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The Bullpen Isn’t Really This Bad

Photo: Benny Sieu/U.S Presswire

Even if their quality of play has improved over the last few weeks, the Brewers are still finding new and exciting ways to lose an unacceptably high number of games. The last two days have been no exception, and in both contests, the culprit was a unit that has plagued the club all year: The bullpen.

On Saturday, the offense (which has been pretty good, ranking 4th in the NL according to wOBA) was able to score enough runs to compensate for a poor start from Randy Wolf, but not the three runs allowed by Kameron Loe, Jose Veras, and Tim Dillard in as many innings, for an 8-6 defeat. Similarly, 7.1 scoreless innings by Mike Fiers were spoiled in Sunday’s 1-0 loss after Manny Parra allowed two doubles and a walk in the bottom of the 10th, with Jose Veras nearly saving Parra from the trouble by allowing four baserunners in a 9th-inning jam he narrowly escaped. This stands in sharp contrast to the 2011 club, which had somewhere around a half-dozen relievers who were suitable for high-leverage work, and went 30-18 in one-run games.

That’s not so much the strange part about all this. What’s weird — hell, downright maddening, is the fact that the Brewers still have four of those guys this year, and the two that they lost (LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito) were seventh-inning types who combined to throw less than 75 innings the whole year. Furthermore, they compensated by adding Jose Veras, who, though somewhat mercurial, was still an above-average reliever who could be counted on for 70 innings a year. In addition, they would be looking at a full season of Francisco Rodriguez, one of the better setup men in the game, who was acquired in July. This Winter, I even wondered if this year’s bullpen could be better than the 2011 unit. At this point, my only question is “What went wrong?”.

There are a number of things that have gone wrong, but it has to start with closer John Axford, who has struggled with his command after a year that was one of the best in recent memory. Despite seeing his strikeouts climb (from 10.5 to 12.4 per nine innings), Axford’s walk and homerun rates have nearly doubled (going from 3.1 to 5.7 per nine and .5 to 1.0 per nine, respectively). A whole post could be written on what might be behind Axford’s issues, but I’ll offer a few thoughts here:

(It’s also worth noting that these statements apply to every Brewers reliever to some degree, not just Axford.)

First, all pitchers go through rough stretches. Axford has thrown 28.1 innings this year, roughly a month’s worth of innings for a starting pitcher. Remember Zack Greinke having bad months last year? Shaun Marcum? In his last week, Axford has allowed 5 runs in 5.2 innings. For a starter, that’s one poor outing. For a closer, that’s three blown saves. It happens, and is just the nature of the beast for relievers, whose innings are put under an extreme microscope. Things will work out with time.

Also, Axford’s 2011 was so good that almost everything went right for him, and he was almost surely not going to repeat it, no matter how well he pitched. The command problems that have plagued Axford for most of his career are back with a vengeance after being almost nonexistent last year, and his homerun rate last year was an unsustainably low. When all is said and done, Axford is likely to settle in at a level somewhere in between.  It hasn’t helped either that Axford, the “closer” for better or worse, has struggled to get regular playing time with the Brewers losing so many games, which leads to scenarios like pitching on 5 days’ rest, and throwing 30-pitch mop-up innings in order to get some work in, which is far from ideal usage, especially for a pitcher that is attempting to get back on track from a few ineffective outings.

In this regard, some of the responsibility also has to go to Ron Roenicke, who has pigeonholed his relievers into specific roles, even when the current bullpen is ill-suited for such an arrangement. Late last year, this kind of thing worked due to the sheer depth of the relief core — The Brewers had enough reliable arms to fill every needed role, and Roenicke could use all of his high-leverage relievers only in their strictly defined roles because the team was ahead so often — but this year’s squad is going to require a more creative approach. Again, this topic is another post for another day, but the most egregious example fresh in my mind is the pattern of Roenicke putting his weakest relievers in as soon as the game hits extra innings. Sunday is the obvious example, with long man Manny Parra being left out on the mound for a brutal tenth inning while John Axford sat, well-rested, in the ‘pen, but it’s far from the first time this has happened this year. It’s going to be hard for the Brewers bullpen to come through when it matters most when the best relievers aren’t out on the mound at that time.

Quite simply, it’s hard to believe that the Brewers’ bullpen is as terrible as it’s been so far, even if it won’t be as good as it was last year. Due to some inevitable regression, some random blips in performance, and a lot of pitchers being on the mound in situations that aren’t necessarily optimal, last year’s strength has become this year’s biggest liability, even if many of the players don’t appear to have changed. The last part of that sentence is the key going forward: Nobody was expecting this kind of implosion going into the year, and it’s safe to assume that things will inevitably improve going forward, and more than just in the sense of there being nowhere to go but up.