Roenicke botches the 7th, causes loss

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

I’ve watched a lot of baseball, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like what happened in the 7th inning of yesterday’s 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

The wheels started to fall off a quality start for Matt Garza when, with the Brewers up 4-2, he allowed a pair of singles to start the bottom of the inning.  Garza departed with one out, and Brandon Kintzler was summoned to face righty Gerald Laird, who hit a ground ball to third that deflected off Mark Reynolds’ glove and trickled into left to score Chris Johnson. MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Arizona Diamondbacks

That’s when things took a decidedly damning turn for Ron Roenicke.  With Ryan Doumit batting, Roenicke summoned a lefty … only none had been getting loose.  When Roenicke walked out to the mound, the bullpen was visibly panicked.  Zach Duke wound up emerging from the gates, but Roenicke had already made the substitution for Will Smith.  So Duke returned to the bullpen and the cold-armed Smith took the mound.  Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez insisted on adherence to the eight-pitch rule, and that’s all the warming Smith was able to do.

Home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth was so concerned about the potential for injury that he tried to bend the rules and get Smith more warm-up pitches.  He even initiated a psudo-replay review to see if there was any way to help Smith, but nothing could be done.  And that falls squarely on Ron Roenicke.

The results were predictable, and as Rock said on the broadcast, Smith showed all the signs of coming in cold.  Smith allowed back-to-back singles and walked the third batter before being lifted.  Roenicke compounded his bullpen mismanagement by bringing the infield in with only one out and the go-ahead run on second, and the Braves took a 5-4 lead on the first single.

Roenicke’s post-game explanation made virtually no sense.  The Brewers were down pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell, both of whom were attending family graduations.  But there were fill-ins in minor-league pitching coordinator Rick Tomlin and bullpen coach Marcus Hanel, respectively.  Roenicke said Kranitz usually takes care of calling the bullpen, and he simply assumed-wrongly-that Tomlin would, too.  But then, for some reason, he also sent Martin Maldonado to the bullpen:

“You do things the same way every day and when it changes, it just changes what goes on. I had to make the change. I sent Maldy (backup catcher Martin Maldonado) to run down to the bullpen because we needed two guys up. Maldy went down there and said, ‘I think it’s (Zach) Duke,’ but he never got the call on who it was. So, we didn’t call.”

While the situation provides an interesting glimpse into the daily work of the pitching coach and the importance of his relationship with the manager, the failure to get it right in this case is utterly inexplicable.  There are monitors showing a feed of the bullpen in the Atlanta dugouts.  There’s a phone in the dugout with a direct line to the bullpen.  And it’s apparently pretty easy to send someone to personally check on the bullpen during a game.

How, then, it was possible for Roenicke to mess this up is beyond me.  But rarely do you see a loss traceable so directly and tangibly to mismanagement.  After the game, Roenicke said the loss was “going to be hard on me.”  It should be.

Everyone panic about bullpen use! and a bit of news

By Nathan Petrashek

bullpenThe Brewers are currently on an 8-game win streak, and everyone has rightfully mentioned what a critical part the bullpen has played in that streak.  Will Smith, Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jim Henderson are unscored upon, and Tyler Thornburg, who leads the ‘pen with 7.2 inning pitched, has allowed just one earned run (1.17 ERA).  Opposing hitters are batting just .155 and have struck out 42 times against the Brewers’ relief corps, with just 8 walks.  The bullpen bears a sparkling 0.83 ERA, easily the best in baseball.*

But have they been overused, as some seem to think?  Probably not.  The Brewers ‘pen has tallied 32.2 innings, the 10th most-used bullpen in the National League and 18th in all of baseball.  Relievers for five teams have pitched over 40 innings, and another five are pretty close.  The Brewers seem to be pretty middle-of-the-pack as far as bullpen usage goes, and they’ve certainly been much more effective than even many less-used bullpens.

What about individual players?  Not much to worry about here either.  Tyler Thornburg is on pace to throw 100 innings; Thornburg tossed 130 last year between Nashville and Milwaukee (and was great in his final starts for the Brewers).  Will Smith (6 IP) is on pace for 88 innings.  Smith pitched 89 minor-league innings and 89 major-league innings in as a starter 2012, and a total of 122 innings between levels last year.  Henderson (4.1 IP)  is on pace for 60 innings and pitched 60 in 2013.  The one guy who is even remotely worrisome is the closer, K-Rod (6 IP), and he’s simply had more work lately because, well, the Brewers are winning lots of games.  That’ll even out over time.  In essence, this is a bullpen that can handle a bigger workload.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of arms, either.  The Brewers haven’t even used Wei-Chung Wang, a lefthanded Rule 5 pick from the Pirates.  And *here’s the news* Brandon Kinzler has landed on the DL with a rotator cuff strain, and Rob Wooten has taken his place.  It sounds like Kintzler’s injury is relatively minor but lingering since spring training.  At least we won’t have to worry about him racking up more innings, I guess.

Although people complain about the starting rotation’s failure to pitch deep into games, it seems to me they’re doing exactly what they need to be at this stage of the season.  Here’s the number of innings each starter has pitched in every game during the win steak: 5.2, 5, 6.2, 5, 6, 6, 7, 6.   I can’t see much wrong with that in early April.

Stan Kyles falls on the sword

by Nathan Petrashek

Well, not exactly.  Kyles was euphemistically “dismissed” by Doug Melvin today after four years as bullpen coach, but he seemed pretty at peace with the decision:

“They had to do something.  It had gotten to the point where those [relievers], it’s in their heads now that they’re really scuffling with confidence. I completely understood Doug and Gord bringing me in. I have a feeling that this is not what they wanted to do. But it’s something that they had to do, and I absolutely understand it.”

ImageWell, that should really turn things around.

If you think Stan Kyles was responsible for the bullpen’s collective 4.80 ERA (3rd-worst in the majors), you should also give him credit for the bullpen’s shiny 3.32 ERA last year (6th best). So unless he has started telling guys to throw more like Tim Dillard, I find it really, really unlikely that Kyles had anything to do with the bullpen’s failures this year.

But hey, someone has to pay, right?  And since you can’t fire the players, you fire the coach.  Or so the thinking goes.

You, the fan, should be insulted.

Doug Melvin fired Stan Kyles because he thinks you’re an idiot.  He thinks that canning Kyles will show you there is accountability.  That the team is doing something to address a bullpen that can’t hold a lead to save its life.  That he is a man of action, trying as hard as he can to right the ship.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Dumping Kyles isn’t going to stop John Axford from blowing saves any more than me refusing to drive three blocks to the grocery store is going to stop the polar ice caps from melting.  It’s a minor, almost meaningless gesture.

If Melvin really wanted to address the bullpen situation, he would DFA Francisco Rodriguez.  He would take advantage of Manny Parra’s pretty good year and flip him to a team in need of a lefty reliever (plenty) instead of trying to work him into a starter role where he has already failed miserably.  He would trade or cut Jose Veras and his 1.7 WHIP (not to mention his 5.02 ERA and $2M salary).  Pretty much the last person I would look at would be the bullpen coach.

Give me some real accountability.  Not public relations.

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.

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.

Getting to know K-Rod

We now understand why Doug Melvin was so vague when asked who would close for the Brewers in the aftermath of Tuesday’s blockbuster trade for Francisco Rodriguez.  According to Ron Roenicke, who intends to sit down with both K-Rod and current closer John Axford today, “I think there are going to be times that both of them are used in that setup role.  We’ll just see how that goes. I know [K-Rod] really wants to play for a winner — that’s big on his mind.”

I can’t say I’m a big fan of a closer-by-committee arrangement here.  Since blowing the save on opening day, John Axford has been stellar.  If he has one Achilles’ heel, it’s that he allows too many guys to reach base (1.36 WHIP), many via the walk (3.7 BB/9).  But Rodriguez isn’t any better in that regard (1.41 WHIP), and Axford is also striking out slightly more batters.  Axford also has better velocity; his fastball regularly sits in the 95-96 range, while the velocity on Rodriguez’s fastball has annually decreased and now clocks in at just 90-91.

I thought it might be helpful to see just what else our new part-time closer is working with.  K-Rod is throwing his fastball about 60% of the time, the highest amount for years where pitch f/x data is available, despite the fact that it it slightly below average (-1.3 runs above average per 100 fastballs).  Rodriguez also has a plus curve that falls in at about 77 mph, but his real filth pitch is his changeup, which he throws about 15% of the time and is regularly clocked at 82-83.  K-Rod will throw an occasional two-seamer with good movement in the same range as his fastball (90-91).

Although K-Rod has been good this year, his best stuff might still be ahead of him.  He’s been somewhat unlucky with a .342 batting average on balls in play, the highest of his career in any season where he’s pitched more than 50 innings (actually, K-Rod’s BABIP has never hit .300 before).  His expected ERA (2.98), which adjusts ERA for defense, is slightly better than his traditional ERA (3.16), though his traditional ERA could rise with the Brewers’ porous defense behind him.  K-Rod’s fastball may be losing velocity, but he’s adjusted by inducing more ground balls than ever before (51.7%), while his percentages of line drives (14.2%) and fly balls (34.2%) are at career lows.  That should play well at Miller Park.

Of course, we’re still not sure in what situation Rodriguez will be utilizing his stuff.  Roenicke is on record as supporting defined roles for his bullpen,* which makes his decision to use both Rodriguez and Axford in save situations all the more surprising.  The fact that Roenicke is unwilling to assign a role to the Brewers’ new acquisition is somewhat troubling, but it may have to do with his prior relationship with K-Rod as a coach for the Angels.  Roenicke provided this scouting report, which may help explain his thinking:

“He’s a gamer.  The tighter the game is, the more he wants the ball, which is really nice. You’re not always going to have clean innings with him, but he always makes the big pitch when he needs to.”

*Kam Loe in the eighth, anyone?

EDIT: Lest anyone misconstrue this post, there is still no way that the Brewers will allow K-Rod to finish 21 games and vest that whopping $17.5 M option for 2012.  So we know he isn’t going to close all that much, but why use him in that role at all when Axford has been so good?  Not unless Axford is injured or unavailable, I say.