State of the Milwaukee Brewers' Rotation: History Says No Playoffs

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State of the Milwaukee Brewers' Rotation: History Says No Playoffs
We have all heard the old adage that defense wins championships. In baseball, this same saying holds true but in terms of pitching, not actual defense.


This year, the Milwaukee Brewers have struggled with starting pitching and, despite being in first place, could be in trouble down the stretch. 59 games into the season, the Brewers’ starting pitchers have averaged 5.7 innings per start, which ranks in the lower half of the major leagues this year.

The ace by process of elimination, Yovani Gallardo, has been holding down the fort for the Brewers’ pitching staff. Coming into the year, the 23-year-old was expected to make fans forget about last year’s dominant one-two punch of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets.

While he has put up excellent numbers, no one has forgotten CC. Taking a critical approach, Gallardo throws almost 17 pitches per inning meaning that he is closing in on the century mark in just the sixth inning.

With such a young arm, pitch counts are going to be taken largely into consideration and he has come out on certain occasions (at Atlanta, vs. St. Louis) because of it. Still, he has been the best starter this year and averages 6.5 innings per start, best on the team.

The one thing people need to realize is that he is not an ace just yet, but rather a very solid number two starter. The fact that he has been thrown into the “ace” role is something he will have to deal with as he tries to push the Brewers toward the second season.

Ranking right behind Gallardo this year has been free-agent pickup Braden Looper. Regarded by most as a back of the rotation starter, Looper has picked up five wins on the year and has not missed a start.

Consistency has been an issue for Looper as he started the year 2-0, then fell to 2-2, then won two more games before splitting his last two decisions.

One never knows what they are going to get out of Looper, and he has been far from stellar all year long. With a struggling rotation, Looper is being called on more by his team and will have to manage to give good innings the whole year.

As of right now, he is averaging 5.66 innings per start and has pitched six innings or more in five of his last six starts. With a bullpen that is showing signs of tiring, the righty will need to continue the long outings.

After Looper comes the workhorse Dave Bush. Like the Brewers this year, Bush stumbled out of the gate before catching fire in the middle of the year, and is now coming back down to earth.

He had a five game stretch in the middle of the year where he walked just five batters in 32 innings, but in his last four starts (0-3), he has averaged over three free passes per game.

He has given the Brewers good innings with 6.22 per start, and saved Ken Macha’s rear with his continued start in Florida after being hit with a line drive in the first.

Jeff Suppan has not been talked about very much this season but has put together an average year. He sits at 4-4 on the year with an ERA of 4.66, which is right around the Brewers’ starting pitcher’s average. The one issue with Suppan, like the rest of the staff, is that he can not pitch deep into ball games.

At age 34, “Soup” is running on a lot of innings and just can not give the same kind of work he used to. Since he did it three times in April, he has pitched six innings or more just two times. While efficient, his starts fail to do much if the bullpen has to pitch more than three innings when he takes the hill.

Last and probably least, Manny Parra has been a perfect model of false hope. It seems that every start begins so well before he has the “blow-up” inning where nothing seems to go right. When you look at Parra, he looks like a big league pitcher and even has good stuff that he throws.

But for some reason, he can not seem to put it all together and has given the Brew Crew just 5.25 innings per start. It does not look like Parra will be moved down despite having a minor league option because there is really no other option. Relievers Seth McClung and Carlos Villanueva are both excelling in the bullpen and there is no need to switch that up.

So what, you ask, is the big deal with the starting pitching and now many innings they eat up? Well, the Brewers and their starting pitching are on pace to pitch 936.2 innings this year which would rank them 20th in the major leagues. Their team ERA for starters currently stands at 4.59, which ranks 19th among everyone.

Over the last five years, the average number of innings for a starting pitching unit on a playoff team is 971.2 innings. In 2008, six of the top ten teams in innings pitched made the playoffs. In 2007, four teams in the top ten made the second season. In 2006, three teams did, in 2005 six did, and in 2004 four teams did.

If the Brewers were to finish the season ranked 20th in the league in innings pitched and make the playoffs, they would be just the fourth team to do so in the last five years.  Last year, seven of the eight playoff teams had more than 936.2 innings (Brewers’ pace) pitched from their starters.

Only the Dodgers, with 927.2, had less.  The Dodgers also had the worst record of any playoff team at 84-78.  That Manny guy probably made it easy on the pitchers as well.

In 2007, the New York Yankees finished 22nd in innings pitched but also led the league with 968 runs scored on offense that all but offset their average pitching.

In 2006, the New York Mets finished 23rd with 918.2 innings pitched but also had the second best team ERA in the bullpen and were seventh in the league in runs scored. The Dodgers also finished 21st in innings but were tenth in the league in runs scored.

In 2005, San Diego finished 23rd in innings pitched but finished just 82-80 in one of the weakest divisions of all-time in the NL West.

In 2004, the Houston Astros finished 23rd in pitching but made the outstanding deal to obtain Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline. Beltran would go on to hit 23 home runs in 90 games with the Astros and added 11 home runs in the 2004 NL playoffs.

As seen, the four teams in the last five years that have made the second season with below “average” playoff pitching have all had special circumstances that have made up for the starters.  All the other 36 teams relied on heavy-inning starts from their rotation and made the second season because of it.

Simply put, the Brewers are going to need better and longer starts from their starting pitchers if they want to have a chance at reaching the post-season. One of the reasons teams that have their pitchers go deeper in games have so much success is because the bullpen is rested.

While the Brewers rank 15th in innings pitched from the bullpen, 11 of the 14 teams in front of Milwaukee are at or below .500.

The teams above .500 that have had more innings from the bullpen (Philadelphia, New York AL, Los Angeles NL) are all in the top seven in runs scored AND have had a significant injury/change to a starter (Yankees with Chien-Ming Wang, Dodgers with Eric Milton, Phillies changing their fifth man in the rotation).

With the Brewers, they have played all the cards in their hand and have still not seen results. They are one of three teams left in the major leagues that have used the same five pitchers in all their starts this year.

There are no excuses for Brewers pitching and why they are not able to go deep into ballgames other than maybe they just aren’t that good.

As for the bullpen, they currently sit at third in the league with a 3.31 ERA and also lead the league in saves with 20. However, with the number of innings they are pitching due to the starting pitching, production is likely to decrease as the arms become more and more tired. To rely on a bullpen that is already showing signs of tiring is extremely risky.

Their bullpen ERA has been up in June and over the last four games has been over five. It’s safe to say that the bullpen is struggling because of the innings they have to throw game in and game out.

While the Mets struggled with starting pitching and relied on a great bullpen and still made it to the playoffs, the starting unit featured an ace in Tom Glavine and two 15 game winners.

Are we to believe that a guy like Seth McClung, with a 5.31 career ERA, is going to keep a sub-3.00 mark?  Or that Todd Coffey, who has never had an ERA under 3.50 in his career, will keep his 2.76 pace? 

He has already showed signs of tiredness with two straight outings giving up runs.  Maybe they can live like the Mets did three years ago and have a fantastic bullpen all year that keeps the team in close games.  I’m not betting on it.

There’s a chance the Brewers make the playoffs even if their starting pitching does not improve, but they are making it a whole lot harder on themselves by doing so. The bullpen pitches just over three innings per game, which puts their bullpen right at the five-year average of bullpen innings for NL playoff teams (490.3 average).

The question is whether the bullpen can keep things rolling while the starters hang on for dear life. However, based on numbers it looks like a starting rotation that can pitch late into a ballgame and save the bullpen are the rotations that pitch in October. Jake Peavy averages 6.28 innings per start. Just sayin’….

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