It’s not unusual for starting rotations to experience periods of flux. Keeping five pitchers healthy and productive at the same time, over the course of a long season, can be an uphill battle.
The Milwaukee Brewers can attest to that difficulty. Over the first 44 games of the season, only one starter has taken every turn – Jhoulys Chacín, who quietly has become the most consistent member of the rotation.
As the Brewers headed to Minnesota after successful stops in Colorado and Arizona on their 10-game trip, the two pitchers expected to be anchors of the rotation – Chase Anderson and Zach Davies – were on the disabled list. Anderson is slated to return from a stomach illness Monday, but Davies still has a test or two to pass after being sidelined with rotator cuff inflammation.
Left-hander Wade Miley, who made only two starts after coming off the disabled list before going down again with an oblique strain, is expected to miss two months. Lefty Brent Suter began the season in the rotation, moved to the bullpen to accommodate Miley, then jumped back in after that injury.
Rookie righty Brandon Woodruff already has been up and down from the minors three times, squeezing in three starts and four relief appearances. Prospect Freddy Peralta got an unexpected chance to make his major-league debut Sunday in Colorado with crazy-good results, including 13 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings.
Given all that movement, it’s little wonder that the Brewers’ starting rotation has battled to find its footing. The starters’ 4.10 earned run average ranks ninth in the National League, behind most of the teams expected to be playoff contenders in 2018.
Junior Guerra, who began the season at Class AAA Colorado, has been a stabilizing influence since being recalled in the early going, putting behind him a disappointing, injury-plagued 2017 season. In seven starts, the 33-year-old right-hander has posted a 3-3 record and 3.08 ERA.
Of the seemingly constant state of flux in the rotation, manager Craig Counsell said, “Last year, in September, we were starting relievers and going for the playoffs. We’re tearing up some of the old ‘must-haves’ and ‘must-do.’
“You try to build a plan to be able to adapt to other things that are going to happen to you. We know that things are going to happen, and we’re going to have to adjust. That’s what seems to be the certainty.
“We try to be prepared for that, and organizationally, have players ready to step in. That’s something our player development has been very good at.
“It’s not that you know what’s going to go wrong, but something is going to go wrong. You need to be prepared when it does. We’ve had a couple of unsung heroes in Junior and Jhoulys Chacín.”
When Chacín was 0-1 with a 6.59 ERA over his first three starts, some wondered if the Brewers made a mistake by signing the veteran free agent to a two-year, $15.5 million contract over the winter. But he has gotten better every outing since, posting a 1.58 ERA over his last seven starts.
What got Chacín headed in the right direction? The most basic part of pitching – locating his fastball.
“The first three or four starts, my fastball command wasn’t good and they weren’t swinging at my slider,” said Chacín, who relies on that breaking ball to keep hitters from taking advantage of his below-average velocity. “My fastball command has gotten better and they swing more at my slider now.
“For some reason, I started off slow. Then I was working with D.J. (pitching coach Derek Johnson) on my pitches and my mechanics. Now, it has paid off, all the work I’ve been doing.”
In his best start of the season (seven innings, two hits, one run, seven strikeouts) in a 2-1 loss to Arizona on Tuesday night, Chacín showed hitters another weapon – his changeup. Chacín worked hard on improving his changeup in spring training but hadn’t used it much in his early outings because he couldn’t consistently locate his fastball to set it up.
“I think I threw 10 changeups,” he said. “I don’t remember the last time I threw 10 changeups in a game. It was working against the lefties they have. I’ll keep working on it. I’m just trying to go deep in games. The bullpen has been throwing a lot of innings.”
The Brewers’ stellar relief corps indeed has been heavily used in forging the team’s 26-18 record. The NL’s second-ranked bullpen (2.60 ERA) has accumulated 166 1/3 innings, fourth-most of any team in the league and the most for any team considered a legitimate contender.
The rotation has averaged just over five innings per outing, which needs to improve despite baseball becoming a bullpen game. Things should settle down when Anderson (3-1, 3.63) and Davies (2-3, 4.24) return, though both pitchers are still searching for the consistency they have displayed in the past.
Suter, who will start the series opener Friday night in Minnesota, also has yet to come close to the effectiveness he displayed last season (3-2, 3.45 ERA in 14 starts). In his seven starts, he has struggled to a 1-3 record and 5.60 ERA, having issues with big innings.
But, considering the injuries and illness that already have plagued the rotation, things could be worse. The eight starters used thus far have tread water enough for the relievers to make a difference in close games.
“Guys have stepped up when we needed it,” Davies said. “It shows resiliency and mental toughness. When guys have gone down with injuries or struggled, somebody has been there to pick the team up.
“I’m excited for when this team hits its stride. That’s going to be fun. What we’ve done so far is a testament to the team and the depth we have.”