There is lots of talk about whether or not the Milwaukee Brewers are correctly utilizing their bullpen. Some suggest the Los Angeles Dodgers’ approach in the NLCS is correct. The better question is: is either approach wrong?
For as much success as the Milwaukee Brewers have had this season, the way national media outlets nitpick every decision manager Craig Counsell makes would suggest the team is mediocre. Pregame hosts always question whether or not Milwaukee’s bullpen is overworked on a nightly basis. Adding onto that, they always question why Counsell pulls the plug on his starters so early.
It seems as if the world thinks the Brewers’ pitching approach is incorrect, especially when compared to the Dodgers’ approach. Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts gets praise for how he allows hurlers like Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Hyun-jin Ryu to work deep into games and work themselves out of trouble. This is viewed as prudent, as it saves the team’s bullpen arms for another day when they may be more needed.
Across the airwaves, this is the basis of a debate: Which pitching approach is correct? My answer: Both are correct! It simply depends on team context.
Brewers: “Bullpenning” Pitching Approach
For anyone who’s watched the Milwaukee Brewers all season, the way Counsell is managing is nothing new. The Brewers’ no. 1 pitcher Jhoulys Chacin has never pitched more than seven innings in a start all season, and he only did that four times. What was the result? He posted his lowest ERA since 2013 (only including seasons in which he pitched at least 100 innings) and the best WHIP of his career.
Wade Miley is another good example of the Brewers’ approach working well. The southpaw started the season late due to an injury, but when he returned, he finished the season with a career-best 2.57 ERA and his best WHIP since 2012. How did Counsell use him this season? Miley only pitched seven or more innings twice this season. This isn’t a coincidence.
There’s a lot of data suggesting pitchers struggle when they face a lineup for the third time in a game. Plus, when you have a deep stable of relievers like Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel at your disposal, why wouldn’t you turn to them earlier? All three of those relievers, along with Joakim Soria, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Xavier Cedeno have proven to be more than capable out of the bullpen this season. It’s no secret that the bullpen is Milwaukee’s strength. When all of your relievers are able to cover multiple innings as well, it simply makes sense to utilize the relief corps more than an average team.
Dodgers: Starter-Heavy Pitching Approach
As mentioned in a recent NLCS matchup piece, the Los Angeles Dodgers have a strong starting rotation. Kershaw has been injured a bit this season, but he’s still one of the league’s true aces. Outside of their ace, they also have Ryu, Buehler, Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and Ross Stripling…simply put, Los Angeles has more starters than they know what to do with.
This makes their situation much different than Milwaukee’s. When a team has starters like Kershaw, they can manage in a way that allows them to control the game themselves.
Beside that, no one in the Dodgers’ bullpen (outside of Kenley Jansen) is really of the same caliber as the Brewers’ top arms. When a team has as many excellent starters as Los Angeles without as stellar of a bullpen as Milwaukee, it makes sense that Roberts leaves his starters in longer and leans on them more.
Long story short, both managers know their teams well. They understand how much rest everyone needs to succeed, and they know how to bring the best out of everyone.
Just look at their records: the Milwaukee Brewers finished with 96 wins, good for the best record in the National League. The Dodgers weren’t too shabby either, finishing the regular season with 92 victories and an NL West division championship. Looking at this, I think it’s safe to say that both pitching approaches work. We need to stop debating which one is better and appreciate that it completely depends on the individual team. Both Counsell and Roberts know what they’re doing, and what they’re doing works very well.