Category Archives: Bullpen Banter

Who are the Brewers getting in Brad Miller?

Hit a pinch-hit grand slam one day. Get sent to the minors and subsequently traded the next. That’s more or less the life of a fringe MLB player, and that’s exactly what happened to Ji-Man Choi on Sunday evening when he was shipped to the Tampa Bay Rays in return for infielder Brad Miller and cash considerations.

This trade is an obvious one. With Jesus Aguilar hitting better than the likes of Nolan Arenado and Joey Votto, and Eric Thames ready to come off the disabled list in the very near future, the Brewers just didn’t have a spot for another first baseman. His signing this offseason was puzzling for that reason alone, unless David Stearns’ goal from the get-go was to use him as trade bait. If so, mission accomplished. In 32 plate appearances, Choi hit two home runs and finished his Brewers career with a 98 wRC+, and that enticed the Rays enough to send Miller — who the team had already designated for assignment — to Milwaukee.

But who exactly are the Brewers getting in Brad Miller?

The Brewers acquired Miller to play shortstop and/or second base, although the 28 year old hasn’t logged a game at short since the 2016 season, when he posted -14 defensive runs saved (DRS). According to DRS, Miller was the second-worst fielding shortstop during that year, behind only Alexei Ramirez. But Miller will have to get reacquainted with the position soon if the Brewers expect any offensive production from shortstop going forward. Defensive ace and current starting shortstop Orlando Arcia has eight walks, 39 strikeouts and a 37 wRC+. His backup, Eric Sogard, has a wRC+ of 3. Three. That means he’s been 97 percent worse than league average. In reality, he has no business being on a major-league roster right now.

And that’s where Miller comes in. He won’t impress with his batting average and he won’t get on base at a high clip, but he has power, and he’s a considerable upgrade over Arica and Sogard. And that’s all the Brewers really need. In 2016, Miller went deep 30 times, but has just 14 home runs in 581 plate appearances since. The former second round draft pick owns a career 100 wRC+, so he’s the definition of a league-average hitter, and a league-average hitter in an offense that already includes Lorenzo Cain (124 wRC+), Christian Yelich (133) and Travis Shaw (124) will be welcomed with open arms. He will make the offense better.

Miller’s defense will be tough to watch at times, but if he can make up for it at least a little with his bat, he’ll help a team that seems destined for the playoffs.

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Brandon Kintzler over Rob Wooten? That’s crazy talk

Note: I realize the Brewers made this transaction to keep fresh arms in the bullpen. But that doesn’t mean it was the right move.

After four games and six innings, the Milwaukee Brewers felt it was necessary to give up on Rob Wooten in favor of a reliever who posted a negative WAR in 2014, didn’t make the team in ’15 and was designated for assignment just three weeks ago. This paints a clear picture as to just how bad things are going in Brew Town.

Brandon Kintzler is the new arm in a bullpen that desperately needs some help. As of May 7, the Brewers’ bullpen ranks 25th in ERA (4.27), 29th in FIP (4.64) and 28th in WAR (-0.3).  They’ve given up the second-most home runs in baseball which has resulted in a 1.46 home run per nine innings ratio. The Brewers have already shown Tyler Thornburg the door, with Wooten becoming the latest victim.

But Kintzler is far from the savior the Brewers need. Milwaukee gave up on Wooten too quickly this season, a fact they’ll soon realize once Kintzler starts getting the call.

Let me be clear. Wooten has been horrendous thus far. His ERA is north of 11 and his FIP is just south of 7. He’s even been quite lucky this year. And yet here I am, trying to convince you he should’ve been given a longer leash (I mean, the guy was only allowed to get 18 outs before he was canned).

For some reason, Wooten has lost his sense of the strike zone and, in turn, has become wild. He walked just eight batters in 34.1 innings a season ago, but has already walked six this year. He actually has given up more walks than he has hits. His abundance of walks is one of the very few reasons why sending him down makes sense. It’s better for him and the Brewers if he can work out his strike-throwing issues down on the farm instead of on the big stage.

Another aspect of Wooten’s woes (what a good name for a band) is batters are no longer hitting the ball on the ground against him. His ground ball rate sits at 37.5% after 53.3% ratio in 2014, and while that’s not good news, Wooten has somehow limited batters to a .250 batting average on balls in play. This is even more fascinating considering he has allowed a 58.8% hard-hit percentage (highest among Brewers). If both the lack of ground balls and the high hard-hit rate continue, Wooten’s BABIP would obviously rise considerably. He can’t stay this lucky for long. Wooten’s not a strikeout pitcher, meaning he relies a lot on groundball outs. I can only imagine what his ERA would look like if his BABIP was higher.

So, maybe Wooten does need a little time in Triple-A to get some things sorted out, but it doesn’t change the fact that Kintzler’s still not the answer.

Kintzler has been OK for the Sky Sox this season in extremely limited action because of a DL stint (6.35 ERA and 2.42 FIP), but I don’t really care about what minor league numbers look like for a player who would be considered a veteran at the major league level. In 2012, Kintzler was a slightly above average reliever. In 2013, he was damn good. In 2014, he was the fifth-worst reliever in Major League Baseball.

To my surprise, the Brewers tendered Kintzler a contract before spring training, and then not to my surprise, optioned him to Triple-A before the season started with general manager Doug Melvin saying he needed to work on “commanding his pitches” and “getting back his sink.” Apparently, he’s done just that. Otherwise, I don’t think Kintzler would’ve gotten the call. There’s a chance that Kintzler can return to the pitcher he once was, but the odds of that are small. Either way, the Brewers bullpen stinks with or without him.

I hope Wooten can fix his control problem, because I believe he can be a useful bullpen piece. And who knows, maybe a team in need of relief help will come calling.

 

Two years, two different Brandon Kintzlers

The Milwaukee Brewers optioned Brandon Kintzler to Triple-A on Sunday, effectively clearing a spot in the bullpen. This was a somewhat surprising move, but a move that makes sense when broken down. The Brewers tendered a Kintzler a contract of $1.075 million this offseason, which makes him an expensive minor-league player. For that reason, I find it hard to believe Kintzler will spend the season riding buses. He’ll either find his groove and be called up by Milwaukee or the Brewers will find a trade partner in order to unload him.

But let’s look at why the Brewers removed him from the bullpen picture. His spring training stats weren’t favorable, but as we all know, how a player performs in spring training is completely meaningless. However, his 6.48 ERA in eight outings this spring, coupled with his underachieving 2014 season, made it apparent that Kintzler had a lost a step.

Here’s what GM Doug Melvin had to say about the right-handed reliever:

“(Kintzler) is just not showing progress you would like to see. We’re hoping to get him back to where he was but he has to go out and pitch. He just needs to keep working on his pitches and getting his ‘sink’ back. He’s a sinker-ball pitcher. He was a guy you could always count on to throw a 12-pitch inning and his pitch counts are just too high (this spring).”

In 2013, Kintzler was the best reliever in Milwaukee’s bullpen. He posted the highest WAR (1.4), FIP (2.54) and xFIP (2.93). His sinker worked wonders as he forced hitters to put the ball on the ground 57.4% of the time and posted a 13.24 RE24. Most importantly, he kept the ball in the yard. It looked like Kintzler was destined for a brilliant 2014 season.

Things didn’t go as planned, though, as Kintzler began giving up home runs, started walking hitters and saw his strikeout rate plummet (see table).

Year K%
2011 24.6%
2012 19.4%
2013 19.0%
2014 13.0%

Melvin acknowledged that Kintzler’s sinker has stopped being effective, and one of the possible culprits could be from a decrease in velocity.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

To sum up, Kintzler has been losing zip on his sinker and has been racking up fewer strikeouts for a while now. Like Melvin said, there hasn’t been much improvement for the 30 year old, and moving him to the minors was a necessary move for the club.

As of now, Kintzler’s 2013 season seems like a fluke. There’s a chance he could rediscover his sinker, but he’ll need to find velocity as well, and that’s no easy to task. This may be the last we hear from him.

Don’t sleep on Rob Wooten

Since 2013, the Milwaukee Brewers have had 17 pitchers throw at least 60 innings — Wily Peralta, Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada, Matt Garza, Mike Fiers, Jim Henderson, Tyler Thornburg, Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez, Rob Wooten, Tom Gorzelanny, Alfredo Figaro, Jimmy Nelson, Burke Badenhop, Will Smith, Donovan Hand.

Now that you have just read a long list of people who throw baseballs for a living, I want you to guess which one has the lowest Fielding Independent Pitching over that time span. Hint: Look at the title of this post.

That’s right. Rob Wooten owns a 2.87 FIP and is the only Brewers member with a FIP under three. Still, while his FIP has been excellent, his earned run average has been less than stellar (4.35), meaning Wooten has had poor defense behind him, bad luck, or is just a pitcher that will always outperform his ERA. It also could be a combination of all three. For example, if Wooten forces a ground ball that an average defensive third baseman could grab (Aramis Ramirez is not an average third baseman), the blame can’t and shouldn’t lie with Wooten, despite what the box score may say. The fact of the matter remains that Wooten has pitched better than the story his ERA tells.

Because of that, I think Wooten will be an effective reliever and maybe one of the best out of the Brewers ‘pen in 2015. I have three reasons to back up my hypothesis.

Pitches Per Plate Appearance

In 2014, pitchers threw an average of 3.80 pitches per plate appearance. Wooten, meanwhile, threw an average of 4.03 pitches. He spent too much time on each hitter and was well above league average in terms of Pit/PA. Now, strikeout pitchers — something Wooten is not —  usually throw more pitches than non-strikeout pitchers, so where are Wooten’s extra pitches coming from? Walks? Nope. Wooten walked just five percent of batters and had a K-BB% of 14.3%.

As long as Wooten keeps his walks to a limit, his Pit/PA should go down and end up closer to league average. And if that happens, more favorable results will follow.

Pitch Location

Wooten doesn’t give up home runs, has an excellent groundball rate, and rarely issues free passes, and that’s because of his pin-point accuracy. He hits the bottom of the zone more often than the New York media criticizes Alex Rodriguez. Just take a look at his zone profile.

Wooten

Wooten has thrown 1003 pitches in his career and exactly 134 of them have landed in the bottom right corner of the strike zone (catcher’s POV). There’s very little chance a hitter can do much of anything with that. More than likely, they’ll hit it into the dirt.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

Batters hit .239 when they hit a grounder in 2014. But against Wooten, they hit .293 (17 for 58). That’s a fairly high average for ground balls, which is why you can expect some regression toward the mean in ’15. The same can be said for line drives, as league average BABIP on liners was .683 while Wooten allowed a .778 average.

Overall, Wooten allowed a .380 BABIP, which was the highest average among every reliever with at least 30 innings under their belt last season. Don’t expect that to happen again.

The Brewers have a bullpen problem

The bullpen for the Milwaukee Brewers, as of now, doesn’t look so good. The team’s front office has been searching for an under-the-radar and cheap lefty to replace Zach Duke, who just happened to fit both of those descriptions in 2014, with no luck. Aside from that, the troubles that haunt Milwaukee’s bullpen are astounding.

Before the Winter Meetings kicked off, Doug Melvin stressed that adding “one or two pieces” to the bullpen was on the top of his to-do list. But the Meetings have come and gone with no additions. Why? It’s not like there were/are no options available, and don’t tell me that the free agent relievers are too expensive. Sergio Santos, a prime candidate for a bounce-back season who owns career 3.29 FIP, was just recently signed to a minor-league deal by the Dodgers. The Brewers should have been all over him (and hopefully they were). Now, there is still plenty of time to go out and make a move as it’s only January, but the longer the Brewers wait, the slimmer the pickings become. If Melvin is holding out hope on finding another diamond in the rough, he might be sorely disappointed.

There are still a plethora of serviceable relievers out there that could fit what Milwaukee is looking for. Carlos Villanueva (projected 0.3 WAR)  would be welcome sight back in Milwaukee, as would Burke Badenhop (projected 0.3 WAR). Both of those pitchers are coming off 1-win seasons and both have had success in Milwaukee in the past. Plus, Melvin has a history of bringing back former players, which is why I won’t be surprised if Tom Gorzelanny returns. I think there are greener pastures elsewhere, but the longer the Brewers go without signing a LHP, the bigger the likelihood becomes of them inking him.

You might be wondering why I’m down on the bullpen, and that’s fair. The Brewers were in the middle of the pack in terms of ERA, FIP and xFIP in 2014, so it’s not like they stunk. But they weren’t the cream of the crop either. So, if you’re okay with mediocrity, you probably haven’t agreed with a single word of what I’ve written so far. However, I hope you stick with me and let me explain just what exactly is wrong with the Brewers’ relievers.

Jonathan Broxton 

Broxton will start the season as closer for the Brewers, but even now educated fans (and non-educated fans for that matter), feel like he won’t last long in that role. Brew Crew Ball tried to settle that argument and defended Broxton, but I’m on the doubters side of the fence. Broxton’s fastball has decreased in velocity each of the last three seasons, and his strikeout rate has really taken a dive (see chart below). There is cause for worry with him.

Broxton

Will Smith

Smith is one of the few pitchers in the ‘pen that I trust. He’ll most likely setup Broxton along with Jeffress. True, he slumped a bit during the second half of ’14, but I don’t believe that should sound off any alarms. However, he might not be in the bullpen for long. If the season starts to go down the pits, the Brewers may want to see what he can do in the rotation.

Brandon Kintzler

To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised the Brewers tendered Kintzler a contract. Steamer is projecting Kintzler to finish with a 0.0 WAR next year. That means he’s the definition of a replacement player, which means the Brewers ought to be able to replace him. But yet, here he is. Kintzler posted a 4.68 FIP last season, which was by far a career high. Thankfully, that number should come down as his career FIP is only 3.63. But, Kintzler gave up an absurd 17.4% HR/FB ratio and struck out two batters fewer per nine innings than he did in 2013. He can’t be trusted.

Jeremy Jeffress

Jeffress is the second and last pitcher I completely trust out of the bullpen, and I think he’ll soon become a stud. I wrote more about him here.

Rob Wooten

Wooten has pitched in two major league seasons and has an ERA of 4.35 and a FIP of 2.87. In both seasons he’s outperformed his ERA. In 2014, he improved his K%, BB%, HR/9 and groundball rate from his rookie year. There is promise for Wooten, but his high 80’s fastball is something to keep an eye on.

Jim Henderson

Henderson is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery, so his future is murky. Will he be able to maintain his velocity when fully healed, or will injuries continue to haunt him? His health will determine his effectiveness going forward.

Tyler Thornburg

The same goes for Thornburg with his elbow. Luckily for him, Tommy John surgery wasn’t necessary, but elbow injuries are always scary and force teams to be cautious. If both Thornburg and Henderson aren’t ready for the start of the season, who do the Brewers turn to if they don’t start signing some relievers?

Jimmy Nelson

Nelson has basically no bullpen experience as 13 of his 18 MLB appearances have come as a starter. If anything, he’ll be used as a long reliever to keep his arm stretched out in case he needs to fill in for a spot start.

Now you see why I think the Brewers have a bullpen problem. They have a lot of inexperience and a lot of question marks in their bullpen. Question marks are usually never a good thing, especially when they’re related to injuries. Melvin needs to act fast and improve his bullpen, otherwise it will be chaos; chaos in the bullpen and chaos when other bloggers write post after post demanding an explanation for Melvin’s ineptness.

Should we be worried about Will Smith’s second-half slump?

For the first couple months of the 2014 season, Will Smith was one of baseball’s best arms out of the bullpen and quickly became Ron Roenicke‘s go-to-guy in high leverage situations. He struck out nearly 30% of batters he faced and boasted a 3.09 ERA in 43.2 innings. He failed to allow an earned run in May (13 IP), diced up lefties and was able to put down righties on a regular basis. His dominance made the news that Zach Duke was signing with the Chicago White Sox a little easier to hear.

But then the calendar turned to July, and Smith’s ERA grew like Pinocchio’s nose. Of the 27 total earned runs Smith allowed last season, he gave up 14 of them in July. Here’s a look at his ERA month-to-month.

Smith

Although the months of July and August clearly weren’t friendly to Smith, his peripherals didn’t change all that much, which is why we shouldn’t be worried about his second-half “slump”.

Nothing drastically changed. In the first half of the season, Smith had a 3.11 FIP. In the second half, he had a 3.45 FIP. Different, but not substantially. He actually struck out more and walked less, and his opponent’s batting average and on-base percentage were nearly identical from the first three months. Smith allowed a higher batting average on balls in play, but just by a little, and was still able to keep the ball in the yard. So what contributed to his high ERA?

The biggest problem Smith had was keeping runners from scoring once they got on base.

First half: 78.6 LOB%

Second half: 64.8 LOB%

Once Smith allowed a runner to get on, he couldn’t make them stay put.That’s because Smith almost completely stopped forcing ground balls, and as a result, balls started to take flight which meant more base hits and less outs. Take a look at this:

GB% LD% FB%
First Half 50.0% 21.8% 28.2%
Second Half 32.1% 24.5% 43.4%

It’s no wonder his ERA took a climb. He did a heck of a job conjuring ground balls and limiting balls in the air during the first half of the campaign, but completely lost his touch during the last few months of the season. A pitcher with a devastating slider, like Smith (5.1 wSL), will most likely be ineffective if he can’t get the ball on the ground. However, Smith’s second half trend of lack of grounders shouldn’t continue into 2015, as his career ground-ball rate is 42.8%. I expect it to normalize.

Smith was overused in the first half (43.2 IP) and underused in the second half (22 IP), as this was due to Roenicke’s mismanagement of the bullpen. With any luck, Roenicke will make smarter decisions on when to use Smith. A set-up man by committee might be the best option with Smith facing lefties and Jeremy Jeffress getting the ball versus righties, but regardless, there’s really no reason to worry about Smith. He finished the year with a fantastic ERA/FIP/xFIP line (3.70/3.25/3.08) and was worth 0.5 WAR as a middle innings reliever.

Take away the month in which Smith gave up 14 runs in 8.2 innings, and Smith is one of the best relievers in baseball.

Jeremy Jeffress is MLB’s next lights-out closer

Doug Melvin should be given an award or at least a major pay raise for a move he made back in April.

The Milwaukee Brewers general manager went out and signed reliever Jeremy Jeffress just a few weeks after he daringly elected his free agency from the Toronto Blue Jays. Jeffress, of course, was a first round draft pick by Milwaukee in 2006, but after multiple suspensions over marijuana use, was traded to the Kansas City Royals.

But enough with the history lesson. The point is, Jeremy Jeffress is destined to be the next big name in Major League Baseball’s bullpen.

If Francisco Rodriguez doesn’t return to the Brewers, which is likely, it’s fair to assume Jonathan Broxton will be the ninth-inning man in 2015. That gives Jeffress one more year to hone his skills before potentially being named closer. Jeffress should assume setup duties this year, a role in which he was used in from time to time last season. Jim Henderson is coming off shoulder surgery and it’s still unknown when he’ll be ready to pitch. That opens the door for Jeffress. If Jeffress can take the next step forward, 2016 will eventually be coined “The Year of Jeffress”.

Jeffress appeared in 29 games with the Brewers in 2014, and flashed a 1.88 ERA, 2.57 FIP and 2.59 xFIP. He struck out 21.9% of batters and had a phenomenal strand rate (85.9%).However, his strand rate is one of the reasons why we might see a bit of a regression from him next year; league average left on base percentage was 73.9% among relievers. But even if Jeffress does take a little backslide, there’s no reason to think it’ll be damning enough to halt his success.

As is typical with the closer position, teams covet a closer who can hit mid-to-upper 90s on the radar gun. Using a hard-throwing pitcher for just one inning makes it tough on hitters as they have no time to make adjustments. According to Brooks Baseball, Jeffress’ sinker, which he threw 345 times in 2014, averaged 97.3 mph. FanGraphs has it averaging 96.6 mph, but that’s just semantics. Either way, nobody in Milwaukee’s bullpen threw harder than Jeffress.

Batters did, however, hit .325 off Jeffress’ sinker, but only accumulated a .048 ISO against it. In other words, Jeffress allowed 23 singles but only four doubles. He needs to limit baserunners, yes, but singles aren’t going to kill him. Besides, he allowed a relatively high .321 BABIP, which should shrink somewhat next season. Another reason why this isn’t worrisome is because he forced a heck ton of ground balls (61.5 GB%), and a lot of those went through for hits meaning it was simply bad luck and/or he had poor defense behind him. The Brewers seemed to fault the defense as they fired first base coach Garth Iorg, who also served as the infield coach.

An underrated part of Jeffress’ repertoire is his curveball, which he uses to keep hitters off balance. He threw his curve 105 times in 2014 and allowed just two singles. Here’s his curveball in action, striking out Buster Posey.

Jeffress

Jeffress has the ability to be one of the game’s best closers. He gets ground balls, keeps the ball in the yard and can rack up the strikeouts with his blazing sinker or nasty curve.

The best thing about him for the Brewers right now is that he’s cheap, but if he pitches like I think he will, Jeffress will command a lot more in just a short while.