On Wednesday afternoon, the Brewers and Reds played a matinee in Milwaukee. Thanks to run-scoring eighth-inning hits by Carlos Gomez & Ryan Braun, the Brewers entered the bottom of the ninth with a narrow 3-2 lead. Yet when they trotted out to finish off their victory, it wasn’t behind regular closer John Axford, who’d finished ninth in the Cy Young Award voting in 2011, or even backup closer Francisco Rodriguez, still the record-holder for most saves in a season. It was 29-year-old Jim Henderson, a veteran of ten minor-league seasons (and former Expos draftee!) who’d been called up to make his major league debut less than two weeks earlier, on July 26.
Henderson retired three of the four hitters he saw with two strikeouts, his second save in as many games, and all of a sudden the struggling Milwaukee bullpen has an interesting new contender for saves, an idea almost unthinkable at the beginning of the season. Of course, no one would have expected a bullpen led by Axford & Rodriguez to be quite this bad, but the numbers don’t lie:
Milwaukee bullpen (stats entering Wednesday)
ERA: 4.90, worst in MLB
BB/9: 4.25, 29th in MLB
AVG: .271, 29th in MLB
WHIP: 1.55, worst in MLB
LOB%: 68.1, 29th in MLB
LD%: 23.8, worst in MLB
HR/FB%: 13.1, 27th in MLB
BS: 21, 29th in MLB
Some of those statistics are admittedly imperfect and there are others that show the Brewer relief corps in a better light, but it’s hard to look at that list and not think this is one of the worst-performing groups in the game. It’s a team effort that’s not entirely on Axford (4.23 FIP/5.21 ERA) and Rodriguez (4.48 FIP/5.48 ERA), but they’re clearly the worst offenders among those with any real playing time. Rodriguez in particular has been brutal since July 1 (9.23 ERA), and each has been shuffled in and out of high-leverage roles this year as Ron Roenicke struggles to find some sort of success at the back end of his staff.
Now, when Henderson received his first save opportunity on Monday, it could be chalked up to a simple matter of availability, since Axford & Rodriguez had each thrown 24 or more pitches on Sunday. What made yesterday’s save chance so interesting is that Rodriguez was never used and that Axford came in with the Brewers down 2-1 in the eighth, not exactly the usage one would expect for a closer. Though Roenicke has declined to make anything official, the struggles of his two incumbents and the way in which he used Henderson on Wednesday may indicate a willingness to play the hot hand.
So who is Jim Henderson, anyway? Like Axford, he’s a Canadian finally making his debut in his late 20s after years toiling in the minors; also like Axford, he’s always had a powerful arm but struggled with both control and harnessing secondary pitches. In 48 Triple-A innings this year, he struck out 10.5 per 9 while also walking 4.1 per nine, though he’s managed to get off to a sparkling 10/1 K/BB start in the bigs, averaging over 95 miles per hour on his fastball.
As we say often, closers are made, not born, and simply getting the opportunity to be on the mound in the ninth can transform an uninspiring fantasy option into a valuable one, simply because of that one stat. It’s premature to expect that Henderson has suddenly leaped over Axford to become the primary Milwaukee closer, yet with Axford struggling and Rodriguez all but unusable right now, it’s easy to see Henderson becoming a cheap short-term source of saves if you’re in need. The Brewers have Thursday off before heading into Houston to start a series with the atrociously bad Astros, a set in which they’re all but guaranteed to have a lead heading into the late innings at least once. If and when that happens, it’ll be tremendously interesting to see who Roenicke sends out in the ninth.