Entering the 2014 season, a majority of fans and experts expressed their concern about the Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen, citing it among the biggest question marks on the club. Now 24 games in the campaign, a trio of relief arms have been the driving force behind one of MLB’s best bullpens.
Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith and Tyler Thornburg have been absolutely incredible to start the year. Each of them have dominated opposing hitters and effectively filled valuable roles in relief.
Ron Roenicke has relied on them so much, there are clear worries about burning them out, and it’s still April. They’ve combined to toss 37 innings, which is 52 percent of the team’s total relief frames. Looking at the numbers, however, it’s plain to see why Roenicke continues to summon these three from the pen as the Brewers’ play tight games on a daily basis.
K-Rod and Smith have yet to give up a run, while Thornburg allowed a single tally in his first outing of the year. Since then, he’s tossed 11.1 scoreless frames as the three have combined for a 0.24 ERA.
They’ve struck out 47 hitters, good for an 11.4 strikeout-per-nine-inning (K/9) rate. The league-average for relief pitchers is 8.8 this season. Their strikeout-to-walk rate (K/BB) also tops the NL norm by a comfortable margin. The Brewers’ trio has a 3.92 K/BB against the league’s 2.43.
While all three of them have been shutdown arms in their own rights, they’ve each contributed differently.
When he made the big club, most saw Thornburg as a long man to eat up innings. Instead, he’s been a lockdown arm in the seventh and eighth frames, a huge boost to the squad with Jim Henderson’s struggles and Brandon Kintzler landing on the disabled list.
His changeup has been phenomenal, allowing him to keep hitters off-balance and unable to hit the ball out of the park. Coupled with his low-to-mid 90s fastball and spot-on command this year, Thronburg has breezed through a majority of his outings. Opponents are batting .143 with a microscopic .196 OBP.
Smith has affected the pen’s dynamics in a whole different way. He’s far more than a lefty specialist, able to neutralize right-handers nearly as well as he eliminates tough lefties. Smith has held all batters to a .162 average, allowing nothing but six singles.
His most valuable asset has been the ability to come into the game mid-inning and pitch more than one frame at a time. Because he’s so effective against hitters on both sides of the plate, it gives Roenicke the freedom to use Smith in all sorts of circumstances.
For example, on top of his own 0.00 ERA, Smith has allowed just one of nine inherited runners to score – an extremely important statistic for relief pitchers. He’s been able to kill rallies, limit damage, lead the team in holds with seven, and even pick up a save in 2014.
More often than not, however, he gets the ball to Rodriguez with the Brewers in the lead.
When it’s gotten to K-Rod this year, it’s been game over. The veteran closer is 11-for-11 in save chances, setting a franchise record for saves in March/April. His “Bugs Bunny” changeup is nearly unhittable thus far, and he’s been able to spot all of his pitches – including the curveball – leading to a mere three walks in 14 scoreless frames.
Perhaps most incredibly, K-Rod has remained effective through a heavy, consistent workload. Rodriguez has pitched in seven of the last eight contests, getting just two days off during that span. Yet through it all, he remains perfect with an unblemished ERA, a 13.5 K/9 ratio and 7.00 K/BB mark.
His stuff has been so filthy this year, K-Rod has held hitters to a .111 average, .184 OBP, .111 slugging percentage and a ridiculously sick .295 OPS. It’s been an absolute joy to watch him baffle batters and close out win after win for the Crew.
Provided their arms don’t get completely worn down before the season’s final months, this new-world triumphant trio will give the Brewers a huge advantage over the rest of the league.
When you add in Kintzler, the Brewers have a wealth of relievers that turn games into shortened contests, putting tons of added pressure on the opposition to score early and often.
With the solid starting rotation setting up Thronburg, Smith and Rodriguez, this Brewers’ trio of bullpen arms may turn out to be the collective MVPs of a 2014 playoff participant.