Milwaukee’s Bullpen Is Shocking and Effective

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers always seem to have a good bullpen. They have an anchor at the top – either Josh Hader or Devin Williams – and a smattering of other arms behind them that complement what the team is doing. Historically, they’ve used those bullpen arms to back up the weaker members of their rotation as needed, while getting big chunks of innings from their top starters.

In 2024, things have gone differently – but not in the way you’d expect. Hader is gone. Williams is hurt. Abner Uribe, who began the season in a high leverage role, is in Triple-A after a disastrous start. Joel Payamps, who got some save opportunities after Uribe faltered, has been demoted to middle relief work. Naturally, Milwaukee has the fifth-best bullpen in baseball by WAR, the second-best by RA9-WAR, and the best by win probability added. They’ve thrown the most innings in baseball, to boot.

Even stranger, this might be their best bullpen unit in a while. You probably think of the Brewers as having a perennial top five relief corps without looking into the numbers. I know I did. But here are their finishes in a variety of metrics over the past five years:

Milwaukee Bullpen Ranks by Year

2019 11 16 13 18 6
2020 7 10 7 11 7
2021 16 13 18 14 5
2022 19 14 20 17 16
2023 12 1 9 2 1
2024 5 2 16 6 1

Other than 2022, these are good finishes, especially in WPA. And despite some high-profile blowups – again, the guy who got the save in their first game of the season is now in the minors – they’re outdoing them more or less across the board. A deeper investigation is in order.

One thing that Milwaukee used to count on was dominant performances from high-velocity, high-strikeout relievers. I have good news on that front: They’re still counting on it. Their new closer, Trevor Megill, sits 98-99 and tops out above 100 mph. He’s purely fastball/breaking ball, but they’re both elite pitches. Pitch modeling grades? Stuff+ gives them a 141 and 176 where 100 is average, respectively, and PitchingBot has them at 70 and 69 on the 20-80 scale. Actual effectiveness? His fastball misses bats at an elite rate and has racked up nearly two runs per 100 pitches of excess value, while his slider/curveball (it’s some combination of the two) is garnering swinging strikes on 30.2% of pitches.

In other words, nothing looks fluky here. It’s not like Megill is completely out of nowhere, either; he compiled a 3.63 ERA, 2.13 FIP, and 3.14 xFIP for Milwaukee last year. He’s striking out a third of the batters he faces and walking almost no one. Maybe he won’t keep this form up forever – reliever performance is volatile and Megill is on the back side of the aging curve – but this is hardly a smoke and mirrors situation. He’s top 10 in strikeout rate among relievers who have thrown 50 or more innings since the start of 2023. He’s top five in K-BB%, second in FIP, top five in SIERA; look, I could quote a bunch of names of things, but the point is that he’s been nothing short of spectacular.

His chief lieutenants don’t have the same eye-popping stuff that makes Megill’s status seem so secure. Bryan Hudson is the current setup man, and he’s everything that Megill is not. He lives in the lower 90s and makes a living mixing and matching fastballs, cutters, and sliders. His fastball mostly works via deception. At 6-foot-8, he’s throwing from an unconventional angle. To be more specific, it’s an unconventionally low angle:

That odd release point – it’s one of the most extreme first-base-side releases in the majors, even with Hudson starting in the middle of the rubber – gives hitters fits. He also gets a good deal of rise despite the sidearm release, which is how he’s missing bats despite uninspiring velocity. Both of his secondaries – a sweeping slider and a tight cutter – play off that arm slot.

Elvis Peguero, who also handles high leverage situations for the Crew, is nothing like either Megill or Hudson. He throws his slider more than half the time and batters still can’t figure it out. He walks a ton of batters and strikes out fewer than you’d expect for a slider-first reliever, but his slider has consistently generated weak contact. If you’re a nervous fingernail chewer, Peguero will have you gnawing away, but he gets the job done more often than not.

Hudson, Megill, and Peguero are on the Brewers thanks to logjams elsewhere. The Dodgers ran into a 40-man roster crunch this offseason, and Hudson was designated for assignment when Yoshinobu Yamamoto officially signed his deal. That crunch was the Brewers’ cue to step in; they traded a 20th-round pick from this past year’s draft for Hudson, who had put up solid numbers in the minors but hadn’t yet translated it to major league success.

Trades like that don’t always work out, but smart teams make many of them and count on at least a few hitting. Megill joined the Brewers on a similar deal; they acquired him in exchange for a player to be named later after the Twins DFA’ed him last April. Peguero, another setup option performing exceedingly well this year, was a throw-in when the Brewers traded Hunter Renfroe to the Angels before the 2023 season. Payamps was a minor piece in the William Contreras/Sean Murphy/Esteury Ruiz trade.

Another way the Brewers go about finding effective relievers: minor free agency contracts. Jared Koenig and Enoli Paredes have both been lights out in middle relief; they both joined the Brewers on minor league free agent deals this offseason. Both had plenty to recommend them – both got picked in the annual Effectively Wild minor league free agent draft that attempts to predict which minor league free agents will accrue the most playing time. But they were both inconsistent enough that they were minor league free agents in the first place. Easton McGee, Sam Carlson, and Rob Zastryzny all signed minor league deals with the Brewers too. So did Austin Nola and Christian Arroyo. None of those players have contributed to this year’s run. It’s not like Milwaukee knew exactly who would click; they just gave themselves plenty of bites at the apple.

Amazingly, not a single reliever on the current active roster started his career in Milwaukee. Four arrived by trade. Two arrived this offseason on minor league deals. Hoby Milner signed a minor league deal in 2020 and has compiled a mid-3.00s ERA, FIP, and xFIP since then. Elieser Hernández signed this month after the Dodgers DFA’ed him to open up space for Evan Phillips on the roster.

The back end of major league bullpens is never stationary. I’d be surprised if Hernández is there at the end of the year. Surely, one of the minor league free agents or end-of-roster trade acquisitions will hit a rough patch and either get sent to the minors or outright released. But Milwaukee’s plan acknowledges that variance and tries to manage it with sheer numbers. The Brewers are clearly better than average at finding pitchers with potential, and they lean into it by making tons of similar acquisitions. It’s an inspired design.

Another benefit of that plan: The Brewers haven’t put a ton of monetary or prospect resources into assembling their bullpen. When they signed free agents this offseason, they focused on offense and starters. When they traded Corbin Burnes, they got an infielder and a starter in return (though DL Hall certainly has reliever risk). That’s how you should act if you have a reliever machine. The Brewers are pairing good pitching acquisition and development with good strategic sense, and that’s a winning strategy.

It’ll only get more winning when Williams returns. In truth, I think that Milwaukee has gotten fortunate so far when it comes to run prevention. They planned on having Williams to anchor the relievers, and they have a long history of using one dominant reliever to make the rest of the unit look good. He’s due back around the end of July, and that should bolster the bullpen in the standard reliever waterfall way: Megill can slide back to a setup role, Hudson can more frequently chase matchups or provide bulk innings, and so on.

All in all, I’m extremely impressed by what the Brewers have done this year, and their bullpen planning is a key part of what I like. Through a variety of low-cost channels, they brought in a ton of options and built an entire relief corps out of them. They’ve covered a ton of innings, necessary given the frailty of their rotation. They’ll welcome back their best player in a month. Things are looking up in Milwaukee – and their clever team construction is a big part of why.

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