Sunday Notes: Brewers Broadcaster Jeff Levering Looks at Bullpens, Sees Value

Jeff Levering has had a bird’s-eye view of bull-penning at its best. Perched alongside Bob Uecker in the Milwaukee Brewers radio booth, he’s gotten to watch Craig Counsell adroitly shuttle relievers in and out of games, most notably since the calendar turned to October. One thing he hasn’t seen — at least not often — is starters going deep into games. Brewers starters threw just 847 innings in the regular season, the fewest among teams that advanced beyond the Wild Card round.

A few months ago I asked Levering if he could share any observations, and/or opinions, on the current state of the game. He brought up pitcher usage.

“Baseball is trending to specialization, especially with how bullpens are being constructed,” said Levering. “You’re asking starting pitchers to give you five or six innings. You don’t have many guys like Max Scherzer where you can say, ‘All right, he’s going to give us seven or eight innings today, no matter what.’”

Levering proceeded to mention last winter’s free-agent environment. Rather than being priorities, as they had been in the past, starting pitchers were almost an afterthought. Lucrative offers were neither plentiful nor quickly-coming.

“What happened, contract-wise, with guys like Alex Cobb, Jake Arrieta, and Yu Darvish — even though they got paid at the end — showed that starting pitching doesn’t have as much value in today’s game,” Levering offered. “Because of the way bullpens are being constructed, and the ability to shuffle guys up and down from the minors…. GMs have begun taking full advantage of that.”

Whether the trend is a negative or a positive is a matter of opinion. Uecker’s much-younger sidekick isn’t certain, although he does skew toward the latter. A you-kids-get-off-my-lawn broadcaster he’s not.

“I’m not saying it’s necessarily good or bad,” said Levering. “It’s just different. Maybe it is good. The money for starting pitchers will go down, and the money for relievers will go up. Leverage matters. We may eventually see guys who are in starting rotations transitioning into bullpen guys, because they’ll get paid more. If they’re valued more that way, why wouldn’t they?”

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David Price has struggled as a starter and thrived as a reliever in the postseason. With that in mind, should the Red Sox use a right-handed opener — perhaps Heath Hembree — in tonight’s ALCS Game 2, and follow with the left-handed Price? The hope is for Price to go a solid five or six, and there is no need for the first inning to be one of them. Having Hembree face George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman could work in Boston’s favor.

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After his team was swept by the Astros in the ALDS, Indians infielder/outfielder Jason Kipnis offered the following perspective on what had transpired:

They really did a fantastic job over there of being ready and prepared before the series. I don’t think we were underprepared — they just went out and executed and played the way you need to play to win.

Were the defending World Series champions better prepared than the AL Central champs, as Kipnis seemed to suggest? And more generally speaking, are some teams better at preparing for opponents than others — enough so that it’s objectively meaningful?

According to Red Sox bench coach Ron Roenicke, those are difficult questions to answer. While the answer may well be yes, a certain amount of subjectivity is involved. There is also the matter of differentiating between preparedness and execution, which in Roenicke’s view can be “pretty hard.” Well-prepared players both succeed and fail. Ditto not-as-well-prepared players.

Strategically, sometimes a team is burdened with trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. For example, data could show that an opposing team’s top hitters should be attacked a certain way, but what if the pitchers you’re relying on don’t match up well in that regard. As Roenicke put it, “It may not be exactly what you’d like to do, but it’s what your guys do best.”

As for preparing in the postseason versus preparing in the regular season… it’s different, yet much the same.

“You get more information, because you have more advance scouts out there,” related Roenicke. “But at the same time, you try to not create much difference for (the players), because there is already the added pressure, or whatever you want to call it, in the playoffs. So you want to keep it as normal as you can. You try to structure what you do, giving them information, but maybe not everything.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Lu Blue went 1 for 12 against Chief Hogsett.

Bert Blue went 1 for 5 against Bill Hogg.

Biff Pocoroba went 5 for 12 against Vida Blue.

Gates Brown went 3 for 18 against Blue Moon Odom.

Grover Gilmore went 3 for 6 against Jim Bluejacket.

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Are hitter-pitcher-matchup numbers particularly meaningful? I asked that question of A.J. Hinch following his team’s Friday afternoon workout at Fenway Park,

“They’re part of the analysis, but they’re not the entire analysis,” answered the Astros manager. “You have to be careful looking at that piece of information by itself. As an example, Collin McHugh has not-great numbers against a lot of (Red Sox) hitters, but that was pre-slider for him. He’s a completely different pitcher now. There’s a time element. How long has it been since a batter and pitcher faced each other? Has Mookie started to swing at the high pitch a little bit more, or a little bit less? Can Bogaerts stay off the pitch close to him, or can he not? You have to add context. It’s not just simple numbers.”

As for McHugh’s numbers against the Red Sox, “not so great” qualifies as an understatement. The 14 position players on Boston’s ALCS roster are a combined 50 for 123 against him, with a .407/.471/.610 slash line. Betts is 6 for 8, Bogaerts is 8 for 16.

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It is often said that hitting is all about timing, and pitching is all about upsetting timing. The latter can be done in a number of ways, and according to Indians pitching coach Carl Willis, hitters often don’t like the methods.

“I’m in the dugout, so I’ll hear hitters and hitting coaches get upset when a pitcher does certain things,” Willis told me. “Some guys will quick pitch — hitters definitely don’t like that — and other guys will lift their leg and then hang. Some do both.”

Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly recognizes the value of said practices.

“When a hitter knows a fastball is coming, say on a 3-1 count, you can throw one and still kind of mess up his timing,” opined Kelly. “You can hold the ball longer. You can come set, go. High leg kick, low leg kick. You can make your fastball come out a little different, in terms of his timing.”

Neil Walker considers Johnny Cueto one of the masters. The veteran infielder shared how the corkscrewing Giants’ righty will “Mix his leg lift and his turns, and he’s really effective doing that.”

Why don’t more pitchers vary their deliveries in such a manner? In short, it’s easier said than done.

“Some pitchers have a tough time doing it,” Willis explained. “They don’t trust that they’re going to be on time with their arm action and get to their release point. One thing a pitcher can’t afford to do is sacrifice command. You want to disrupt timing, but if you’re not locating, you’re going to have problems.”

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Quiz time:

Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga lost both a no-hitter and a perfect game on June 2, 2010 when umpire Jim Joyce erroneously called a Cleveland Indians batter safe at first base with two outs in the ninth inning. Who was the batter?

The answer can be found below the following news items.

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NEWSY STUFF

The first stage of NPB’s Japan Series got underway yesterday with the Yakult Swallows hosting the Yomiuri Giants and the Softbank Hawks hosting the Nippon Ham Fighters. Each is a best-of-three. The Hiroshima Carp and Seibu Lions, who captured the Central League and Pacific League titles respectively, will face the winners of those respective series in the next stage.

Trey Hillman won’t be returning to manage SK Wyverns in the Korean Baseball Organization next year. The former Kansas City Royals and Nippon Ham Fighters manager is reportedly leaving for family reasons.

Brad Ziegler announced his retirement on Wednesday. The 39-year-old submariner pitched in 739 games, all in relief, and finished his career with 105 saves and a 2.75 ERA. Seven of his 11 big-league seasons were spent with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Jose Santiago, one of the first natives of Puerto Rico to pitch in the big leagues, died earlier this week at age 90. Nicknamed ‘Pantalones,” Santiago debuted with the Cleveland Indians in 1954 and went on to play with the Kansas City Athletics. He was also the last Puerto Rican to play in the Negro Leagues.

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The answer to the quiz is Jason Donald. A rookie infielder playing in just his 15th big-league game, Donald was credited with a base hit on the play that turned Galarraga’s perfecto into an imperfecto.

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Red Sox manager Alex Cora offered a number of quality quotes when he met with the Boston media on Thursday. Here are a smattering of them, preceded by helpful headers:

On the negativity pervading the Boston media and fan base: “It seemed like the sky was falling after Game 2. Not too many people gave us a chance. To win 108 games at the big league level is not easy. You don’t run into 108 wins. You have to be good.”

On hitting against the shift: “We don’t like hitting ground balls. We like hitting the ball in the air.”

On postseason pressure and the idea of clutch: “There are guys who execute and there are guys who don’t. But as far as clutch, and showing up or not… I’m not a big believer in ‘He’s clutch; he’s not clutch.’ I don’t believe in that.”

On how Alex Bregman is similar to Dustin Pedroia: “Tito used to say about Pedey, ‘He will will himself to be great.’ That’s the thing with Alex. He does the same thing.”

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On Friday, Carson Cistulli listed the three MLB teams that would be relegated, and the three that would replace them, if baseball was structured the same way as English soccer. While a fun snapshot, it’s something that obviously couldn’t happen given that minor-league teams are big-league affiliates — farm clubs, if you will.

That wasn’t always the case. Minor league baseball itself predates farm clubs by decades. What might have happened had a relegation system been introduced in the nascent days of the modern era, and gone on to become firmly established as tradition?

Baseball as we know it could conceivably be quite different than it is. The Orioles, Royals, and White Sox are particularly happy that it isn’t.

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On October 13, 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the New York Yankees 10-9 to win Game 7 of an epic World Series. They did so on a walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski, a player many have called the greatest defensive second baseman of all time.

Many have also called Mazeroski an undeserving Hall of Famer. They do so largely because the now-82-year-old Pittsburgh icon slashed just .260/.299/.367 over his 17-year career. While that’s understandable, I say poppycock.

If a player is arguably the best-ever gloveman at his position — particularly a position on the top half of the defensive spectrum — and he hit one of the most-famous home runs in World Series history, he belongs in Cooperstown. Those two things alone make Mazeroski a legend.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

In the words of LA Times baseball scribe Andy McCullough, Clayton Kershaw’s NLCS Game One performance was “pocked with indignities.”

The Tigers have officially parted ways with longtime TV broadcasters Mario Impemba and Rod Allen. Lynn Henning of The Detroit News wrote about the tenuous-turned-combative relationship the duo had behind the scenes.

Reynaldo Cruz paid tribute to the late Peter Bjarkman at Universo Béisbol.

Over at Chicago Mag, Jake Malooley wrote about STATS — performance-metrics geeks who don’t want to just improve how we measure sports, they want to change how we play.

Is having a strikeout problem actually a problem for the Cardinals? Benjamin Hochman explored that question at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Shohei Ohtani played in 104 games with the Angels this year and hit 22 home runs in 326 at bats. In 2016, he played in 104 games with the Nippon Ham Fighters and hit 22 home runs in 323 at bats.

A total of eight Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers had seven-or-more wins this season. Rich Hill, with 11, was the only one in double figures.

In 1956, Dodgers right-hander Clem Labine made 47 appearances, all but one as a reliever. He threw a 10-inning complete-game shutout in Game 6 of that year’s World Series.

On October 12, 1990, the Pittsburgh Pirates used an opener against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 6 of the NLCS. Right-handed reliever Ted Power, who had earned a save in Game 1, was replaced by left-handed “starter” Zane Smith in the third inning. The Pirates lost to the Reds by a score of 2-1.

Willie Mays recorded the final hit of his 23-year career on October 14, 1973. It was a go-ahead single in the 12th inning of World Series Game 2, which the New York Mets won 10-7 over the Oakland A’s.

On this date in 1984, Kirk Gibson homered twice and drove in five runs as the Detroit Tigers defeated the San Diego Padres 8-4 to win their first World Series title since 1968.

On this date in 2003, Steve Bartman attended an NLCS game between the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins at Wrigley Field. You know the rest.

In his first big-league start, Nolan Ryan pitched one inning and allowed four runs. In his final big league start, Ryan faced six batters and didn’t retire any of them.

In August 1987, the Detroit Tigers traded 20-year-old prospect John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves for Doyle Alexander. Smoltz walked 92 and fanned 91 in 146 minor league innings that year. His ERA was 5.73.

Vin Scully made his broadcasting debut at Fenway Park, and it wasn’t to call a baseball game. On November 12, 1949, the then 21-year-old Scully did the play-by-play for a football game between the Boston University Terriers and the Maryland Terrapins.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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One small note, Brad Ziegler is written as Braz Ziegler, though the link goes to the correct player page. What a great pitcher to watch, not to often you get excited when a guy throwing in the 80s comes into a game. Always enjoy the Sunday notes David thanks.