It’s no secret that the Milwaukee Brewers have one of the best, if not the best bullpen in the major leagues.
It’s also becoming clear that having a great bullpen isn’t always enough to win games. Starting pitching and offense have been lacking during the Brewers’ recent slide. After establishing some distance ahead of the NL Central’s top competitors earlier in the season, the Brewers now find themselves just half a game above the red-hot Chicago Cubs.
Headlined by Josh Hader, who leads all relievers in strikeouts by a margin of 17, the Brewers’ bullpen has transcended from above average to dominant. Milwaukee’s relief team currently leads the majors with a seemingly unsustainable 2.61 ERA. Brewers relievers also rank first in the National League in strikeouts, largely thanks to Hader, and are second in opponent batting average.
Jeremy Jeffress has been lights out as the team’s most reliable right-hander with an ERA of 0.59, best in the NL among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched. It has been quite the journey for Jeffress, who at 30 years old is now on his third stint with the Brewers organization.
Living in the shadow of the flashy Hader has translated to less attention for Jeffress, who is having one of the best seasons of any reliever in baseball. The combination of Jeffress and Hader has made it difficult for teams to fight back against the Brewers, and has given them a welcome sense of security at the end of games. The bullpen runs deep with Matt Albers, Taylor Williams, and Jacob Barnes all sporting ERA’s under 3.00.
However, the starting rotation is failing to pull their weight, and manager Craig Counsell has liberally utilized his bullpen so far this season. The starters have an average ERA of 4.17, putting them at ninth in the National League.
Jhoulys Chacin and Junior Guerra have been great, but Brent Suter, Chase Anderson (who was expected to be the ace this season), and Zach Davies have been complete liabilities to start games. Suter has managed to win five games despite not having a single quality start all season, and Davies has posted a 5.23 ERA and is currently on the DL.
The offense has also been lackluster recently, eclipsing three runs in just two of their last eight games. The Brewers were 3-5 in that stretch, which included a series loss to the Chicago White Sox, the worst team in baseball at the time.
Even the bullpen is beginning to show signs of weakness. Jeffress gave up a home run against the Cardinals, ending his streak of 23 scoreless appearances, and Albers allowed back-to-back homers to the White Sox in their second win over the Brewers.
Counsell has every reason to give his bullpen more innings, as they’ve been a huge catalyst for winning games. However, in doing so he risks tiring them out and limiting their effectiveness as the season progresses. If the starters can go for a few more innings each game, and the offense heats up again, the Brewers will be in a great position to build back up to a large division lead.