MILWAUKEE — All phases of the game work together. A team can’t contend if it’s bullpen continues to cough up leads. If a team’s offense can’t score runs, the starting rotation feels pressure to be perfect.
For the Milwaukee Brewers this season, the starting rotation is putting a strain on the bullpen by making them cover so many innings.
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Only six times this year has a Brewers starter worked past the sixth inning, a very concerning number. And while short starts usually come with struggles – Milwaukee’s rotation is last in the National League with a 5.18 ERA – starters have had a hard time going deep into games when they pitch well.
“It would sure be nice to get into the seventh inning some with our starters, no doubt,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “Our pitch counts, they are going up too fast. Our ball-strike ratio is not very good. We have to improve a lot on that.”
Of the five pitchers who have made multiple starts for the Brewers this season, only Kyle Lohse is averaging six or more innings per game, as he sits at 6.1. Rookie right-hander Hiram Burgos’ average is under five innings per game, while Wily Peralta, Marco Estrada and Yovani Gallardo sit at 5.5, 5.7 and 5.8 innings per game respectively.
The guy that seems like he should be going deeper into games is Gallardo, but his current averages aren’t far off from his career numbers. Gallardo averages 6.2 innings pitched per start over his career, while throwing 16.9 pitches per inning with a 60 percent strike percentage.
This season, Gallardo is going 5.8 innings per game, throwing 16.9 pitches per inning with a 59 percent strike percentage. He’s almost dead on in his career averages, but his higher ERA may make it seem like he’s laboring even more.
“His pitch count is because the ball-strike ratio is getting too close to the same number,” Roenicke said. “With Yo, he has such good command that when he’s on the corners he should be going seven at least. When he’s right he’ll be going seven, sometimes eight.”
The Brewers are 24th in baseball in innings pitched by starting pitchers at 248 2/3 innings. For comparison, St. Louis’ starters – in one more game – have pitched 41 more innings. That’s 41 innings its bullpen has had to work, a big number as the season heads into the long days of summer.
It has to be asked: Can Milwaukee’s current starting rotation go any deeper into games? Gallardo isn’t too far off of his season averages, Lohse might be able to bump his up some, but Peralta is going to have starts where he goes seven innings and some where he goes four, making his average right around where it is.
The Brewers’ bullpen has tossed 20 consecutive scoreless innings entering Wednesday’s game against the Dodgers, but covering so many innings is going to catch up to them eventually.
“I would say that it’s up to the individual pitchers that you have,” Roenicke said. “There are some guys that are stuff guys. There are some guys that are command guys. The command guys are going to try to hit the corners. If they are not hitting the corner, and their command is off a little bit, you have a lot of pitches and they are not going to go deep into games.
“The stuff guys, if you have really good stuff, you can just come at guys. Look at (Nationals pitcher Stephen) Strasburg. He just comes right at you with good stuff. (Dodgers pitcher Clayton) Kershaw, maybe the (fastball velocity) numbers are at 93, but (it looks) like it’s 96 to 98. Because it’s burrowing in, it has a little cut on it and he throws it right where he wants to inside on right-handers. He can get away with it just in that one spot. You know you have to hit it as a hitter, so you start swinging and he ends up with his pitch count real high to be able to go deep in games.”
What Roenicke is getting at is that nobody on staff is telling Milwaukee’s pitchers to nibble and raise their pitch count so high where it’s sitting at 100 pitches in the sixth inning.
“I don’t think anybody is just teaching guys to don’t ever give in, always hit corners, don’t worry about your pitch count,” Roenicke said. “Nobody has talked about length. I really just think it’s the personnel you have on your staff.”
Milwaukee hasn’t had a starting pitcher toss a complete game since April 5, 2011 when Gallardo went the distance in a 1-0 win over Atlanta. Since that game, the Brewers have watched 11 pitchers throw complete games against them, with the latest coming Monday night.
“I mean, of course we want to,” Gallardo said of throwing a complete game. “Right now, trying to win is the first thing. We are going out there competing and doing everything to win. If it comes down to one of us going out there and throwing a shutout, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Because the Brewers have run guys like Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Gallardo out over the past few seasons, it’s surprising that it has been so long since the last complete game.
Gallardo and Lohse both have the ability to break the streak, but Peralta also has the stuff to do it if he’s on.
“Wily has the kind of stuff that I think eventually he will get some complete games,” Roenicke said. “It’s a power sinker that will get ground balls and won’t necessarily always go to 3-2. I don’t think he’s a guy that will always try to paint the corner. That’s the type of guy that I think will be able to get there.”
Roenicke slowly walked to the mound Tuesday night to remove Burgos after just 3 1/3 innings of work. The Brewers were down 2-1, but the Dodgers had the bases loaded with just one out. The rookie had escaped jams in the first three innings and was laboring the whole night.
It’s hard to make a bullpen cover 5 2/3 innings when days off are rare this time of year, but Roenicke also had to do what he could to get the Brewers a much-needed win. The bullpen came through and helped Milwaukee win the game, but it won’t always work that way.
“He threw a lot of pitches in a short amount of time,” Lucroy said of Burgos. “He made some big pitches and kept them off-balance for the most part but we need to try and stretch him out a little longer to take some strain off that bullpen. He has good stuff, he was missing off a couple sides ides. I think he was trying to do too much which is a pretty common thing to do being a young guy. He tries to be perfect and you miss by a little bit and get behind in the count.”
It’s the opposite problem the Brewers faced last season. Milwaukee’s starters would take a lead late into games to watch the bullpen cough it up. Now the bullpen is having to pick up the slack.
“Our bullpen has been great,” Lucroy said. “If our starters can pick up some innings for them and kind of take some strain off, it will be really good for them.”