Everyone knew the Milwaukee Brewers‘ offense would put up runs. Most people believed in the depth and talent of the starting rotation. It was the bullpen that had the most question marks heading into 2014, but this collection of relievers has been stating its case as the best in MLB.
The numbers through Apr. 11 are downright filthy, residing in the top two in just about every major category.
Milwaukee relievers have allowed just three earned runs in 29.2 innings, good for an MLB-best 0.91 ERA. The terrific ERA has been buoyed by a ridiculous 0.74 WHIP (1st in MLB), thanks to a league-best .147 batting average against and a top-five walk rate.
Their dominance is exemplified further by a 12.13 strikeout-per-nine-inning (K/9) rate, second only to the stacked Atlanta Braves‘ pen. Even if you’re into more advanced stats like FIP (fielding independent pitching) where defense and luck is weeded out, the Brewers’ bullpen rates second to Atlanta with a 1.66 FIP. Only three teams in the MLB have a FIP below 2.60, just as a reference point.
The most amazing aspect to the Crew’s relief success is that it’s coming from absolutely everyone who has pitched (sorry, Wei-Chung Wang). Some of the effective pitching was expected and planned from the start, but there are a couple of guys pitching above expectation and in a different role than originally intended.
It starts with Francisco Rodriguez, the one-man reunion tour, who was re-installed as a closer on Opening Day and has looked like vintage K-Rod. He’s pitched five shutout innings while striking out an incredible 11-of-16 batters he’s faced (19.8 K/9).
K-Rod has yet to walk a man and only one hitter has reached base against him (single). That runner was the second batter he faced this season, having retired 14 consecutive since. Rodriguez has his “Bugs Bunny” changeup working to perfection, and has located his fastball extremely well, down and on the corners.
Then there’s Tyler Thornburg, the talented starter who wasn’t sure if he’d be in the rotation in triple-A or in the pen with the big club. Kudos to general manager Doug Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke for keeping him in Milwaukee, though I’m not sure even they saw this coming.
It was thought that Thornburg would be a middle inning and long relief guy, but he’s been a lights-out late-inning arm in the first 10 games. Like K-Rod, Thornburg’s changeup has been phenomenal, and it’s been instrumental in keeping hitters off-balance.
He then has the benefit of throwing some mid-90s heat on the inner half, all leading to weak contact. In seven frames, Thornburg has nine strikeouts, no walks and given up just four hits. He’s won a pair of games in relief, avoided the long ball thanks to impeccable command, and efficiently tossed multiple innings in a couple of outings.
Those two-inning stints allow Roenicke to spare the arms of Brandon Kintzler and Will Smith, the two most important pieces of the Brewers’ bullpen. These are the two guys the Brewers need to take down the opposition’s best hitters in the toughest spots in the game.
Not surprisingly, they’ve both done the job.
Kintzler hasn’t allowed a run in five innings this year, retiring 13 of the 15 hitters he faced without a walk. Kintzler is an often underrated arm who can come into any spot and close down the frame, whether he starts the inning or enters mid-frame.
Smith also has yet to give up a run, and while he’s had a few command issues, he has struck out eight in six scoreless frames. He’s been tremendously valuable in retiring both lefties and righties, a huge advantage many teams can’t boast from their southpaw relievers.
Even Jim Henderson, who lost his role as closer before the season started due to velocity concerns, has pitched 3.1 innings without allowing an earned run. He has six strikeouts with a pair of walks and has looked close to being back.
There will be some regression and the bullpen will have a few blowup games, so one should temper expectations when it comes to thinking a sub-1.00 ERA is attainable.
However, it appears Melvin and company have built a dynamic relief corps that will be a strength on the team instead of a questionable group of hurlers.