Each year it becomes seemingly inevitable that the Milwaukee Brewers will call up a young pitcher to the bullpen or rely heavily upon a veteran who will end up having a career season. In some seasons, both instances can occur.
A few recent examples include Brad Boxberger, Hunter Strickland, Aaron Ashby, J.P. Feyereisen, Drew Pomeranz, Jordan Lyles, and even Devin Williams’ sudden ascension that came out of nowhere fits this bill.
One player that I want to focus in on is Jake Cousins. Cousins was a standout rookie last season who pitched to a 2.70 ERA over 30 innings pitched. He began 2021 with the Biloxi Shuckers and was promoted to Nashville after just eight appearances. In Nashville, he performed even better and earned a big league promotion. On June 21st, he made his MLB debut against the Colorado Rockies.
Once in the majors, he did not allow an earned run in his first 17 games. With the back end of the bullpen pretty much set in stone, a vast majority of his appearances came in low leverage situations. Additionally, two separate IL stints in the second half of the season prevented him from logging more innings.
Despite the IL stints, Cousins’ success in year one has him set up to be a big part of the bullpen in 2022. He should have his sights set on earning a role in more high leverage spots and serving as a bridge to Williams and Hader.
With so much success in year one, the biggest question is how Jake Cousins will perform for the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen in year two?
When looking at this question, I first started with his biggest strength, which is his slider. 61 percent of his pitches thrown were sliders and batters struggled mightily to hit it. Batters whiffed 51.9 percent of the time on his slider and of his 44 strikeouts, 35 came off of that pitch. He allowed just one extra base hit off his slider all season.
As you might expect, this led to a high strikeout rate of 35.2%. This is not quite as high as Devin Williams 38.2% or Josh Hader’s 45.5%, but still puts him in the category of a high strikeout pitcher. His ability to generate outs via the strikeout with his sinker/slider combo will be important to his success going forward.
Now that we have established that Cousins falls into the category of strikeout pitcher, what happens when he doesn’t get a strikeout?
Let’s look at what happens when the ball is hit on the ground, beginning with the metric FIP.
FIP is an estimator that removes results that pitchers do not have control over, so essentially balls that are hit into the field of play. In general, if a pitcher surrenders a high average of hits on balls in play then his FIP will be lower than his actual ERA.
For Cousins, his FIP (3.84) was higher than his ERA (2.70). This largely due to the fact that opposing players had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .236 last season. With his ground ball percentage being 47.4% it is very important that his BABIP be low.
According to the ZiPS projections, Cousins will have a .286 BABIP in 2022. As a result, his projected ERA (3.27) and FIP (3.42) get closer together. A lot of factors go into BABIP and FIP, but the fact of the matter is that those will be numbers to monitor closely this upcoming season. Preferably, based on his 2021 trends we would like to again see a low BABIP and higher FIP.
Next let’s take a look at what happens when the ball is hit in the air off Jake Cousins.
One thing working tremendously in Cousins’ favor is his ability to limit fly balls and keep the ball in the ball park. 36% of baseballs put in play against Cousins in 2021 were fly balls, with just three of them going for home runs.
From an advanced analytics standpoint, this can be further observed by looking at xFIP. The ERA estimator xFIP essentially replaces how many home runs a pitcher allowed with how many they should have allowed given their fly ball percentage to league average home run to fly ball percentage.
When looking at Cousins’ numbers, he had a 2.70 actual ERA in 2021 with a higher xFIP at 3.77. His xFIP was way higher because his fly ball and fly ball to home run percentage was a lot lower than league average. This essentially means that Cousins did an excellent job at keeping the baseball in the ballpark when batters did hit fly balls. ZiPS does not give an estimated xFIP, but they do project an uptick in HR/9 from .90 to 1.02 in 2022.
In summary, Jake Cousins had some surreal numbers in 2021, mainly speaking of his low BABIP and xFIP/limiting home runs. ZiPS does project some regression in both of these categories, but he is still expected to have a great season out of the Brewers bullpen.
Let’s hope that he is able to build upon his success during year one with the Crew. The Brewers have a great staff to help him with this and hopefully Cousins will continue to be a focal point of the bullpen for years to come.