MILWAUKEE — It’s nearly impossible to figure out how a major league bullpen is going to fare. Relievers as individuals are unpredictable enough, but as a group they can be puzzling.
Established relievers can have bad stretches, simply because it’s real easy for a pitcher working just one inning to have a bad, ERA-inflating outing.
Last season, the Brewers had a bullpen of mostly established arms that failed as a group. Milwaukee’s major league-worst bullpen blew the most saves in baseball and might have ultimately cost the Brewers a trip to the playoffs.
General manager Doug Melvin tore down the bullpen and rebuilt a new one. With a few holdovers pitching better than they did last season, the relief corps has went from having the worst ERA in baseball to the sixth-best at 3.02.
What makes the drastic turnaround more impressive is the workload that’s been placed on this year’s bullpen. Milwaukee’s bullpen has had to cover 218 1/3 innings this season, sixth-most in baseball.
“I know that we’ve had to pitch them a lot because we haven’t gone real deep with the starters, but I don’t think that their load has been excessive,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “We’ve flipped it around enough, had some guys come up from the minor leagues to where I don’t think the load has been (big enough) to where I’m worried about it.”
One of the major differences in this year’s bullpen is the multitude of arms that can throw multiple innings per outing. Tom Gorzelanny, Brandon Kintzler, Burke Badenhop and Donovan Hand all currently can give the Brewers length, while Alfredo Figaro saved the bullpen many times with long outings before moving to the rotation.
“We have some length there, we knew coming into the season that we had more length,” Roenicke said. “Two years ago we had a lot of one-inning guys. If you only have one-inning guys and your starters aren’t going deep, you are in trouble. Hopefully, we’ve pitched them every other day rather than one every day where it’s a little easier load on them.”
From the start, offseason additions Badenhop, Gorzelanny, Figaro and left-hander Michael Gonzalez have pitched well and all filled valuable roles. Kintzler is finally healthy, while holdover Jim Henderson has picked up where he left off.
After a rough first three outings, John Axford has pitched very well, looking like the pitcher he was in 2011. The added bonus has been Francisco Rodriguez. Milwaukee took a chance on the former closer and he’s been lights out since coming up in early May.
“They have really picked it up the last four weeks or so, since I got here,” Rodriguez said. “I think there are more defined roles and they feel more comfortable. We’re pitching a lot, there’s no question about it, but it’s one thing if you are pitching a lot and not getting the job done. We want to stick to what’s working right now and hopefully we continue because it’s a long season.”
With each reliever pitching well, Roenicke has tremendous flexibility in the bullpen. As manager, Roenicke can truly play the matchups from the sixth inning on most nights.
“We’ve been able to with the two left-handers, when Gorzelanny was out there, that’s worked out real well,” Roenicke said. “Badenhop (is) getting the right-handers, but he can also give us length. It is pretty versatile. Once we put Henderson in that closing role, everyone else became where it matched up the best. I think it has worked well.”
While Henderson settled down the bullpen by giving stability at closer, Rodriguez jumped right in when Henderson went on the disabled list and was flawless.
Chasing 300 saves, Rodriguez gives Roenicke the ability to ease Henderson back, but also will allow the skipper to avoid having to overwork either of the two pitchers.
“Frankie is throwing the ball well enough where I have no problem with him being our closer right now,” Roenicke said. “I don’t want to do this just because of numbers. I want to do this because he’s throwing well enough to where we’re really good having him do that and maybe Henderson is in the eighth for a couple of times.”
Henderson stepping up not only settled the bullpen, but allowed Axford to get back on track in his new role. Axford has a 2.19 ERA in his last 28 outings. Toss out the first four outings of his season and Axford has been outstanding.
“I have him more confident in throwing his breaking stuff,” Roenicke said. “He’s getting them over for strikes now. Fastball I’ve thought has been the same the whole time. Command is better, better with the fastball.
“When we need to get out of an inning, it could be the sixth, it could be the seventh, it could be the eighth, he’s showed that he’s handling all those situations well. Of all the guys that we have out there, he’s a guy that can come in and get some strikeouts to get you out of a tough spot.”
While Milwaukee’s bullpen is completely turned around from last season, it’s made little difference in the team’s record. The relievers haven’t had many leads to protect, instead having to eat innings just to try and keep the team in the game, hoping the offense can rally.
Maybe overshadowed by the starting rotation’s struggles, the bullpen’s success has been one of the positive story lines in an otherwise tough first half.