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New-look Brewers bullpen addresses last season’s lack of velocity

Matt Arnold has added some power arms to what was one of baseball’s softest-tossing bullpens last season

Seattle Mariners v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Depending on your metric of choice, the Brewers' bullpen was anywhere from average to one of the worst in baseball last season.

Overall, Milwaukee’s relief unit was middle of the pack. The bullpen ranked 17th among all teams in ERA- (97) and 16th in Win Probability Added (1.68).

On a situational basis, it was among the sport’s least reliable bullpens in high-leverage situations, posting the seventh-worst negative WPA total (-50.26). According to FanGraphs, Milwaukee relievers combined for 101 “meltdowns” (appearances in which a reliever produced a -0.06 WPA or lower), which ranked fourth worst. They also had the league’s third-highest blown save total (29).

Eighteen of those blown saves came after July 13, which coincided with the start of Josh Hader’s prolonged midseason slump and subsequent trade to the San Diego Padres. The bullpen combined for baseball’s fourth-worst WPA during that span.

The Brewers need more stability from their relievers. While General Manager Matt Arnold has yet to add a proven veteran to help in the late innings, he has reshaped the bullpen to improve upon another area that was a shortcoming in 2022: velocity.

While velocity alone is not the defining factor for success on the mound (spin, movement, location, release point and extension all impact how a pitch appears to a hitter), throwing harder provides an increased margin for error. Big-league hitters can time up high-velocity pitches in specific locations if they’re sitting on them, but the simple fact is that decreased reaction time often makes for tougher at-bats.

The Brewers had one of the softest-tossing bullpens in baseball in 2022. Their average fastball velocity of 92.6 mph ranked 28th among all teams and checked in over a full mph south of the 93.9 mph league average for relievers.

In addition to averages, another way to examine fastball velocity is to note what percentage of fastballs a pitcher or team threw that were 95 mph or faster.

Why draw the line at 95 mph? That’s when fastballs become noticeably more difficult to hit.

Fastballs below 95 mph do not perform especially well. In 2022, hitters batted .273 with a .350 wOBA and 15.1% strikeout rate against such pitches. Compare that to fastballs of at least 95 mph, which limited hitters to a .240 batting average, .311 wOBA, and 24.3% strikeout rate.

That doesn’t mean that fastballs below 95 mph serve no purpose. Fastballs in general help pitchers get ahead in counts and change speeds. However, they usually do not function as putaway pitches. An upper-90s fastball can blow hitters away and serve as a weapon in its own right, especially for power pitchers working in short spurts out of the bullpen.

39.6% of fastballs thrown by relievers last year were at least 95 mph. The Brewers' bullpen ranked 24th in this category, touching or exceeding 95 mph with just 28.8% of their fastballs.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the velocity in Milwaukee’s bullpen this past season.

Fastball Velocities of Brewers Relievers in 2022 (min. 10 IP)

Player Avg FB Velocity (MPH) % of FB 95+ MPH # of FB Thrown
Player Avg FB Velocity (MPH) % of FB 95+ MPH # of FB Thrown
Josh Hader 97.2 95.8% 402
Matt Bush 96.7 85.0% 217
Jandel Gustave 95.9 88.9% 296
Jake Cousins 95.7 79.1% 115
Miguel Sanchez 94.2 26.8% 82
Taylor Rogers 93.9 5.8% 154
Luis Perdomo 93.8 19.4% 160
Trevor Gott 93.8 38.9% 674
Peter Strzelecki 93.5 7.1% 322
Devin Williams 93.2 15.0% 448
Brad Boxberger 92.7 1.0% 599
Jason Alexander 92.4 0.0% 153
Trevor Kelley 89.9 0.0% 295
Hoby Milner 88.9 0.0% 510
Brent Suter 86.5 0.0% 757
Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

The Brewers acquired Bush after trading away Hader. Because they did not coexist in the bullpen, they count as one pitcher in this analysis. As such, the Brewers only had three relievers contribute at least 10 innings while averaging 95 mph or higher with their fastballs.

One of these three, Jake Cousins, accounted for the second-fewest total fastballs thrown on the list. Another, Jandel Gustave, was also a part-time contributor.

Meanwhile, Brad Boxberger, Brent Suter, and Hoby Milner combined to throw over one-third of the fastballs hurled by Milwaukee relievers. Only six of these 1,866 fastballs touched or topped 95 mph, all of which were courtesy of Boxberger.

For most of the year, the bullpen featured one true flamethrower, and the slowest-throwing relievers shouldered the heaviest individual workloads. Aside from Hader or Bush, opposing hitters weren’t seeing much heat once Milwaukee’s starting pitcher departed.

It will be a different story in 2023. The revamped bullpen picture features substantially more power stuff.

Fastball Velocities of Brewers 2023 Bullpen Candidates

Player Avg FB Velocity (MPH) % of FB 95+ MPH
Player Avg FB Velocity (MPH) % of FB 95+ MPH
Abner Uribe 98.8 100%
Javy Guerra 97.5 97.9%
Elvis Peguero 96.4 85.2%
Matt Bush 96.7 85.0%
Jake Cousins 95.7 79.1%
J.C. Mejia 95.7 84.2%
Justin Topa 95.5 76.7%
Gus Varland 95.2 51.9%
Joel Payamps 94.6 37.9%
Peter Strzelecki 93.5 7.1%
Devin Williams 93.2 15.0%
Tyson Miller 91.1 0.0%
Trevor Kelley 89.9 0.0%
Hoby Milner 88.9 0.0%
Note: Abner Uribe’s velocity figures are derived from three Arizona Fall League appearances at stadiums featuring Statcast. Gus Varland’s velocity figures are derived from a two-game spring training sample in 2021. The remaining velocity figures are from the 2022 regular season. Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Eight of the bullpen candidates for next season average at least 95 mph with their fastballs, and seven meet or exceed the 95-mph threshold with at least 75% of their fastballs.

Some of these names are external acquisitions made by the Brewers this offseason. They scooped up Javy Guerra, whose new four-seam fastball makes him a breakout candidate to watch, in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. Elvis Peguero, who also throws a low-to-mid-90s slider, was part of the return from the Los Angeles Angels for Hunter Renfroe. Joel Payamps, acquired from the Oakland Athletics as part of the William Contreras trade, sits in the 93-95 range but maxes out in the upper 90s. Gus Varland is a Rule 5 draft selection out of the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system.

Others are returning relievers from last season who could take on increased roles. Cousins and Justin Topa are healthy after injury-marred 2022 seasons. The Brewers re-upped with J.C. Mejia on a minor-league deal after a PED suspension sidelined him for much of the season.

Finally, there’s prospect Abner Uribe, whom the Brewers added to their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. The 22-year-old has only appeared in two games at the Double-A level but could find himself in the big-league bullpen sooner than later. Last spring, manager Craig Counsell said that Uribe could help the Brewers in 2022 before a torn meniscus in his left knee wiped out most of his season.

The arms on this list who pitched in the big leagues last year combined to average 93.5 mph on their fastballs and throw 36.8% of their heaters at least 95 mph. Those figures remain a tick below the league average for modern bullpens but could inch higher depending on how individual workloads shake out.

Once again, Guerra and Peguero are the top examples. The pair threw 18 and 17 13 MLB innings in 2022, respectively. Those totals would have made them minor pieces in last season’s bullpen. Both could take on greatly expanded roles with their new team moving forward. A healthy Cousins will also throw more than 13 13 innings.

The Brewers parted ways with Boxberger and Suter earlier this offseason. The two veterans combined to work 130 23 innings last year and contributed 23.7% of the fastballs thrown by the Milwaukee bullpen, nearly all of which were below 95 mph. Those innings will be filled by some combination of Guerra, Peguero, Payamps, and Cousins, all of whom throw significantly harder.

Varland is also a wild card in the makeup of the bullpen. A full-time move to the bullpen enabled the right-hander to add velocity, and he now sits in the upper 90s with his fastball. As a Rule 5 pick, he must spend at least 90 days on the 26-man roster and cannot be optioned to the minor leagues or designated for assignment. With the exception of placement on the injured list, the Brewers would have to offer Varland back to the Dodgers if they remove him from the active roster.

The Brewers could still use another proven arm in their bullpen to provide some stability, but even if they don’t make such an addition, they’ll enter spring training with more high-octane stuff—and more upside—than last year’s group possessed.