The Milwaukee Brewers head to Coors Field with a 2-0 lead in the Division Series. The National League Central champions are riding a wave at the moment, having caught the Cubs in the latter days of September, pipped their rivals in game 163 and seen off Colorado in two games at Miller Park.
Milwaukee’s starting rotation looked like it would hold the team back. Despite decent outfield production in 2017, the Brewers added Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain in the offseason. They then suffered injuries to starters, with Jimmy Nelson missing the entire campaign.
Milwaukee went on to 96 regular seasons games. They added line-up depth at the trade deadline in Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop, but still had a rotation that, on paper at least, was inferior to other contenders.
The rotation did enough. Three starters pitched over 140 innings and they all kept them in games. With Yelich and Cain playing at MVP level, that was often all they needed.
What makes Milwaukee different from the rest, though, is their bullpen. Josh Hader was a highly regarded prospect, but this year he became an Andrew Miller-esque super reliever. Corey Knebel struggled early on, but he was almost unhittable after returning from the minor leagues. Jeremy Jeffress dominated with his splitter and Xavier Cedeno was solid after arriving from the White Sox.
Meanwhile, this Milwaukee bullpen might be the best in the game right now.
— Zachary "Doom" Rymer (@zachrymer) October 4, 2018
Milwaukee’s bullpen was second in the National League in FIP. Only the Yankees and Astros had a higher strikeouts per nine than the Brewers. Perhaps most crucially in the postseason, they had the best left-on-base percentage of any remaining National League team, and the third best in the league overall.
Joakim Soria joined the bullpen dominance on Friday. He got a couple of crucial outs as Milwaukee’s relievers stranded runner after runner. In part, this was down to the Rockies’ offensive weakness, but credit should go to the army of nasty-stuff relievers Craig Counsell has at his disposal.
Jeffress blew a save in Game One. That didn’t seem to make the slightest of differences for Game Two, with the righty throwing two impressive innings to claim a six-out save. Knebel came into the game earlier than usual, but that’s playoff baseball and he didn’t make a difference to him as he cruised through an inning.
Colorado’s hitters were nowhere near making solid contact for the most part, with just one batted ball with a hit probability over 75% in four innings.
The story was much the same in Game One. Even when Jeffress blew his save, he could count himself as unfortunate. Only Gerardo Parra’s ninth-inning single (78%) had a hit probability over 40%.
It's time for Hader pic.twitter.com/ivO6Ob0Kg5
— Franchise Sports 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@FranchiseSprts) October 5, 2018
The biggest concern for Counsell with his relievers is probably fatigue. With no starter likely to give him seven or eight innings, Hader, Jeffress and Knebel are being asked to throw a lot, and often having to pitch in multiple innings. That pattern will continue as long as Milwaukee are in the playoffs.
Bud Black’s decision to hit with Matt Holliday in an unfavourable platoon to avoid Hader entering the game shows the power Counsell has over his managerial counterparts, however. Much like Miller in 2016, opponents are scared of Hader, and who can blame them.
World Series bound?
Although Hader’s historically good regular season means he gets star billing, he obviously cannot do it alone. It’s the bullpen unit that makes Milwaukee such a frightening proposition. The starting pitchers are under much less pressure when Counsell can shorten the game with his relievers. If the starter can throw four or five innings for two or three runs, Milwaukee are in the game and, in all likelihood, will only need four or five runs to win.
Assuming the standards stay the same, and the main pieces stay healthy, Milwaukee’s bullpen makes them genuine World Series contenders.