Baseball fans hear it every year: bats win you games in April and bullpens win you games in October.
Unfortuantely for the Brewers, bullpens have not helped the cause of winning games in April, either.
Currently, the Brewers bullpen sports a 4.65 ERA, which going into today was good for 17th in the league. While the Brewers certainly do not want to be at that spot at the end of the year, the improvement of the bullpen from the beginning of the year (5.73 through the first two series) has dramatically improved and has stepped up in big situations and succeeded. If you want to take out David Riske’s inning while playing with an injury that might require Tommy John surgery and Jorge Julio’s stats (mop-up duty), the Brewers bullpen sports a very solid 3.65 ERA that would rank 10th in the league. Alas, Riske and Julio count in the statbook but let’s take a look at each member of the pen and see how they have faired 15 games into the season by rank.
1. Mark Difelice, 8.0 IP, 1.13 ERA, 10.13 K/9
It was a tough decision to put Difelice or Todd Coffey here, but I went with Difelice because I think he has been more consistent and, outside of the Mets game, has been put in tougher situations. Difelice is finally getting his chance to shine in the pros and is making the most of it. Last year, in 19 innings, DiFelice sported a 2.84 ERA and struck out 20 batters. This year, he has picked up right where he left off and in seven appearances has allowed a run in just one of them. Manager Ken Macha has made DiFelice the first reliever out of the bullpen and should continue to keep that role as long as he keeps pitching this way.
2. Todd Coffey, 10.2 IP, 0.84 ERA, 1.13 WHIP
Coffey could have easily been in the top spot and is more like 1.b, but regardless, he has pitched outstanding this year. General Manager Doug Melvin was excited when Coffey went on waivers last year, and he has not disappointed. The highlight for Coffey, and maybe even the bullpen, was when Coffey relieved Mark DiFelice in the 7th inning of a game against New York. The bases were loaded with one out and Carlos Delgado was at the plate, with the Mets down by one. Coffey fielded a tough grounder and started a 1-2-3 double play that got the Brewers out of the jam and then proceeded to finish the eighth and ninth innings to pick up the save. He also dropped down a sacrifice bunt in that game that scored an insurance run for the Brewers in the ninth inning. His signature sprint to the mound is funny to watch, but once he hits the mound it’s all business.
3. Mitch Stetter, 4.1 IP, 4.15 ERA, lefties batting 1-10 against him
With the exception of R.J. Swindle, who has pitched just once, Stetter is the only left-hander in the Brewers bullpen and has done an outstanding job against left-handers. With lefties batting just .100 against him, he has become a great specialist, just like Brian Shouse was last year. The four walks in 4.3 innings might be a problem, especially if he is asked to get a lefty out, but if he is able to keep his control, then he will continue to succeed. The good news is that he is already in the record book for serving up Gary Sheffield’s 500th home run. Righties are batting .500 against him (4-8).
4. Seth McClung, 8.2 IP, 5.19 ERA, 8 K
As it has been for most Brewers pitchers this year, McClung’s control has struggled and because of it, his ERA is up. McClung was pegged as a starter before the addition of Braden Looper but has since become the long reliever of the bullpen. Half of his appearances have had him go more than an inning, but he has walked a batter in all six of those appearances. After giving up a run in his first three games, he has since settled down and gone scoreless in two of his last three. He will important all year for the Brewers as a spot starter, just as he was last year.
5. Carlos Villanueva, 8.0 IP, 6.75 ERA, one win
Villanueva was thrown into the closer’s role when Trevor Hoffman went down at the end of spring training and it has clearly messed with him a little. With two losses and a blown save on the year , no one will be happier to see Hoffman back than Villanueva. He has settled down some with two straight scoreless outings, both non-save situations. Once Hoffman is back, which could be as soon as Sunday, Villanueva will go back to middle relief, where he will fare much better than the closer position. Interestingly enough, all of Villanueva’s allowed runs have come at Miller Park.
6. R.J. Swindle, 1.1 IP, 6.75 ERA, 2 K
Swindle was activated when David Riske went to the 15-day DL and should go back down when Trevor Hoffman is ready to return. Swindle added another left arm to the Brewers bullpen and saw his first appearance in the blowout loss to the Phillies, where he surrendered a run in 1.1 inning. Swindle is someone to look for when the rosters move to 40, as he posted a 3.17 ERA in his first 13 outing in the Venuezlean Winter League.
7. Jorge Julio, 5.0 IP, 10.80 ERA, 3 K
Julio came on board this off-season with not a whole lot of positives on his resume and certainly has not added to it this year. Before the collapse against Philadelphia (0.2 IP, 4 ER), his ERA was a reasonable 4.18, but I am starting to think that the blowups in Philadelphia are more of what we are going to see down the line. If he can stay healthy, he will no doubt give the Brewers innings, but will he give them good innings?
8. David Riske, 1 IP, 18.00 ERA, o K
Unfortuanetly, there is a rumor out there that Riske might need Tommy John surgery and would obviously miss the rest of the season. Despite his poor outings in spring training, Riske was still a reliable arm and one of the better pitchers in the Brewers bullpen. He will try to rehab it but time will tell if he is able to get back on the mound this year.
INC. Trevor Hoffman
Hoffman should return this week from an oblique strain, and it can not come soon enough for the Brewers. Hoffman coming back will give the Brewers a true closer, move Villanueva back to middle relief, and provide confidence in the bullpen—something that has been lacking all year.
The Brewers have gone up against arguably the three best offenses in the National League in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia so that is a reason for the struggle in the bullpen. Still, I look for continued improvement as the season goes on, the pen gets into a rhythm, and Hoffman comes back.