch is that Cousins has walked 19 batters this season, including 12 in his last 12 innings. However, it is likely that the walks are partially a product of his approach on the mound. Cousins’ slider moves so much that it is not an easy pitch to pound the zone with. He throws it over 60% of the time, so it is not especially surprising that he walks plenty of hitters. Red Sox reliever Adam Ottavino also exemplifies this approach.
Cousins’ style of pitching may result in more free passes, but it also makes him more difficult to square up. His stuff can make big-league hitters look foolish. He is deserves high-leverage work.
Strickland has operated as a jack-of-all-trades in the bullpen. The longtime San Francisco Giant has posted a pristine 1.83 ERA in 34 1⁄3 innings for the Brewers. His job assignments have included eating innings after short games, taking over after an injury, and even working some high-leverage outings. Part of his success can be attributed to increased fastball velocity and utilizing his slider more often.
However, the advanced metrics are not quite as bullish on Strickland’s work. His 3.74 FIP and 3.64 SIERA are both solid, but they are nearly two runs higher than his ERA. The veteran has also benefited from a .190 BABIP. Strickland will be tasked with getting some important outs in the middle innings, but Ashby and Cousins might be ahead of him on the totem pole.
Adrian Houser or Eric Lauer
This is where Milwaukee’s pitching depth shines the most. Craig Counsell has five effective starting pitchers at his disposal, but the frequent off days for travel during the playoffs mean that most teams roll with four starters in October. For the Brewers, this means that one of Adrian Houser or Eric Lauer will be working in relief. It’s not difficult to envision either turning into a weapon out of the bullpen.
Lauer’s 27% whiff rate on his four-seam fastball is already among the highest for a starting pitcher. If he were to add an extra tick of velocity in shorter stints, he could easily turn into a strikeout machine.
Houser has past experience as a reliever. As I have discussed previously, he was a dramatically different pitcher in that role. Sitting in the mid-90s and using more elevated four-seam fastballs made him a strikeout artist out of the bullpen. As a starter, he is a strict pitch-to-contact sinkerballer.
There is no wrong choice here, but moving Houser to relief could prove to be the best internal upgrade for the bullpen. The potential combination of strikeouts and ground balls would play extremely well in a high-leverage role. It should also be noted that Lauer is a better starter than Houser. The southpaw holds the edge in ERA, xERA, FIP, SIERA, and K/BB ratio this season. Add in the fact that Houser has far more experience as a reliever than Lauer does, and this route makes plenty of sense.
The loss of Devin Williams certainly impacts Craig Counsell’s game strategy. Brad Boxberger may ascend to the main setup role, and the skipper will have to mix-and-match more in other crucial situations. However, the Brewers have the depth to succeed without their second-best reliever. Not only does the bullpen contain multiple pitchers who could easily step up, but one of the team’s starters is likely to work in relief once the playoffs roll around. The “next man up” mentality has been an important part of this team’s success, and that will continue into October.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant.