There’s no other way to say it: the Brewers’ starting pitching was dismal to start the year. They routinely failed to eat innings, and at the end of April they had the 7th worst ERA (5.14) of any starting rotation in baseball.
Some of these struggles were due to the performances of individual players. Corbin Burnes, after being a lock-down reliever during the Brewers’ playoff run in 2018, failed to acclimate back to a starting role, posting a 10.70 ERA in 4 starts and allowing a gargantuan 1.285 OPS to opposing batters. Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff encountered troubles of their own, with Peralta’s first inning problems resurfacing and Woodruff always seeming to be one bad inning away from a good start. Compounding the rotation’s issues was Jhoulys Chacin looking like a completely different pitcher than the one who anchored the Crew’s staff into October, recording a 5.24 ERA in April.
However, the turn of the calendar brought a rotation that has performed a complete 180-degree turn. Since May 1st, the Brewers starters rank 2nd in the league in ERA (2.53) while holding opponents to a .681 OPS and allowing only 8 home runs in just over 84 innings pitched. Limiting the long ball has been a huge factor, as the rotation allowed 1.83 home runs per nine innings (HR/9) in April. Thus far in May, they have dropped that to 0.85 HR/9.
Individually, the Brewers have received some stellar performances to aid this turnaround. Gio Gonzalez has been phenomenal since his acquisition, covering 21 and 1/3 innings while posting a 1.69 ERA. Zach Davies is in a battle for the best ERA in the league, and has only helped his case with a 1.80 ERA in the month of May. Brandon Woodruff has seemingly turned a corner, giving the Crew four solid starts leading to a 1.44 ERA, including an 8-inning, 2-run gem that helped the Brewers take the series finale from the Atlanta Braves on Sunday. Finally, Jhoulys Chacin has started to looked like his 2018 self, recording a 3.38 ERA in three May starts.
While successful personnel adjustments like the insertion of Gio Gonzalez and Chase Anderson into the rotation are part of the reason for this turnaround, a more simple reason may also be contributing their current success: the Brewers aren’t playing the bulk of their games against offensive juggernauts anymore like they were in April. Over the first month of the season (March included), 23 of the Brewers’ 31 games were against teams with top-10 offenses when measured by weighted runs created plus (wRC+). Playing the Dodgers and Cardinals a combined 17 times is expected to be tough on your pitching staff, so it makes sense that they experienced difficulties that could easily have been exacerbated by some start of the season rust.
Going forward, the Brewers’ rotation will be an interesting situation to say the least. The Brewers currently have six healthy starters in Anderson, Chacin, Davies, Gonzalez, Woodruff, and Peralta, with the first five of that sequence having their starting roles locked down. However, Jimmy Nelson is nearing the end of his rehab program, meaning that he could be a potential seventh starting option that the Brewers need to find a place for. Given the rotation’s current success, it is difficult to predict how Craig Counsell and the front office will shuffle the group to make room for Nelson, who when he is “right” is the closest thing the Brewers have to a true ace.
One move that is almost certain to result with a Nelson return would be Freddy Peralta either moving to the bullpen or being optioned to Triple-A San Antonio. He is simply too volatile at the moment to warrant a starting role over the other options available. Triple-A would be a good environment for him to continue to hone his command of his pitches, as he has proven that he can be dominant when he is able to locate his pitches.
As far as Nelson, the Brewers could clear up the logjam by using him in a “piggyback” role with another starter. Counsell rarely allows Chase Anderson or Gio Gonzalez to face a lineup a third time through, which often limits them to starts of under six innings. If Counsell wanted to really eliminate the potential for any damage from either of those starters facing a lineup multiple times through, he could combine four innings of Gonzalez/Anderson with three from Jimmy Nelson, effectively giving them seven innings of rotation-caliber pitching. This would be a way to ease Nelson back into things while also playing on the strengths of the staff.
The other options for Nelson are to simply insert into a starting role at the expense of a current rotation member, convert him to a true bullpen pitcher (as compared to a “piggyback” role), or keep him in the minor leagues as a starter. Of these three options, both the bullpen and the minor leagues seem highly unlikely, as the Brewers have stretched him out to starter-level innings and he is simply too talented to revert to a bullpen role. Insertion into the starting rotation is possible, but once again would require the Brewers to determine a new role for one of their five currently successful starters.
Regardless, things are looking up for the Brewers rotation. Despite an early-season panic regarding their viability as a group, it looks like David Stearns has managed to put together a staff that can keep the Brewers in the pennant race and hopefully lead them to their postseason aspirations.