The baseball adage goes that great pitching always beats great hitting, and vice versa. Some teams can live out both ends of this expression by having both a great lineup and great pitchers, like the 106-win Dodgers and 107-win Giants. But if the NL Central champion Brewers are to make a deep run through the playoffs this fall, they’ll do so on the back of a remarkable staff.
Milwaukee’s pitchers led the NL in strikeout rate this season and finished third in adjusted ERA. But the team’s aggregate stats—impressive as they are—don’t quite tell the whole story. This year’s Brewers are just the third team since integration to have four starters throw 140 or more innings with an ERA+ of 130 or better, and the second to have five pitchers throw 110 innings with an ERA+ of 130 or better. Six Brewers pitchers struck out at least 100 batters, and all 11 of the Brewers pitchers who threw 35 or more innings this regular season finished with at least a league-average ERA+.
Even with a merely average offense, Milwaukee’s staff makes the team the early favorite for the NL pennant. Offenses, even deep ones like San Francisco’s, will struggle to find a weak point in this Brewers group because there might just not be one. Milwaukee consistently has all nine innings covered—and here’s how they do it.
First Inning: Corbin Burnes
The class of this pitching staff is Burnes, a 26-year-old right-hander in his fourth MLB season. Burnes was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year, though he made just nine starts and three relief appearances in the 60-game season, and a strained oblique kept him off Milwaukee’s postseason roster.
“My first and foremost goal this year is to stay healthy,” Burnes told me this spring. “It’s definitely going to be a juggling act of how many games we can get and stay away from injury, but you’re still going out there and doing as much as you can to help the team.”
Burnes spent two weeks this year on the injured list with COVID-19, and Brewers manager Craig Counsell—cognizant of the fact that Burnes had never thrown more than 60 innings in a big league season before—shielded him from long outings and big pitch counts. But Burnes still qualified for the ERA title for the first time, with 28 starts and 167 innings pitched, and he was by far the best starter in baseball on a rate basis. He led all qualified starters in ERA, FIP, xwOBA, and K%, and allowed fewer homers per inning than any starter in the league. He didn’t walk a batter until May 13, by which point he had 58 strikeouts.
Burnes was so good at striking batters out and keeping the ball in the park that he posted a FIP of just 1.63. No qualified starter since Pedro Martínez in 1999—in probably the best pitching season of the past 50 years—has posted a FIP that low, and Pedro is the only other starter to do so since integration. Burnes led all MLB pitchers this year with 18 starts of five innings or more with one run or fewer allowed, and he’s allowed more than four earned runs in a start just once since 2019. He’ll start Game 1 of Milwaukee’s NLDS series against Atlanta on Friday and give the Brewers an edge over any starter they face.
Second Inning: Freddy Peralta
Peralta only threw 144 1/3 innings this year, but if he’d pitched enough to qualify for the rate stat leaderboards, he would’ve finished third in MLB in strikeout rate, two spots behind Burnes and four ahead of Brandon Woodruff. Like Burnes, Peralta debuted in 2018—but 2021 was both the best season of his career and by far his heaviest workload. Unlike Burnes, Peralta struggled down the stretch, missing two weeks in the second half with shoulder inflammation and posting a 4.71 ERA since August 1.
But across the whole season, Peralta held opponents to a .165 batting average—the lowest in baseball among pitchers with at least 140 innings, by 20 points. (Milwaukee has three of the five starting pitchers to throw at least 140 innings this year and hold opposing hitters to a batting average of .201 or lower.)
Peralta doesn’t throw as hard as Burnes, but he mixes four pitches with wildly different movement patterns. His average velocity varies 16.6 mph from his fastball to his curveball. There’s more than 16 inches’ difference in horizontal movement between his change-up and slider. And there’s more than 13 inches’ difference in vertical movement between his fastball and curve. Opponents hit .244 with a .390 slugging percentage and .199 xBA against Peralta’s change-up, his fourth-best and fourth-most-used pitch. But they hit .156 against his fastball, .158 against his slider, and just .122 with a .184 slugging percentage against his curve.
Thanks to that incredible variety of pitches, Peralta has a slight reverse platoon split. Among the 85 right-handed pitchers to throw at least 100 innings this year, Peralta allowed the lowest batting average and slugging percentage to lefties, and the fifth-lowest OBP.
Third Inning: Eric Lauer
As Peralta trailed off down the stretch, Lauer only got stronger. The 2016 first-round pick spent two seasons as a slightly below-average innings eater with the Padres before coming to Milwaukee in the 2019 Trent Grisham trade. He made just two starts in 2020 and didn’t impress in early 2021. But in his past 15 appearances—14 of them starts—Lauer is 6-2 with a 2.23 ERA and an opponent batting line of .188/.261/.285.
Lauer throws five pitches at least 10 percent of the time, but his midseason turnaround coincided with a late-June adjustment where he put a greater emphasis on his breaking pitches. He went from barely throwing his slider to throwing it almost 18 percent of the time, and 28 percent of the time against left-handed batters.
That’s made a huge difference. Through June 30, Lauer was 196th in opponent wOBA out of 280 pitchers with at least 30 IP to that point. Since July 1, he’s 28th out of 285. And the slider, which he barely threw over the first three months of the season, has turned into his best pitch against righties: .109 opponent batting average and .194 wOBA. Left-handed hitters have teed off against Lauer’s four-seamer, with a .368 opponent average, but his cutter and breaking balls have resulted in just two left-on-left extra-base hits all season.
Fourth Inning: Adrian Houser
The Brewers haven’t announced their starters for Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS yet, but Counsell will have more credible choices than he can use. The most likely scenario is that Lauer and Peralta will slot into the rotation in some order, with Houser working out of the bullpen. But anything—including a tandem arrangement that includes some combination of the three, and/or Brett Anderson—is possible.
In 2015, Houser was the least-heralded part of one of the most important trades of the past 20 years. At the deadline that season, the Astros sent Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, Domingo Santana, and Houser to Milwaukee in exchange for two big leaguers. One was Carlos Gómez, one of the best power-speed combos in the game during his Brewers tenure, who became a pariah in Houston when he hit .221/.277/.342 over a tumultuous 12 months only to regain his stroke with the Rangers in 2016. The other was Mike Fiers, who would eventually blow the whistle on Houston’s sign-stealing scheme in 2019 and change baseball history forever.
Prior to this season, Houser had never really staked a claim on a rotation spot in Milwaukee. He’d failed to throw more than 111 1/3 innings in a season, and while he’d pitched for the Brewers in the 2018, 2019, and 2020 regular seasons, his sole playoff contribution was two innings of fort-holding while Clayton Kershaw carved up the Brewers in last year’s NL wild-card series.
While the Brewers’ top three starters rely on missing bats—particularly Burnes, the FIP darling—Houser is the opposite. Among the 273 pitchers this year who faced at least 250 batters, Houser is tied for 262nd in whiff rate. His K/9 ratio (6.6) and BB/9 ratio (4.0) are like something out of the 1980s, and nothing short of terrible in this high-strikeout, low-walk day and age.
Even so, more than half the pitches Houser threw this year were mid-90s sinkers that are just impossible to lift and drive. Opponents hit just .209 and slugged only .268 off Houser’s sinker, which was taken for extra bases 12 times in the 1,268 instances he threw it this year. Out of a 273-pitcher sample, Houser is tied for 20th in expected wOBA on contact (xwOBACON). The only starters ahead of him: Burnes, Peralta, Jacob deGrom, Lance Lynn, and Ranger Suárez.
Fifth Inning: Brandon Woodruff
Woodruff is by no means Milwaukee’s no. 5 starter. He’s the most experienced and most decorated pitcher in the projected playoff rotation, and at worst a strong no. 2 behind Burnes. But his ability to contribute in the middle innings could make the difference between an early exit for Milwaukee this postseason and a championship.
Three years ago, the Brewers were the no. 1 seed in the NL playoff bracket and came within a game of the World Series despite having essentially no starting rotation to speak of. In the second half of that season, Counsell reinvented his staff around a cadre of exceptional relievers, including embryonic versions of Burnes and Woodruff, and was nearly rewarded with the Brewers’ first pennant in 36 years. Woodruff was an effective bulk reliever in those days, though his two biggest moments had little to do with his pitching performance. One was his surprise relief outing in Game 5 of the NLCS, as Counsell executed a Curly Ogden Maneuver on a baffled and righty-heavy Dodgers lineup. The other was a home run off Kershaw in Game 1.
Woodruff is now a full-time starter, a two-time All-Star, and a Cy Young contender. And because he—along with Peralta, Burnes, and Houser, who were all rookies on that 2018 team—has matured into a conventional starting pitcher, Counsell can manage his staff in a more orthodox manner.
“It’s just ‘Who’s on our team?’ And trying to put them in the best position to succeed. It’s got nothing to do with me or the Brewers or our philosophy,” Counsell told Andy McCullough of The Athletic, when asked about his pitcher usage in 2018. “This is the best way to do it. This is what every team would prefer.”
Sixth Inning: Brent Suter
Because Counsell can now operate his staff in a more normal fashion, and not like a marooned sailor trying to pick the last few crumbs of hardtack out of his can of survival rations, Suter’s job is different than it was in 2018.
Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays made headlines not just for the depth of their bullpen but for the variety of arm slots their pitchers threw from. Featuring traditional over-the-top power pitchers and side-armers from both sides of the rubber, the Rays could throw four or five completely distinct looks at a hitter in a single game.
By the same token, Suter—a left-handed side-armer whose fastball cracks 90 miles an hour about once a month—is a perfect follow-up act for the power righties at the front of Milwaukee’s rotation. (In the 2019 wild-card game, Suter was the first arm out of the pen after Woodruff, and he threw a scoreless inning.) But even though that’s his primary role these days, he’s pitched wherever needed throughout his six-year big league career.
Suter started 18 games in 2018, and has also served both as a bulk reliever and a mop-up guy. But now that the Brewers’ sometimes chaotic pitcher usage has settled down, Suter has become a more traditional short reliever. He hasn’t gone more than two innings or thrown more than 40 pitches in an appearance since mid-May, and he’s entered with a man on base in about a third of his outings so far this year. But he’s also thrown more innings out of the bullpen this year—73 1/3—than any other Brewers pitcher.
“The preparation and the mentality of it don’t really change,” Suter told me in a phone interview last week. “You still go out there and give it your all and try to get the guy out in five pitches or less. I was more built up in spring training to be the three-plus-inning relief option, but our starters were just pitching so well and so deep into games that my role morphed.”
As much as things have settled down for the Brewers in general, though, the life of a middle reliever remains unpredictable. In fact, Suter was left off the roster entirely for Milwaukee’s first-round matchup with righty-heavy Atlanta (though he may return for later series). The lack of a defined role doesn’t bother Suter, though—he isn’t naturally inclined to be one of those relievers who’s married to a routine.
“I’ve learned how to dial down my anxiety and readiness level,” he says. “I used to be at 30 percent the whole game and I was just so exhausted, so I dialed it down to 5 or 10 percent. Enough that I can get ready quick and be mentally locked in, but not so much that I’m wearing myself out. …Sometimes [I get a heads-up], but mostly the message is ‘Be ready whenever.”
Seventh Inning: Hunter Strickland
Beyond Suter, rookie lefty Aaron Ashby, and whichever of Houser, Lauer, and Anderson don’t make the rotation, the Brewers have a plethora of middle relief options. “I think it’s one of the best problems you can have on a team, having too much starting pitching depth,” Suter says. “That’s been our M.O., what we’d fed off all year, our starting pitchers going out there and doing their job every night. So we’ll welcome one or two of those guys to the bullpen with open arms.”
The Brewers have so much depth, in fact, that they’ve even distributed high-leverage pitchers to other playoff teams. The Dodgers claimed reliever Phil Bickford on waivers in May, and three weeks after that, Milwaukee sent J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen to Tampa Bay for Willy Adames—Milwaukee’s best all-around position player since the trade—and Trevor Richards.
But a pair of injuries could strain Milwaukee’s bullpen depth. Rookie Jake Cousins, who has a 51.9 percent whiff rate on his slider in 30 appearances, is furiously rehabbing an injured biceps and hoping to return to action in the NLDS. And setup man Devin Williams, last year’s NL Rookie of the Year and Reliever of the Year, is out at least through the NLCS after breaking his hand during the team’s division title celebration.
That leaves Hunter Strickland in a key setup role. Strickland came to prominence as the hardest-throwing Giant in the mid-2010s, though a lack of fastball movement and secondary stuff left him prone to the occasional high-leverage home run. Now 33 years old and on his third team this season, Strickland is pitching as well as he ever has, with a 1.73 ERA in 36 1/3 innings with Milwaukee.
Strickland has lost a few ticks off his fastball over the years, but he’s evolved his repertoire to compensate. When he was younger, Strickland would throw the heater about two-thirds of the time. But like a man who’s traded his Silverado for a Prius, he’s using a lot less gas. In July and August this year, he actually threw more sliders than fastballs. That gives him a pitch that breaks sharply down and in to left-handed hitters, and pairs well with a fastball that tails up and to his arm-side.
Eighth Inning: Brad Boxberger
Williams’s direct replacement as Milwaukee’s secondary relief ace is Boxberger. Like Strickland, Boxberger is a former closer who fell on hard times, finishing his 2018 season in Arizona with three blown saves and a 9.31 ERA in the last six weeks. But he’s regained his old form in Milwaukee.
JAM? WHAT JAM?!?— Bally Sports Wisconsin (@BallySportWI) July 8, 2021
Three straight strikeouts with the bases juiced for Brad Boxberger! pic.twitter.com/EBytkpv2Jg
Boxberger was lights-out until early September, when a pair of calamitous multi-run, zero-out performances goosed his ERA by a full run—2.21 on September 1 to 3.34 at season’s end. But he still has one of the most dangerous fastballs in any postseason bullpen; opponents are hitting just .181 off his four-seamer, the 15th-lowest mark out of 239 pitchers with at least 100 PA ending on a fastball.
Ninth Inning: Josh Hader
No. 1 on that leaderboard is the longest-tenured of Milwaukee’s four 2021 All-Star pitchers: Hader. After shooting to superstardom as a multi-inning middle reliever in 2018—Andrew Miller, with a harder fastball and less interest in getting a haircut—Hader has been a traditional one-inning closer in 2021, and the best in baseball.
Opponents hit .103, with a .195 wOBA and 40.5 percent whiff rate against Hader’s four-seamer this year. They hit .159, with a .215 wOBA and 57.3 percent whiff rate against his slider. And while Hader only threw 65 change-ups this season, batters posted a .176 batting average, .185 wOBA, and 43.8 percent whiff rate against that pitch. Hader led all MLB relievers (minimum 50 innings) in strikeout rate, opponent batting average, and win probability added this season. He was second in ERA and fWAR, fourth in total strikeouts, and tied for fifth in saves with 34, blowing only one.
Hader appeared in 60 games, held his opponents scoreless 54 times, and never allowed more than two runs in an outing. One of those scoreless appearances came on September 11, when he took the ball from Burnes and finished off the second no-hitter in franchise history.
That game was the apotheosis of the 2021 Brewers pitching staff: 28 batters faced, no hits, one walk, 16 strikeouts, only two line drives allowed, and 85 strikes out of 124 total pitches. Part of the reason the Brewers can afford to trade bullpen depth, or weather injuries to Cousins and Williams, is because Hader is so reliable. With Burnes and Woodruff at the top of the rotation, and Hader at the back of the bullpen, Milwaukee can win games consistently while scoring just three or four runs a night.
The last time the Brewers made a serious run at a title, they had to keep opposing bats in check through tactical trickeration—openers, bullpen games, starting pitcher bait-and-switch. This time around, Milwaukee’s opponents will know exactly what they’re facing. But it might not make a difference.