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The Brewers bullpen is a force to be reckoned with in the NLCS

This postseason MLB teams have used relief pitchers more and more, and of the four teams still alive no one has been more aggressive with their bullpen than the Milwaukee Brewers, who open the National League Championship Series on Friday night.

So far this October relievers have pitched 48.1% of the innings, up from 46.8% in 2017. That’s a contrast from the 2018 regular season, when bullpens occupied 40% of all major league innings.

Brewers relievers during the NLDS pitched 54.8% of their innings. That included six innings from the pen in Game 1, when Brandon Woodruff started what was a essentially a bullpen game with three scoreless innings. Nothing shows more confidence in your relievers than opening a playoff series with a bullpen game.

“Largely, we’re trying to get away from what the word starter and reliever means, and that’s how we’re going to get through the postseason, I think,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said on the eve of the NLDS. “Every one of the guys we’re adding is going to pitch significant innings in the series, and that’s what — I think that’s what allows us to consider different ways to get to 27 outs.”

However they split up the innings, it worked. Milwaukee pitched 28 innings against the Rockies in the NLDS, and 27 of those innings were scoreless. The Brewers in the NLCS won’t be facing a bad Colorado lineup, but rather a Dodgers team that led the NL in several offensive categories, including runs and home runs.

The Brewers used their bullpen a lot during the regular season, with their 614 relief innings second-most in the National League. Only the Padres pitched more relief innings, but San Diego is a bad team with ineffective starters. Milwaukee though had a serviceable rotation, with a 3.92 ERA that ranked in the middle of the pack in the majors.

Against Colorado, the Brewers used a traditional starter for the other two games, with Jhoulys Chacin lasting five innings in Game 2 and Wade Miley going 4⅔ innings in Game 3. Neither pitcher allowed a run, but had limited exposure to the Rockies lineup a third time through. Chacin faced 21 batters in his start, and Miley faced only 18, pulled one out shy of qualifying for a victory.

“He got through their lineup two times very effectively,” Counsell said of Miley.

Brewers starters during the regular season saw batters hit .264/.335/.432 against them the third time through the order, compared to .227/.302/.386 the first two times through. Only the Rays and Angels had their starters face a lineup a third time through in few plate appearances than Milwaukee.

It helps that the Brewers bullpen ranked third in the majors and first in the National League in strikeout rate (27.6%), fifth in MLB in ERA (3.47) and fourth in FIP (3.57).

Milwaukee used four different relievers in all three games of their three-game sweep of Colorado, and Josh Hader, Jeremy Jefress, Joakim Soria and Corey Knebel combined for 17 strikeouts and three walks in 11⅓ innings with a 1.59 ERA.

Soria was acquired in July, but the other three were heavily used all season by the Brewers. Here are their season stats, including Soria’s time with Chicago.

Brewers bullpen stalwarts

Pitcher ERA FIP K rate OPS against
Pitcher ERA FIP K rate OPS against
Josh Hader 2.43 (18th) 2.23 (7th) 46.7% (1st) .484 (4th)
Joakim Soria 3.12 (53rd) 2.44 (12th) 29.4% (33rd) .619 (43rd)
Jeremy Jeffress 1.29 (2nd) 2.78 (26th) 29.8% (31st) .530 (11th)
Corey Knebel 3.58 (79th) 3.03 (39th) 39.5% (5th) .659 (70th)

Ranks among 147 pitchers with 50+ relief inningsSource: FanGraphs & Baseball-Reference

Those four relievers faced the Dodgers for 12 innings this season and allowed just one run, while striking out 15.

Rookie right-hander Corbin Burnes tacked on four scoreless innings in the NLDS, striking out five while allowing only one hit. During the season he posted a 2.61 ERA in 38 innings, and opposing batters hit just .199/.272/.324 against him.

But among those oft-used top four, none posted a strikeout rate lower than 29% during the season. The major league average for relievers was 23.2% this season.

“You have an opportunity to be lucky when the ball goes in play. And the strikeout eliminates luck,” Counsell said. “And in a very offensive ballpark like [Miller Park], the strikeout obviously — a fly ball in this park or in another park is a home run, and that’s part of it. There’s home runs given up here that are routine outs in other ball parks.

“The strikeout does take away some of that, and that’s what you’ve seen a vast majority of major league bullpens be good at, the good bullpens. They’re good at strikeouts because it does eliminate a lot of that. It is a strength of our guys, and I would say especially of Corey and Josh.”

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