The Brewers have typically had a strong bullpen under President David Stearns and General Manager Matt Arnold. With Josh Hader, Devin Williams, and Brad Boxberger set to lead the way again this year, the team is likely to continue that trend. However, the bottom half of Milwaukee’s relief corps may be the most interesting. This group consists of pitchers with promising stuff but spotty track records looking to make an impact. Let’s dive in and see what this year’s projected bullpen has to offer.
Hader’s consistent dominance year after year has become something to marvel at. In five seasons and 232 career games, the southpaw owns a 2.26 ERA, 2.60 FIP, 2.09 SIERA, 60 DRA-, and 44% strikeout rate. His 2022 ZiPS projections are a near-perfect match: a 2.34 ERA, 2.60 FIP, and 44% strikeout rate.
His big fastball is still his signature pitch, but Hader has also sustained his dominance by refining his slider and changeup. Those offerings helped him slash his home run rate to 0.46 per nine innings and post a career-best 1.23 ERA last season. Initially a versatile multi-inning weapon, Hader has since settled into a traditional closer role. He will resume that job this season.
In Hader and Williams, the Brewers are returning one of the best one-two punches in baseball at the back end of their bullpen. Hader has won three of the last four National League Reliever of the Year Awards; the other went to Williams in 2020. The changeup specialist lost a tick on his fastball and struggled with walks last season, but he still finished with a 2.50 ERA, 2.90 SIERA, and 65 DRA-. ZiPS expects him to post a similar 2.57 ERA in 2022.
Boxberger was Mr. Reliable for Craig Counsell last season, pitching in various situations while posting 3.34 ERA and 3.65 FIP. Thanks to restored velocity and added movement on his fastball, Boxberger posted his highest strikeout rate (31%) since 2017. The Brewers re-signed him to a one-year deal with a club option for 2023. He is most likely to pitch the seventh inning ahead of Williams and Hader, but his effectiveness and veteran experience make him a fine choice in any high-leverage situation.
Suter has quietly become one of the most underrated relievers in baseball. Since returning from Tommy John surgery in September 2019, he has made 81 relief appearances spanning 108 innings with a 2.67 ERA and 3.57 FIP. That work has also featured a strong 51% ground ball rate and serviceable 23% strikeout rate.
Suter owns one of the slowest fastballs in baseball, averaging just 87 mph. Despite its lack of velocity, it has been one of the more effective fastballs in baseball for years. According to Statcast, it has been worth 20 runs since 2019, including nine runs in 2021.
The soft-tossing lefty’s biggest wart is that he allows his fair share of hits—8.8 per nine last season and for his career—making him best suited for starting clean innings rather than entering with men on base. He will continue bouncing around in the middle innings as a versatile arm for Craig Counsell.
These four relievers have plenty of big-league success on their resumes. The rest of the bullpen is a bit more of a question mark, but it has a high ceiling. Stearns and Arnold collected as many buy-low relievers as they could over the offseason. Bullpen arms are notoriously volatile, and many of them have strong seasons out of nowhere. The strategy of throwing as many pieces at the wall and hoping some stick is a solid one.
Slider specialist Jake Cousins posted an impressive 2.70 ERA and 35% strikeout rate as a rookie last season. According to some measurements, his raw stuff is among the best in baseball. Newcomer Trevor Gott diversified his arsenal to include both four- and two-seam fastballs, a curveball, a changeup, and a new cutter. Miguel Sanchez shuffled between the big leagues and Triple-A last season, and he figures to get some more looks throughout the 2022 season.
Funky left-hander Hoby Milner is a breakout candidate after showing some promising signs while he racked up frequent flyer miles between Milwaukee and Nashville last season. Another veteran southpaw, Rex Brothers, will start the season in the minor leagues, but he has an elite slider and is a strikeout machine when his control doesn’t escape him.
From there, it’s a collection of hard-throwing sinkerballers. The Brewers hope that a move to the bullpen unlocks some success for J.C. Mejia and José Ureña. Jandel Gustave and Luis Perdomo, who each have one option year remaining, could also see some middle relief work. Justin Topa is still working his way back from an injury-plagued 2021, but his high-90s sinker and frisbee slider can potentially be wipeout pitches if he can stay on the mound.
Aaron Ashby could also see some time out of the bullpen, but Counsell is keeping him stretched out to serve as a sixth starter at various points throughout the season. The former prospect will likely spend time in both roles depending on the team’s needs at any given time during the season.
From the veteran experience at the top to the unproven but tantalizing arms at the bottom, this is one of the more interesting bullpens that the Brewers have assembled. Expect Milwaukee to once again be near the top of the league in run prevention from its relievers.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, and Baseball-Reference.