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Are the Brewers blazing a new path to pitching dominance in 2021?

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If records hold true and logic prevails (a big if), the Milwaukee Brewers are on a collision course for an NLCS matchup against either the San Francisco Giants or the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s not a new position for the Brewers, who have the NL’s third-best record and perhaps its cleanest path to a showdown for the pennant. They took the Dodgers to Game 7 in the 2018 NLCS, and are on track to make their fourth consecutive postseason.

Craig Counsell’s team is plundering the NL Central with a new formula, though — one that could make them a scarier sight in October.

Milwaukee’s recent playoff runs were fueled by Christian Yelich’s powerful lineup, a dynamite bullpen and a good enough rotation to scrape by. In that decisive Game 7, in 2018, Milwaukee gave Jhoulys Chacin the ball as the Dodgers called upon Walker Buehler. Chacin was a solid enough starter, but no match for a bonafide young ace — and things did not improve when Dave Roberts summoned Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urias from the bullpen.

The 2021 Brewers are like an answer to that problem that has taken shape as a baseball team. Having added Max Scherzer at the trade deadline, the Dodgers still boast the most rotation star power, but it’s the Brewers — now with the second-best odds to win the NL at BetMGM (+340) — who are putting on a historic display of starting pitching. 

Among pitchers with 100 or more innings under their belts, Milwaukee’s triumphant trio of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta have three of the eight best ERAs in baseball. By ERA+, a metric that adjusts for park and era, all of them have been at least 65 percent better than league average.

If they maintain this level of dominance, the Brewers would become the first team to have three starters notch a 165 ERA+ or better in 120+ innings since the earned run became an official stat in 1913. And remarkably, it seems that maintaining the dominance might have been at the heart of the Brewers’ plan all along.

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 30: Corbin Burnes #39 of the Milwaukee Brewers reacts in the first inning of an MLB game against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on July 30, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Brewers star Corbin Burnes is a Cy Young contender with two other ace-level talents alongside him in the rotation. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

How the Brewers built in extra rest

In addition to their elite positioning on the ERA leaderboard, the Brewers’ top three starters are among the league leaders in a different stat: Starts on five or more days of rest.

A "normal" five-man rotation would send pitchers to the mound on four days rest most of the time, but as Rob Mains has documented at Baseball Prospectus, the modern game is shifting that definition of normal. In far more dramatic fashion than any other contender, the Brewers are making a habit of giving their best pitchers extra rest. In 2021, Woodruff has made a league-leading 22 starts with five or more days rest. Peralta has made 19, and Burnes will make his 20th such start Tuesday night against the Cincinnati Reds — who are in a race for the second NL wild-card spot.

Only eight total pitchers in MLB have made 19 or more starts this year with that extra rest, so the Brewers’ trio stands out, consistently sopping up additional days to reload as if they were two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani — who, for the record, has made all 18 of his starts on five or more days rest (in the pitching sense). And only the Los Angeles Angels and Pittsburgh Pirates have had more of their games started by an extra rested hurler — less of an intentional move for those struggling staffs than for Milwaukee, whose starters have the second-best ERA in baseball.

The tactic was apparently hatched in response to the unprecedented progression from a pandemic-shortened 2020 to a full 2021.

“I wish I could say there was great science behind all of these decisions, but a lot of these decisions are based on a combination of what we understand from a medical perspective and also just subjective judgement,” David Stearns, president of baseball operations, told MLB.com earlier in the summer. “We’re doing our best. We believe our pitchers have benefitted from the extra rest so far.”

In lieu of caving to the pressures of a long, grueling season, the Brewers have accumulated and used depth to fill that tricky fifth day. Beyond fourth starter Adrian Houser, they also re-signed veteran starter Brett Anderson and acquired lefty Eric Lauer. Swingman Brent Suter has started once, and regularly provides length out of the bullpen that allows the top of the pitching pyramid to stay on the stretched-out schedule.

Is this part of a larger formula for grooming aces?

It’s clear the Brewers have particularly prioritized this plan for Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta — high-potential arms whose transformations were interrupted by the pandemic. The three aces of American Family Field also shared a path through the bullpen.

All three were starters in the minors, then temporarily used as relievers in Milwaukee before returning to the rotation with a vengeance:

  • Burnes starred in 2018, his first taste of the majors, before suffering through an all-time mind-boggling disaster in 2019. He ran up an 8.82 ERA with almost identical strikeout and walk rates to his eventual dominant 2020 season, but an ungodly home run rate. Whether the time in the pen (or the horrendous 2019) was necessary to find it or not, it did result in Burnes moving to a sharp cutter and sinker in place of a less effective four-seam fastball. The result has been Cy Young-worthy performance ever since.

  • Woodruff, the elder statesman of this group at 28, came up and started in 2017 before moving to relief for most of 2018. By 2019, his average fastball velocity had jumped almost two full ticks, to 96.5 mph. He has subsequently been one of the most reliable pitchers in the game.

  • Peralta was the member of the group who seemed most likely to make the bullpen move a permanent one — a la closer Josh Hader. He struggled with control in his first starting stint, walking a dangerous 4.6 batters per nine innings. But after spending 2019 and 2020 mostly in the bullpen, Peralta too has emerged with a new weapon. His big addition in 2021 is a changeup that deepens his repertoire and helps keep hitters off his signature fastball. It only averages 93 mph, but befuddles batters with its “rising” movement.

The question is whether there’s a repeatable process in place that propels these pitchers to greater heights. At least one new member of the Brewers could represent a step toward answering that. Top pitching prospect Aaron Ashby, a 23-year-old lefty, joined the team earlier this month to work in relief — or in short stints as part of bullpen games

Like Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta before him, Ashby figures to get his first taste of the postseason in shorter bursts. Perhaps he will also pick up lessons about his stuff and clarity on how he can be most successful against major-league hitters without the pressure of needing to go through a lineup multiple times.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 07: Brandon Woodruff #53 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches in the first inning against the San Francisco Giants at American Family Field on August 07, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Brandon Woodruff is the only member of the Brewers' star pitching trio who has started a postseason game. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Will it keep working in October?

Odds are the Brewers will need to ride their aces harder come playoff time. That is, in part, the point of the spaced out work so far.

“It’s something that’s been communicated to us quite a bit since early on,” Burnes told MLB.com, “that they’re prioritizing health in August and September coming down the stretch. They feel the best way to do that is to go every six days and give me ample rest.”

It’s also the biggest question mark surrounding these breakout starters. Will they be able to keep carrying a team with an improving but still lackluster offense when more is required of them?

Only Woodruff has ever started a postseason game. Their eventual opponents — the Dodgers, say — are likely to have more experienced October arms. Track record does not have to dictate success, though, and if anything this Brewers team proves that starting may not be that much different than relieving when push comes to shove.

Just being on the mound is a significant chunk of the battle here.

While Peralta is currently on the IL with shoulder fatigue that the team says is not a serious issue, and Burnes missed a couple starts in May due to COVID-19 protocols, they have avoided serious injuries in a year where many teams’ pitching plans have been derailed by attrition.

The proactive planning and commitment will almost certainly put the 2021 Brewers in a better place than the 2018 Brewers if they reach a crucial playoff juncture. It may also end up putting them in a better place than any of their worn-down rivals.

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