Player Profiles 2020: Milwaukee Brewers Bullpen

Alex Roche's analysis of the 2020 Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

These profiles will also be featured as an eBook exclusively for those signed up for PL+.

Over the past several years the Brewers’ bullpen has carried the mediocre starting pitching staff into the playoffs. In 2018, Brewers relievers touted the 4th highest WAR across the MLB behind the Yankees, Padres, and Astros. The bullpen took a slight step back in 2019 finishing as the 10th best relief staff by WAR. The slide in performance can primarily be attributed to injuries to 2017 all-star Corey Knebel and 2018 all-star Jeremy Jeffress. A lethal combination of Josh Hader, some emerging young guns and converted starters could help the Brewers regain a spot as a top-5 bullpen in 2020.

 

Milwaukee Brewers Bullpen

 

Closer Josh Hader

 

Where do I begin with this guy? If you’re reading this article, you know that Josh Hader needs no introduction. The 25-year-old, two-time all-star logged 37 saves in 2019 which tied him for 3rd most in the MLB behind league leader Kirby Yates (41) and Roberto Osuna (38). His 138 strikeouts lead all relievers leaving second-place finisher Liam Hendriks a whole 16 strikeouts behind at 122. In his young career, the lefty has pitched to the tune of a 2.42 ERA and 0.85 WHIP over three seasons. During this time period, Hader ranks second among MLB relievers with a 5.9 WAR (trailing Felipe Vazquez, 6.5) and whopping 15.35 K/9 (trailing Dellin Betances, 15.38). Last year Hader fell into the Brewers’ closing role when former all-star closer Corey Knebel missed the season with Tommy John surgery.  This news immediately made Hader the most desirable relief pitcher from a fantasy baseball perspective. 2019 was a stellar year for Hader finishing in the top 100th percentile in strikeout rate (48%) and xBA (.155) and 99th percentile in xwOBA (.232). Hader’s pitch mix includes a four-seamer (80% usage), slider (19%) and sinker/two-seamer (1%). He is especially deadly towards lefties but boasts staggering numbers when tossing to either side of the plate. There really aren’t enough good things to say about the guy, he is an all-around stud.

 

2019 Splits

 

Several weeks ago rumors began swirling regarding a possible trade involving Josh Hader being moved to the New York Yankees. The Yankees were “aggressively” pursuing the lefty but such discussions seem to have subsided. In a world where that transaction occurs, obviously this is the wrong bullpen piece for Hader to be a part of and he’d likely lose his save opportunities. Hader is currently in salary negotiations with his club and there is a possibility that trade talks again pick up following his arbitration hearing but reports are saying it is most likely that Hader begins the year with the Brew Crew.

So are there any concerns? It is tough to nitpick the consensus top reliever in the MLB but, there are small blemishes. Hader tied for the 5th most home runs allowed by a relief pitcher in 2019 (15). Any pitcher allowing a high fly ball rate in 2019 was punished with elevated home run numbers as a result of the juiced baseball. Hader allowed a fly ball rate of 55% which ranked 4th highest among qualified relievers and was up from 48% in 2018. Naturally, Hader was the victim of would-be warning track fly balls finding their way to the stands. A home run to fly ball rate of 21.4% was up from 14.5% in 2018 and just 15.7% for his career. It is yet to be seen which baseballs the MLB will roll out in 2019 but that will be important for Hader’s home run prevention. Nevertheless, such a minor flaw shouldn’t change the fact that Hader looks to repeat as one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball for 2020 on a team poised for the playoffs and ample save opportunities.

 

Setup Brent Suter

 

The 30-year-old Brent Suter is a former starter that shined in a relief role in 2019. Suter was another example of the injury bug running rampant in Milwaukee when he underwent Tommy John surgery in August 2018. It was originally estimated that the 6 foot 5 lefty would miss the entire 2019 campaign but a solid rehab effort enabled a September 2019 return. While Suter only tossed 18.1 innings in his abbreviated 2019 campaign, he was more than effective and even won the 2019 September NL reliever of the month award. RosterResource currently has Suter setting up save opportunities for his fellow lefty Hader. It is not uncommon for starters to move to the bullpen and find more success when they get to throw their best stuff for short bursts rather than pacing across 100 pitches. Clearly Suter found more comfort last year.

 

Transition into a reliever

 

While already 30 years of age, Suter is entering just his fifth MLB season. Last year, the soft tosser added a mile-per-hour to his fastball, up to 87.5 mph (still bottom 2nd percentile in the MLB). This velocity level is far from jaw-dropping but the point is that Suter was throwing only 84 mph back in 2016, so he has demonstrated improvement. Despite the lack of speed, Suter’s fastball allowed merely a .120 batting average and .240 SLG in the short 2019 sample. Suter’s not able to blow batters away at the plate but he allows an elite level 20% hard-hit rate and 82 mph average exit velocity. Another noticeable change in 2019 was the pitch mix. Suter reduced his repertoire down to four pitches from five. He dropped his slider and instead upped his usage of the four-seamer and changeup to 74.2% and 18.5% in 2019 from 67.4% and 12.9% respectively in 2018. While Suter is coming off of 2018 Tommy John surgery and only pitched an 18 inning sample in 2019, there are reasons to believe he can continue to be effective in 2020 as a reliever. While I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect another ERA and WHIP sub 1.0, a 3.5-4 ERA and 1.1-1.25 WHIP with a low strikeout rate is probably in store for 2020. In an era with 100 mph flamethrowers everywhere, Suter certainly isn’t the sexy pick but he should put up solid ratios. Suter will probably accumulate a handful of holds in April and May while Knebel remains sidelined. In the event of an injury or Hader trade, Suter probably won’t take the closer role. Corey Knebel seems more likely to grab those save chances.

 

Setup Corey Knebel

 

The 2017 all-star Corey Knebel missed the entirety of last season by undergoing Tommy John surgery in April. Obviously there are a lot of question marks with Knebel coming off of a serious injury but we have seen more and more pitchers (including teammate Brent Suter) return from TJ and continue to perform. As a refresher, here is how Knebel looked in his last two seasons of action:

 

Knebel’s track record

 

So, Knebel didn’t pitch in 2019 and took a step back in 2018 from a dominant 2017. What can we expect in 2020? Tough question. Knebel is on track to return to action in May 2020 when I assume he will be eased back into the setup role. Steamer projection system is forecasting 2020 to be slightly down from the 2018 campaign, highlighted with a 3.53 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 12.34 K/9. As a two-pitch pitcher, there is elevated risk if Knebel loses effectiveness on either one of his offerings. Knebel’s fastball velocity will be important to monitor as he typically averages around 97 mph and boasts 94th percentile spin rate. It wouldn’t be surprising for Knebel to have to regain velocity and potentially struggle as he doesn’t have a diverse pitch offering to lean on. All this being said, Knebel won’t be back until at least May and he can mostly be out of sight out of mind until then. Upon his return, check how his velocity is able to recover. But IF Hader is traded, Knebel has demonstrated an ability to pitch at a high level in the ninth inning and will be a must grab as a potentially elite closer on a 90 win team.

 

Middle Freddy Peralta

 

It has been a roller coaster beginning to Freddy Peralta‘s young career. Then 21-year-old Peralta entered the league as a starter and in his first appearance, Peralta stormed into Coors Field and tossed 5.2 scoreless frames while only allowing a single hit and striking out 13 Rockies. By the end of his sixth MLB start, Peralta was 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA (2.15 FIP) and 12.3 K/9. Peralta mania was running rampant as a potential breakout star. Peralta finished his rookie season with a modest 4.25 ERA, yet a solid 3.72 FIP and 1.14 WHIP. The wheels fell off the wagon for Peralta as a starter in 2019 as he ended up being moved to the bullpen permanently in mid-June. As a reliever, Peralta was often used in multi-inning appearances often racking up 3-4 strikeouts per outing. This will probably best-case scenario for 2020. Peralta’s fastball gained 3 mph in 2019 up to 93.6 mph which he had a 78% usage rate.

Most of Peralta’s struggles stem from keeping runners off base (fairly important for an effective pitcher). A 10% walk rate combined with .254 batting average against equated to a rough 1.46 WHIP in 2019. That being said, the walk rate was improved from the 12.5% mark in 2018. Peralta can be wild from the mound and will need to harness his command to reach his potential. The youngster will probably continue making gains in 2020 as he is still only 23 but I wouldn’t expect any save opportunities. There is always the chance that he performs well in the bullpen and gets moved back to an impactful starter role or could be sent down to the minors if he were to struggle.

 

Middle Alex Claudio

 

Like Suter, Alex Claudio is another soft-tosser specializing in soft contact. The sinker specialist offers a four-pitch mix with heavy sinker (43.9%) and changeup (35.7%) usage. It is puzzling from an outside perspective why the sinker is used so much. See below for the effectiveness of Claudio’s mix:

 

2019 pitch mix

 

The sinker seems to be the least effective of the group. This is speculative but you have to imagine if this pitch mix were to change next year and favor the slider, that perhaps Claudio has a real opportunity for gains. At only 16.5%, Claudio’s strikeout rate is far below league average. But again, his ability to keep batters off-balance resulted in an 84.8 mph average exit velocity which ranked top 2% of eligible pitchers last year. There is potential here for Claudio to reduce sinker reliance and really improve from his 4.06 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 2019, but that is a big IF. The more realistic outlook for 2020 would be another K/9 sub 7 and an ERA and WHIP in the 4-4.5 and 1.3-1.4 range respectively. He can be forgotten about for fantasy.

 

Middle Corbin Burnes

 

The former highly regarded prospect was smashed in 2019 during his second big league season. Corbin Burnes allowed an 8.82 ERA and 1.84 WHIP across 49 innings last season. The 49 innings were split between 17.2 IP across four starts and the remaining 31.1 coming from the pen. Burnes was crushed by the juiced baseball allowing 3.12 HR/9. This was the third-worst rate across the MLB when considering both starters and relief pitchers. The issue was not even the fly ball rate. Burnes induced a solid rate of 45% ground balls but his historical 38.6% home run to fly ball rate was the worst in the MLB across all qualified pitchers. The second-highest rate was Jared Hughes down at 28.9%…yikes. Juiced baseballs or not, this rate will regress significantly in 2019 and hopefully land closer to his 12.9% home run to fly ball rate from 2018.

With all that being said, there are some positives for Burnes. Prospect growth is not linear. At only 25, there is time left for development. For starters, I don’t expect Burnes’ left on base rate to remain at the 57% level. While it won’t revert back to the 85% rate of 2018, it should settle somewhere around 70% for the 2020 campaign. Additionally, despite the ERA close to 9, peripheral metrics such as a 3.37 xFIP and 3.55 SIERA are right around to the 3.77 and 3.49 marks in his 2018 season when Burnes flashed a 2.61 ERA across 38 frames in relief. Burnes throws his fastball consistently over 95 mph and ranked in the 100th percentile for fastball spin rate in 2019. His curve spin was in the 92nd percentile and his nasty stuff resulted in a 30% strikeout rate. I expect a strong improvement for Burnes. 2019 looked more like a fluky season than anything with an astronomical home run rate and allowing nearly half the runners on base to score. While Burnes will likely be a middle reliever without much upside for 2020, he has the potential to break out and return as a starter at some point in his career and continue on the path he was poised for as a top 50 prospect in the league.

 

Deep Cuts

 

Ray Black: The summary for Ray Black is that the guy throws cheddar. His fastball received an 80 grade on his prospect report and he shoved it at an average velocity over 98 mph last year. While 29 years-old, Black only has 39.1 major league innings under his belt. Last year Black pitcher for both the Giants and Brewers and put up a 5.06 ERA with a 1.44 WHIP and 10.13 K/9. While he hasn’t shown anything special through age 29, anyone who can consistently touch the upper 90’s with his fastball warrants some attention. Steamer is bullish on Black for 2020 projecting a 3.87 ERA and 1.26 WHIP across 60 innings. All of these marks would be career-best for Black but don’t sleep on the guy.

Deolis Guerra: The Brewers signed Deolis Guerra (while also from Venezuela is not related to Junior Guerra) to a one-year deal back in October. The 6 foot 5, 245 pound 30-year-old looks to assume a long relief role in 2020 for the Brew Crew. Deolis touts a three-pitch mix consisting of a changeup, four-seamer, and slider. After spending all of 2018 in the Rangers’ minor league system, Guerra only threw 0.2 innings of professional ball in 2019. There’s not much to see here. I am not even sure if innings are guaranteed for Guerra in 2020.

 

In Summary

 

While still a top third bullpen in the league in 2019, the Brew crew took a slight step back. Expect them to repeat as a top 10 bullpen in 2020 and potentially again crack the top 5 with continued dominance from Josh Hader, the return of Corey Knebel, ol’ reliable Suter and Claudio and potential breakouts in young guns Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes. From a fantasy perspective, Josh Hader remains the best closer in the MLB providing elite strikeouts, saves, and ratios. As it stands right now, he is expected to remain on the Brewers for 2020, but a trade is possible. The only other arm in the Brewers’ pen to beware of is Corey Knebel who is the most likely to slide into the closing job if Hader were shipped off and once he returns from injury around May.

Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Alexander Roche

Alex studied at James Madison University and works in finance. You can find him writing about baseball on PitcherList.com and sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. Twitter @alexroche_

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