In 2018, the Brewers’ bullpen was a model of success. They carried five high-leverage arms in Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, Corbin Burnes, and Joakim Soria, giving them numerous combinations with which to finish off games. The surplus of talent led to the Crew ending the year with the fourth-best bullpen in baseball measured by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), while finishing fifth-best in ERA and fourth-best in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), the latter being a metric used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness independent of his defense.
The bullpen was expected to be a strength once again this year at the outset of spring training, with Hader, Jeffress, and Knebel forming a trio that arguably was unmatched throughout the league.
Then, the injury bug hit, with Knebel undergoing Tommy John surgery and Jeffress experiencing shoulder issues that sapped the zip on his fastball. Knebel was lost for the year, while Jeffress has spent the first three weeks of the season on the injured-list.
What was left on Opening Day was a largely unproven bullpen with only Hader remaining from the high-leverage group that made last year’s Brewers so elite. In their place were uninspiring options like converted starters Chase Anderson and Junior Guerra, so-so relievers from last year Jacob Barnes and Taylor Williams, off-season acquisitions Alex Claudio and Alex Wilson, and a name most Brewers’ fans would have preferred to not have heard again: Matt Albers.
Through the first three weeks of the season, the bullpen looks to be just what we expected from this group: shaky and relatively unreliable compared to 2018, but also capable of shutting down opponents when everything is clicking.
Nowhere has this been more evident than the two series against the Angels and Dodgers. In Game 2 of the Angels series, the Brewers clawed their way back from a 6-0 first inning deficit to take an 8-7 lead. After Matt Albers allowed a run to tie the game, Alex Wilson walked in a run after intentionally walking the bases full, allowing the Angels to regain the lead. This was followed by Jake Petricka giving up two runs in the bottom of the eighth, effectively putting the game out of reach for the Brewers.
The bullpen followed this up with stellar performances against the Dodgers. In the three-game set, they threw 12 and 1/3 innings of relief while allowing only one run. This is especially impressive given the elite offense the Dodgers currently boast, led by NL-home run leader Cody Bellinger. As a team, the Dodgers are hitting .277/.365/.509. Read that slash line again. On average, the Dodgers are hitting like an all-star. Given that the bullpen contained them to only one run over an entire series, it is clear they have the potential to be a shut-down group.
Statistically, this year’s Brewers are struggling to match last year’s in terms of elite bullpen effectiveness. While they rank 10th in WAR, they are a more pedestrian 16th in ERA and 16th in FIP, making them roughly a league-average bullpen.
In addition, the value of the bullpen is carried disproportionately by one player: Josh Hader. This makes them very vulnerable when he is not available. Given that Hader’s individual WAR is 0.7 and the WAR of the Brewers’ bullpen as a whole is 0.7, Hader has single-handedly carried the unit from being replacement-level to league-average.
“League-average” may be an issue for this team, especially given they have playoff and potentially World Series aspirations. In 2018, the Brewers made up for their lack of high-level starting pitching with their elite bullpen. Thus far in 2019, the Brewers appear to have similar rotation shortcomings, but do not have the bullpen firepower to completely alleviate them. Over the course of the season, you would expect the high bullpen usage necessitated by an inconsistent rotation to wear them down, which could turn into a larger issue than last year given this year’s bullpen’s mediocrity.
Despite the negativity I am spewing above, this bullpen does have chances to improve. Jeremy Jeffress has returned from injury, and if he can perform similarly to his 2018 self, the bullpen will surely gain effectiveness. The Brewers also have a pair of Triple-A starters in Zack Brown and Adrian Houser that they could insert into the bullpen if needed, as they did last year with Corbin Burnes. Finally, David Stearns has made the necessary moves to bolster the roster at the deadline each of the last two seasons, as he has acquired a high-leverage reliever during each of the last two seasons (Anthony Swarzak in 2017, Joakim Soria in 2018). Expect him to make a similar acquisition this year to shore the group up if needed.