LOS ANGELES — Closers. Openers. Setup men. Left-handed one-out guys. Relief pitching seems to have become as specialized as the positions in a Presidential Cabinet.
But the Milwaukee Brewers built one of the major leagues’ best bullpens by disregarding specific roles.
“The best way to describe our bullpen is to be ready each and every day, no matter what — no limits,” said right-hander Jeremy Jeffress, an All-Star in his third stint with the Brewers. “We pitch anytime, anywhere, anybody. It doesn’t matter whose name is being called. We’re just willing to take the ball and get our job done.”
Jeffress entered the post-season with an 8-1 record, 15 saves and a 1.29 ERA. Yet he is just one point on a three-pronged spear that collectively pierced opponents’ cumulative batting averages to less than .200.
Left-hander Josh Hader joined Jeffress on the National League’s All-Star team this year before finishing with 12 saves, a 6-1 record and a 2.43 ERA. Right-hander Corey Knebel, an All-Star last year with 39 saves, led Milwaukee with 16 while going 4-3 with a 3.58 ERA.
“There’s no set roles,” Hader said. “All these guys don’t care what inning it is. They don’t care what the situation is. Their main goal is to get outs and compete. One of the things that’s helped us is that there’s no expectations that we put on ourselves. The only expectation is to compete, attack the zone and get outs.”
That mandate devastated opponents. Hader amassed 143 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings while forcing batters to hit just .132 against him. Opponents managed only a .182 average against Jeffress, who collected 89 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings. Knebel contributed 88 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings and held batters to a .194 average.
“Our bullpen has been huge,” left-hander Wade Miley said. “They come in and they pretty much shut the game down. It reminds me of Atlanta a couple of years ago, with (Craig) Kimbrel and (Eric) O’Flaherty. When they had a lead in the sixth inning, the game was pretty much wiped out. I think about that all the time and our bullpen is on that level, if not better.”
For the Brewers, shutting the game down ultimately means reducing the number of times the bat meets the ball — if not eliminating them altogether.
“In a broad scope, we want guys who can get outs,” general manager David Stearns said. “That’s the key. At the top level of it is, ‘Who can get outs most efficiently?’ As you break it down, it gets down to, ‘How are they generating outs?’ You can do that in a variety of different ways. You try to construct a bullpen with a variety of different approaches and different skill sets.”
“At the back end of games with relievers, there is a little bit more of an emphasis on swing-and-miss. Getting guys who can generate some swing-and-miss allows them to get out of some sticker situations. We’ve been fortunate that we have multiple guys back there who generate a lot of swing and miss.”
Manager Craig Counsell succinctly summarized that approach.
“Strikeouts are the easiest thing to point to,” Counsell said. “It takes the luck out of the game. It’s hard to score when you strike out a lot.”
Complementing the three main relievers are veteran Joakim Soria and rookie Corbin Burnes, both right-handers. Soria, 34, served as the closer for the White Sox and led that team with 16 saves before being traded July 26 to Milwaukee, where he now pitches mostly in middle relief. Burnes, another middle reliever, became the first Brewers pitcher to earn a save in his major-league debut since 1980 by pitching two perfect innings July 10 against the Miami Marlins. The 23-year-old Burnes would win all seven of his decisions, compile a 2.61 ERA and limit opponents to a .199 average.
“What impresses me about their bullpen is just the arm strength, the consistency, the way they attack hitters and how they’re used,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Craig does a really nice job of really matching their guys up.”
Creating favorable matchups while maintaining fluidity means balancing each reliever’s need for rest and recuperation.
“Our whole bullpen looks for ways to prepare and to make sure that we can bounce back each and every day, and be consistent in who we are,” Jeffress said. “It goes deep into nutrition, to the way we work out, and just the recovery we have each and every day.”
Counsell used Hader as an example of trying to maintain that equilibrium. In his 55 appearances, Hader pitched at least two innings 23 times, accounting for 48 1/3 innings.
“Early in the season, he was on a 100-inning pace and I don’t think that was sustainable,” Counsell said. “When you’re pitching in multiple innings, the innings add up real fast. But you’ve got to keep it structured so that you have (relievers) for the long haul. Part of being effective is having rest. A day off does wonders for these bullpen guys. That’s part of what creates their effectiveness.”
Rest is so vital role for the Brewers’ relievers that it supersedes the advanced statistical analysis becoming commonplace.
“Personally, I don’t focus too much on that,” Hader said about metrics. “Ultimately, I think that if I stick to my strengths and pitch the way I know how to pitch, then at the end of the day, it’s going to be my benefit. Obviously, we have scouting reports on what guys are hot in what part of the zone and vice versa. But at the end of the day, my best pitch is going to help me more than trying to throw my third-best pitch at somebody who might not be able to hit that.”
Hader and his fellow relievers achieved similar success despite different personalities.
“J.J. makes sure that when he gets on the mound, he is 100-percent completely focused,” Stearns said about Jeffress. “There’s almost an anger to him on the mound that he’s able to direct in a constructive manner as a pitcher. Josh is really just a very laid-back guy. When he gets on the mound, he’s able to stay relaxed. He throws harder when he’s relaxed. That’s the way he manages the pressure of a game situation.
“Corey has really evolved as a late-game reliever. He’s pitched in some enormously high-pressure games for us in the last couple of years. He understands how to slow his heart rate down, understands when he needs to walk around the mound, understands when he needs to take a deep breath. He just has so much confidence in his stuff, right now, that he has the belief that he’s going to execute.”
So what is the best strategy against such effective relievers?
“I think the easiest approach,” the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor said, “is just to try to keep it simple and not try to get big off of them — almost play pepper, try to put a ball in play, not try do too much with it.”
Teammate Max Muncy believes increased familiarity brings expanded opportunity.
“Now that you’re seeing them once, twice, three times, now — some of their guys we’ve seen four or five times, now — you know what their pitches are going to do,” Muncy said. “You know how their fastball moves, how their slider moves, that kind of stuff. You feel more comfortable.”
“That doesn’t make it any easier, though. They’re still elite guys who make really good pitches.”