MILWAUKEE – The bullpenning thing might be great.
It got a $100-million team (that’s very low) to this point, and it’s given the Brewers a chance to win it all for the first time in their history.
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But it is fair to wonder: Is there an expiration date on the grand experiment, and have we hit it?
That vaunted Brewers bullpen — the heart and soul and strength of their team — finally suffered a meltdown in Game 2 of the NLCS, as the Dodgers evened a series with a 4-3 victory that changed the complexion of the match up.
The Milwaukee relievers have been fantastic and they are the biggest key to the team’s amazing success. But they have shown signs of weakness the first two games of this series, and more to the point, wasted starter Wade Miley’s brilliant performance and blew a game they led 3-0. At this point we have to ask: are they a victim of their own success?
Wade Miley, 88mph Cutter and 77mph Curveball, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/OSQ0bvZLHJ— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 13, 2018
In Milwaukee’s 12-game winning streak, which ended in Game 2, the Brewers used 72 pitchers, or six per game. That’s a lot for a lot of wins, and a lot of blowout wins at that. And if you think about it, that’s an amazing number of pitching changes for a team where everything was going not only well but close to perfectly.
It’s a wonderful ride, and it’s an interesting strategy. But it's showing its wear and tear.
Through two games, the Dodgers have barely touched the Brewers starters who are on very short leashes, but — excepting superstar Josh Hader and maybe one or two others — the Dodgers have handled the Brewers' vaunted relievers.
As one Dodgers person, speaking of the team's handling of the Brewers vaunted bullpen compared to the rotation so far, whispered afterward, "Would anyone have guessed it would go this way?"
Maybe the relievers really are starting to show their wear. Or maybe, as one rival exec put it, it's really only Hader (who was unavailable in Game 2) who "scares you." Though to be far, Jeffress and Cory Knebel have been pretty dominant over stretches this year.
We know the whole idea has its detractors.
“This bullpen (spit) isn’t going to last in a seven-game series,” one scout texted during the game.
The bullpenning debate is getting heated, with scouts generally on one side (the anti side) and analytics guys on the other. To see the first sign of a dent brought cheers in the scout quarters.
“It breaks my heart,” one scout-first exec said sarcastically.
The debate is far from over, and so is this series. It remains to be seen whether the bullpenning strategy can win over seven games, not only once but twice.
It's also fair to wonder how it affects the psyche of the starters, who are sometimes bit players in the scheme. And perhaps more importantly, how it affects the relievers the following year.
There's a lot to recommend it based on the Brewers' performance, and really outperformance (at $100 million, they are the only team remaining with a payroll below $170 million). In truth, the Brewers need to take a bow for so many great decisions, and some important acquisitions that have turned them into a power.
But there's a lot to think about when it comes to the bullpenning strategy, too.
It probably makes the most sense for a small-market team that can't afford top-of-the-line starters, and for a team that is loaded in the bullpen. But can it carry anyone to a World Series title? That remains to be seen.
It’s fair to say it helped carry the Brewers past the Cubs in the best division in the National League, and helped overwhelm a nice Rockies team in the NLDS. But now that the Brewers relievers have made all these appearances, and thrown all these innings, there’s significant curiosity over whether they can continue to thrive in a long series against a big-market team stacked with power hitters.
Jeremy Jeffress, who rose to become an All-Star out of the Brewers bullpen, may be flat out of gas. One inning after extricating himself from a bases-loaded jam by getting Yasmani Grandal, who’s having a series to forget, to ground into a double play, Jeffress allowed the game-winning two-run home run to frequent October hero Justin Turner in the eighth inning.
Corbin Burnes, the rookie star of the Brewers group, also is showing a couple cracks. He allowed the first two runs by giving up back-to-back hits to Manny Machado and Cody Bellinger after starting the eighth inning with a walk to Max Muncy. And Xavier Cedeno, just added to the roster to beef up the relief corps, failed to retire the only batter he faced.
The Brewers bullpen has been excellent top to bottom but it’s pretty clear at this point that the most vital guy is the lefty gunslinger Josh Hader, who was given the day off after a three-inning performance in Game 1. The Brewers planned for Game 1 starter Gio Gonzalez to go only two innings. But that meant seven more innings for a well-used bullpen and some added concern.
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Things appeared to be working out great when Miley came up huge, throwing 5 2/3 innings of two-hit ball (Miley actually matched the two hits with a single and double himself as Brewers pitchers continue to rake; Brandon Woodruff’s bomb of a homer off Clayton Kershaw was game changing). But despite throwing a brilliant game, Miley was lifted after allowing a two-out single to Chris Taylor in the sixth inning.
A Dodgers person said they wouldn't have minded Gonzalez staying around longer than two innings. But even the Dodgers, who were at the forefront of the big bullpen last year and are as cognizant as anyone about starters going three times through the order, hinted they were thrilled to see Miley be pulled.
Milwaukee’s numbers crunchers say they don’t like to have their starter go three times around the order, and Taylor was batting a third time — though two earlier strikeouts by Miley against Taylor probably caused them to stick with Miley for an extra batter. But a traditional team likely would have kept going with Miley, who has yet to allow an earned run in the postseason.
Miley left 3 2/3 innings for the bullpen, and if it had pitched the way it has through the streak, it would have been no problem. But it did not.
And it’s fair to ask now: Are they nearing the end of the line with this grand experiment?
Jon Heyman is Fancred's baseball insider. He publishes his weekly Inside Baseball column each Thursday on the App and FancredSports.com. You can download the App here and interact with Jon by following him right here.