History in the Making?

By: Ryan Smith

I remember watching Monday’s game against the Phillies fearing that a win would once again convince GM Doug Melvin that this year’s Milwaukee Brewers could be contenders. It didn’t matter that the Phillies currently reside in the cellar of the National League East; a win against Roy Halladay could have been just the type of win that Melvin and Manager Ron Roenicke would have used to say that the team was still in it, even though the Brewers just got swept in their “do-or-die” series over the weekend.

Then Roenicke went to the bullpen.

Roenicke has had to make too many trips to the mound this year because the relievers have not done their jobs.

You know the rest. One lead blown. Then another. Then another. With the bullpen for this year’s Milwaukee Brewers, no lead is safe.

After Tuesday’s debacle of a bullpen appearance, many Brewers fans started flooding Twitter and Facebook with claims that this had to be the worst bullpen ever.

This got me to thinking: where exactly does this bullpen rank among other historically bad bullpens?

There’s not really one stat that you can look at to figure this out. Some people would argue that Blown Saves would be the place to start, but that isn’t fair to the terrible bullpens on terrible teams. It also doesn’t take a look at the entire picture because the Save didn’t even become an official stat until 1969. You could look at ERA, but that is oftentimes quite dependent on team defense as well as pitcher performance. I’m sure most Brewer fans would make a case for BB/9 because that seems to be the Achilles heel for this year’s squad.

So since there’s no single stat to tell the story, I decided to look at all of them.

Let’s start by looking at Blown Saves. The Major League record for Blown Saves in an entire season is 34 by the 2004 Colorado Rockies, followed by the 2002 Texas Rangers with 33. As of right now, the Brewers have 18 official Blown Saves on the season, three behind this year’s Rockies. The Crew is on pace for 30 Blown Saves over the span of 162 games, which would be tied for seventh all-time. So in the Blown Saves category, the Brewers are up there, but they are not the worst bullpen ever.

Next, I had to take a look at walks and BB/9 because it seems like Milwaukee relievers can’t take the mound without issuing a free pass or three. On the year, Milwaukee relievers have issued 145 walks, which is the third-highest total in baseball. All-time, the most walks ever issued by a bullpen in a season was 347 by the 1996 Detroit Tigers, with the 2000 Pittsburgh Pirates coming in second with 343. in case you were wondering, the 2012 Brewers are on pace for roughly 242 walks, which wouldn’t even be in the top-30 for most walks ever in a season.

If I look at BB/9, I have to adjust what I’m looking at a bit. If you go all the way back to 1871, the 1908 Brooklyn Superbas (now the Los Angeles Dodgers) had a 108.00 BB/9. Of course, if you look closer, you’ll see that the Brooklyn Superbas only had one pitcher make a relief appearance. That pitcher was Pembroke Finlayson, and he walked four batters in one-third of an inning.

Manny Parra is just one of the guys who issues far too many walks.

If you don’t go back any further than 1970, you would find the 1971 Chicago White Sox with a 6.89 BB/9 and the 2000 Pirates with a 5.92 BB/9. Right now, the Brewers have a 4.39 BB/9, which is the second-highest mark in the league behind the Cubs at 5.00 BB/9. So you can see that, while they are one of the worst bullpens this season when it comes to issuing walks, they are nowhere near the worst bullpen ever in this area.

Finally, I had to look at ERA and True Runs Allowed (tERA) to gauge where this Brewers bullpen ranks among the most ineffective units in the history of the game. This year, the Brewers have the third-worst bullpen ERA in the majors at 4.76. Once again, I had to limit my research to no later than 1970 because the highest 100 ERAs of all-time all occurred before 1970. Using a more modern-day comparison, the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays had a 6.16 bullpen ERA, which easily beat out the ’96 Tigers (5.97). Once again, this year’s Brewers bullpen is bad, but they are not historically bad when it comes to ERA.

The sample-size for tERA is even smaller because this stat wasn’t even calculated until 2002. Even with this smaller window, you can see that Milwaukee’s tERA of 4.79 is only the fourth-worst mark in baseball in 2012. Historically, the ’12 Crew is no match for the Rockies of 2003 (6.37) and ’02 (6.32).

I do want to point out that at no point during this article was I defending the performance of the Brewers bullpen this year. I spent a good chunk of the early months of the season coming to the defense of John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez, telling fans to give them time, to have faith.

All too often, Roenicke finds himself without the answers during postgame press conferences.

And now, here I am, feeling like a damn fool.

The harsh truth is that we’re more than likely stuck with these guys for the rest of the season. Whatever trade value Rodriguez had going into this last series was pretty much left for dead in Philadelphia. John Axford has looked better as of late, but I’ll believe he’s figured it out when I see it. Manny Parra can’t find a strike zone big enough to hit consistently. Hell, I’m actually happy when Roenicke calls Livan Hernandez on in relief. Frankly, it’s not pretty out there.

The entire purpose of this article was to point out that, while 2012 has been a frustrating year for the Brewers bullpen, it has not been the worst season ever. Maybe Brewers fans were just spoiled by the 2011 ‘pen that always seemed to come through. LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito, and Rodriguez locked down innings six through eight, and we all know how dominant Axford was last season. This year has just been one of those years where anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And it seems that much worse after a year of complete domination.

But let’s slow down the talk of the 2012 Milwaukee bullpen being the worst bullpen ever. Those other squads have quite a lead on our guys.

Then again, if there’s one thing these guys can consistently do, it’s make a lead disappear.

Offseason 2012: Fielder and K-Rod offered arbitration

As expected, the Brewers have offered arbitration to Prince Fielder and Francisco Rodriguez, and declined to make an offer to shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.

Fielder is a lock to decline the offer.  The team eventually signing him will forfeit a first- or second-round draft pick, depending on last year’s record, and the Brewers will also receive a supplemental pick sandwiched between the first and second rounds.

K-Rod may or may not accept arbitration.  If he does, he will receive a raise from his $13.5MM salary last season, but the Brewers will have addressed an area of need in the bullpen.  If he does not, under the terms of the new CBA he will not cost the signing team a draft pick, but the Brewers will receive two supplemental picks; one immediately before the signing team’s first pick, and another sandwich pick between the first and second rounds.

Yuniesky Betancourt was not offered arbitration.  The salary just would not have made sense given the $2MM buyout the Brewers exercised earlier this offseason.  Betancourt has stated he wants to come back to the Brewers, though, and with Clint Barmes signing in Pittsburgh and Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes likely too expensive for the Brewers, the shortstop market is thinning out.  Betancourt may yet find his way back to the team at a lower salary.

Takashi Saito’s contract prohibited the Brewers from offering arbitration.  The Brewers will not receive any draft picks for his departure.

Offseason 2012: Offering K-Rod arbitration the right move

The Brewers have four arbitration decisions to make by Wednesday night, but only one is truly a “decision” in the sense that we traditionally use the word. In order to receive draft pick compensation for losing highly or moderately rated free agents, teams are required to offer one-year contracts to the player at a value to be set by an arbitration panel.  These offers can sometimes be risky for teams; if the player accepts, he generally receive a raise from the previous year’s salary.  On the flip side, accepting arbitration can be risky for the player, because it deprives him of the chance to look for a multi-year deal.  This year, the Brewers must decide whether to make offers to four former Brewers:  Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez, Prince Fielder, and Yuniesky Bentancourt.

Fielder will obviously receive an offer.  He would receive a substantial raise from the $15.5MM he earned last season, but is looking for a new deal somewhere in the range of $180-$200MM, and definitely would not accept a one-year contract.  Because Fielder is a Type A player, or one of the most highly rated, the Brewers will receive the signing team’s first- or second-round pick, depending on where it finished in the standings the previous year, as well as a supplemental pick between the first and second round of the draft.

Saito and Bentancourt are obvious nonoffer candidates.  Saito’s contract precludes the Brewers from offering arbitration, meaning the Brewers will receive nothing for his departure.  The Brewers exercised Betancourt’s $2MM buyout earlier this offseason, so risking a one-year contract valued at more than $6MM on Betancourt is not something the Brewers want to do.  And as a Type B, or moderately rated, player, the Brewers would receive only a supplemental pick for losing Betancourt; definitely not worth the risk.

But somewhere in the middle lies Francisco Rodriguez.  Offering Rodriguez was very risky under the previous collective bargaining agreement, because the prospect of forfeiting a draft pick served as a major disincentive to his signing in a market flooded with closers.  Still, I felt it was in the Brewers’ best interests to make an offer then.  I’ve become even more convinced that the Brewers should offer arbitration in light of the new collective bargaining agreement signed this week, which eliminates the draft pick forfeiture for a small class of elite relievers that include Rodriguez.  This makes Rodriguez far more palatable to many teams and increases his marketability.

The risk, of course, is that Rodriguez will accept arbitration.  His services would cost the Brewers somewhere north of the $12MM he earned last season, which is a substantial amount for any player, let alone a set up man. But even that is not as much of a downside as you might think.  With Rodriguez, Saito, and LaTroy Hawkins departing, the Brewers are in serious need of bullpen help.  A quality set up reliever at market value will still cost somewhere between $3-4MM per year on a multi-year deal, so assuming the Brewers go the free agent route, Rodriguez represents only a $9-10MM premium for one year.  The Brewers are not likely to be in the market for one of the major free agents this offseason, and will probably settle for inexpensive, solid players or internal options to fill the voids in the bullpen and at 1B, 3B, SS.  In other words, Rodriguez’s salary would not cripple the team for a long period, and the Brewers – who are still in a position to contend next year – could do worse than Rodriguez again setting up John Axford.

There is, of course, a reward if Rodriguez does not accept: a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft.  And for a depleted farm system (at least, relative to other teams), the Brewers certainly could use the help.  Given that Rodriguez is stuck behind John Axford and desperately wants to close on a multi-year deal, I’d say the balance certainly tips in favor of K-Rod rejecting the Brewers’ offer.

So I don’t see how the Brewers lose by offering Rodriguez arbitration.  Best case scenario, he declines and the Brewers receive an extra draft pick.  Worst case scenario, he accepts and a contending team is stuck with – god forbid – an elite reliever in a depleted bullpen.  He may be an expensive reliever, but, hey, not too long ago the Brewers were handing out $10MM like candy (see: Eric Gagne, Jeff Suppan).  The Brewers could do much worse than another year of K-Rod, even a hefty price tag.

 

Offseason 2012: Elias Rankings Released

The Elias Bureau, whose ratings are used to determine draft pick compensation for teams losing players to free agency, has released its official list of free agents.  To recap, teams have the right to offer departing free agents arbitration.  If accepted, the player would play on a one-year contract with a salary determined by a neutral panel.  If a player declines arbitration, and then signs elsewhere, the team losing the player may receive draft pick composition depending on the player’s Elias ranking.  Teams signing Type A free agents (generally the best players) must surrender their first-round draft pick to the player’s former team, and the former team also gets a supplemental pick after the first round.  Type B free agents do not cost the signing team any draft picks, but the former team does receive the supplemental pick.  There are some qualifications to Type A compensation, but those are the basics.

For the Brewers, three players qualified as Type A free agents:  Prince Fielder, Francisco Rodriguez, and, in a bit of a surprise, Takashi Saito, who just barely made the cut. Fielder and Rodriguez are obvious arbitration offers, while Saito’s contract, signed last offseason, prohibits the team from making such an offer.  That’s a shame, too.  Saito made a modest $1.75M last year and was a bargain at that price, with a slightly positive WAR and 2.03 ERA.  His FIP line looked a little worse (3.40), suggesting Saito may have actually been aided by the Brewers’ porous defense, and his FB% was the lowest it has been for years, so this wasn’t an absolute slam dunk case of arbitration. But Saito’s agent (Nez Balelo, same as Ryan Braun’s) was obviously concerned that Saito would pitch well enough to qualify for Type A status, and surrendering a first-round pick could scare potential suitors away.

Only Yuniesky Betancourt was rated Type B.  Betancourt made $4.375M last year, and the Brewers just declined his $6M option and paid a $2M buyout, so it’s a good bet he will not be offered arbitration unless the Brewers really do not want to explore the free agent market.

 

Someone to count on

The newly reformed Brewers bullpen got its first test yesterday as starter Shaun Marcum exited with a strained neck after five innings.  A combination of four relievers took the Crew the rest of the way – LaTroy Hawkins (sixth), Takashi Saito (seventh), Francisco Rodriguez (eighth), and John Axford (ninth) –  to preserve a much-needed 4-3 win on the road.

The four are among the top relievers that have appeared in the Brewers bullpen over the course of the season.

Hawkins has been outstanding since returning from the disabled list; in 30 appearances, he has allowed only 5 earned runs and sports a nifty 1.65 ERA to go along with 15 strikeouts and 4 walks.

Axford is 25-27 in save opportunities, one  of the best save percentages in the majors, with an acceptable 2.84 ERA (11th best of current closers).  Axford is not a shutdown closer by any means, as he illustrated in yesterday’s game by allowing a double and a walk before striking out All-Star Troy Tulowitzki to end the game.

But Axford is getting the job done so far, and despite Francisco Rodriguez’s two scoreless frames in a Brewers uniform, Rodriguez does not look like a real threat to permanently displace Axford as a closer.  Earlier this week the Brewers agreed to increase K-Rod’s buyout to $4 M (from $3.5 M) in exchange for nixing the $17.5 2012 vesting option with 55 games finished, so there is no longer an urgency to keep K-Rod from closing games.  Still, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.  Axford has been able to get out of the messes he creates, and if he can keep doing so there’s no need for a switch.  It’s worth noting, though, that K-Rod has been able to strike out three in his two innings despite the lack of velocity on his fastball (regularly clocked at 91 yesterday, while once touching both 92 and 93).  His also allowed a double on a changeup, which was not quite as effective (between 84-86).

Finally, Takashi Saito, who was on the disabled list until recently, has been serviceable.  His 7:1 K:BB ratio will fly, but his WHIP (1.57) and HR/9 (2.6) will not.  Keep in mind those numbers are based on a rather small sample size of seven innings, and can be attributed to shaking off the rust after being shut down for so long.  Saito really only had one bad outing on July 15.  For his career, he has a 1.03 WHIP and allows only .6 HR/9, so there shouldn’t be much to worry about here.

The rest of the Brewers bullpen isn’t nearly as good, but Kameron Loe (3-7, 4.53 ERA), Marco Estrada (2-6, 4.70), and Tim Dillard (1-1, 5.00) have all shown flashes of greatness.  But having allowed third-most runs in the NL, the Brewers bullpen was desperately in need of help in the late innings.  The K-Rod trade has perhaps turned one of the Brewers’ greatest weaknesses into one of its greatest strengths.

Something Brewing

A few personal issues have kept me from blogging lately, but I simply couldn’t resist some accolades for Nyjer Morgan in the wake of last night’s comeback 8-7 victory of the Twins.  There are some glass-half-empty types who point out the fact that its only one game, but you can’t overlook the fact that it was a road game in which the Brewers were in the hole 0-7 at one point.

Nyjer Morgan provided the spark the offense needed, going 3-5 with 4 rbi.  On his 31st birthday, he was only a single shy of the cycle.  The Brewers catchers pitched in with some timely hitting, too.

The offense was great, but one of the more overlooked highlights was the performance of the bullpen, who had to clean up Chris Narveson’s 7-run mess.  Marco Estrada took over in the 5th and threw 2.1 innings of shutout ball.  Takashi Saito, in his return from a lengthy DL stint, got the win and added a scoreless inning and a strikeout.  After the Brewers’ big ninth, John Axford picked up his 21st save of the season.

For a team that had dropped the previous four games (three in the Bronx and the first of the series in Minnesota), the importance of the win can’t be understated.  It was certainly one of the best games of the season, not because anyone did anything really exceptional (Nyjer Morgan excepted), but because the Brewers managed to triumph in the face of adversity in a game they seemed destined to lose.  Narveson had a forgettable night, and the bullpen got lucky with some pitches that could have been hammered.  The offense was clueless through nearly the first five innings.  Yet they were able to pull one out at Target Field and have a shot at winning the series today.

That brings me to Zack Greinke, who takes the mound today and who JS writer Tom Haudricourt recently said is failing to meet expectations.   You can say what you want about Greinke’s ERA, but his peripheral stats are all fine (11.55 K/9, 1.73 BB/9, 1.251 WHIP).  Sure, he’s had some bad days, but every pitcher does.  Greinke’s record is just fine at 7-3 thanks to some run support, and his ERA is in the gutter because of bad luck (.349 BABIP, highest of his career) and bad defense (2.72 FIP).  Don’t fear, Brewers nation.  Greinke’s best stuff is yet to come.

Where We’re At

If you’d have told Ron Roenicke, whose squad was reeling with injuries at the end of spring training, that the Brewers would be playing .500 ball on the verge of getting Zack Greinke and Corey Hart back, I’m sure he’d have said, “I’ll take it.”

Hart and Greinke, two key cogs in the Brewers’ postseason aspirations, are slated to return at the end of April.  Hart began his rehab assignment Tuesday at AAA Nashville, going 0-2 with a strikeout.  The Brewers expect that he will need about 20 at-bats before he is ready to come off the DL.  Greinke has also been moved to Nashville after facing one over the minimum in three innings of scoreless ball at Class A Brevard County.

The Brewers have plenty of other injured players, though.  Sergio Mitre still has not pitched after being hit by a line drive on April 18, though he should be back soon.  Nyjer Morgan was placed on the DL today after a thigh bruise he sustained in an unnecessary collision with Pittsburgh catcher Ryan Doumit failed to heal; Brandon Boggs has been recalled from AAA to take his place.  Manny Parra (back) is improving and is expected back in late April, as is offseason acquisition Takashi Saito (hamstring). 

The pitching injuries have left the Brewers a bit short, but, by and large, the replacements have performed spectacularly.  Marco Estrada is 1-0 in two starts with a 3.46 ERA.  And aside from one mistake pitch to Shane Victorino that cost the Brewers a win against Philly, Brandon Kintzler has performed admirably (1-1, 3.86 era, 6:1 k:bb). 

The Brewers (9-9) are currently third in the Central behind St. Louis (10-9) and Cincinnati (10-9). 

The Crew starts a three-game home series tonight against the Astros (7-12) featuring ace Yovani Gallardo (1-1, 4.62 era, 13:9 k:bb) versus righty Nelson Figueroa (0-2, 7.31 era).  Gallardo has struggled mightily in his past two starts, but looks to get back on track tonight against a weak offensive lineup.  Gallardo has never lost to the Astros in Milwaukee, so lets hope the trend continues.