In the sixth inning of Tuesday's game against the Cubs, Chris Narveson was in a jam. The lefty had pitched well save for a 2-run first, but was now on the verge of a big inning, with the the bases loaded with Cubs, no outs, and a tenuous 3-2 lead. Thanks to a recent off-day, manager Ron Roenicke had a bullpen full of rested relievers, and several right-handed hitters up next. Roenicke ambled out to the mound, and called
for right-hander Kameron Loe. What was probably the right decision on a tactical level paid off big. Loe coaxed a fielder's choice (out at home) and double play from Alfonso Soriano and Darwin Barney, averting a potential disaster and ending his night with a WPA of .353.
It took a long time, but Kameron Loe is finally being utilized in his ideal-world role. The fact that Loe was in the game is a credit to the pitchers ahead of him, Doug Melvin, and (hopefully) an enlightened approach to bullpen management on the part of Ron Roenicke. While Tuesday was just one game and Loe was one of five Brewer pitchers used that night, the move at least gives us hope that Roenicke has figured his bullpen out.
However, this bullpen and the man calling the shots are a result of many different events, taking place over eight years, three managers, and countless pitchers. And before we profile the current state of affairs, it's necessary to touch on what got us here. All of this started in 2003, when Ned Yost was hired as manager of the Brewers after A's bench coach Ken Macha turned down the job. Coming off a 56-106 season led by Davey Lopes and Jerry Royster, Yost wasn't expected to bring the team into contention immediately or even soon. He was merely counted on to mentor the upcoming wave of young talent that, if everything broke right, would converge for several playoff runs in the late 2000s. After multiple losing efforts where Yost's tactics and habits largely went unscrutinized, the young core Brewers brass envisioned had materialize. In 2008, the Brewers were finally in the race for a playoff spot, and his managerial mishaps, most painfully obvious in his use of relievers, became much more apparent. Yost tended to burn through his bullpen in the middle innings, only to be seriously handicapped trying to preserve late leads. Even more damning was the soon-to-be ex-manager's inexplicable need to pitch merely serviceable LOOGY Brian Shouse in nearly every game, even if it required facing multiple right-handed hitters, a fault which became glaringly obvious in his final game before being fired. (Just imagine what would have happened had CC Sabathia not thrown seven complete games in the season's last three months.)
After 2008, GM Doug Melvin hired Macha, who had been hired and fired as A's manager during Yost's tenure. Macha's two years in Milwaukee were plauged by communication woes, a refusal to run despite several speedy players, and an inability to follow up on the playoff appearance Yost nearly blew, but he did run an excellent bullpen. During his time in Milwaukee, Macha was able to draw solid setup work from salvage jobs Todd Coffey and Kameron Loe, create an excellent closer from scratch, and get seasons of good work out of LOOGY Mitch Stetter and ROOGY Mark DeFelice. However, his alleged inability to reach young players got him axed last November, which brings us to where we are today.
Macha's successor, Ron Roenicke, has drawn no complaints about his clubhouse, but has employed something of a mixed bag of tactics, from his creative shifts to "aggressive" baserunning to the Ryan Braun fifth-infielder thing. However, one area in which he has mostly played it by the book (not Joe Girardi's three-ring binder) is his bullpen. Roenicke started out the season without LaTroy Hawkins or Takashi Saito, which meant Zach Braddock appeared whenever an opposing manager dared write back-to-back lefties on lineup card, Kameron Loe pitched the eighth inning every day (giving many fans nightmares of Yost's strange fixation with Shouse), and John Axford was given free reign in save situations.
While penciling guys into defined roles works with a pitching rotation, batting order, and defense, it isn't the ideal strategy for allocating relief innings. Luckily, as Saito and Hawkins returned and Braddock struggled getting a good night's sleep, the manager adapted, using the former two for seventh-inning duty and occasional setup work, but was unable to make up for the absence of the latter. When dealing with left-handed hitters near the end of a game, Roenicke had no choice but to let them tee off on his trio of righties (usually Loe).
None of the early-season reinforcements are likely to prove as valuable as Francisco Rodriguez, however. The July trade gave the Brewers a non-closing reliever who could retire batters from both sides of the plate, giving Roenicke one less inning to worry about while bumping Kameron Loe into a role more commensurate with his skill set. Thanks to the presence of K-Rod, the manager could now pick his spots with Loe, dropping him in whenever a righty was up and the team needed a grounder (or two) as opposed to leaving him to get pounded by a power-hitting left hander because there were no better options.
Rodriguez is likely to be the extent of the Brewers' bullpen acquisitions, so, barring another injury, trade, or surprise callup, we'll just cut to the happy ending. As fans of a team with a checkered past in the relief department, don't focus on the managerial malpractice, flameouts, and bad free-agent signings. Just enjoy the current arrangement while it's still working.
Look for part two of this series, a less retrospective analysis of the Brewers' bullpen, sometime next week.