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Rapidly-improving pitching staff has kept Brewers in the playoff hunt

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By Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

With six games remaining in the 2017 season, where would the Milwaukee Brewers be without their pitching staff stepping up in a big and perhaps unexpected way?

Certainly not still in the running for a playoff berth.

The Brewers, who will begin play today 1 1/2 games behind Colorado for the National League’s second wild card, remain alive because of their pitching, not their offense. Since the all-star break, they have scored 253 runs, fewest in the league, for an average of 3.89 per game.

Had the offense continued on its first-half pace of 4.96 runs per game, the Brewers might be preparing to celebrate an NL Central crown, if not having done so already. But scoring runs became more of a chore since the break, when the Brewers had a 5 1/2-game lead in the division.

The pitching staff stepped into that breach, preventing the club from falling out of the playoff race. The Brewers’ 3.84 earned run average and 245 earned runs allowed over the second half rank third in the NL, behind only Washington (3.44) and Los Angeles (3.75).

Considering the duress on the pitching staff in recent weeks, the overall success has been more remarkable. With Jimmy Nelson lost to a shoulder injury early in the month and Matt Garza pitching his way out of the rotation, the Brewers have filled with swingman Brent Suter as well as “relief games” in which the bullpen covered all nine innings.

Seldom getting cushions with which to work, the pitchers have performed under pressure, day in and day out, getting the job done far more often than not. The Brewers’ overall team ERA of 3.98 ranks fifth in the NL, in large part because many members of the staff are pitching better than ever.

Much of the credit for that run prevention goes to Derek Johnson, who had not been a pitching coach in the major leagues until the Brewers hired him before the 2016 season. Working at the time as the Chicago Cubs’ minor-league pitching coordinator, Johnson primarily was known for his work leading the staff at Vanderbilt, which emerged as a national collegiate power during his tenure.

After checking with those who knew Johnson and coming away impressed in the interview process, Brewers general manager David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell decided he was a perfect choice to work with and grow with a young, relatively inexperienced pitching corps.

“Neither Craig nor I really knew D.J. but we were familiar with him,” Stearns said. “I know one of his former players from college who works now in another front office. He gave him a very strong recommendation.

“The more we did our work and went through the interview process, we came to see he was a very strong candidate. What really stands out now is that Derek connects really well with people. He has been able to forge solid relationships with the various members of our pitching staff.

Working behind the scenes in an understated and nearly anonymous fashion, Johnson has found ways to make his pitchers better in relatively quick fashion. The three pitchers around whom the starting rotation was built—Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and Nelson—all have taken major steps forward under Johnson’s tutelage.

Anderson’s improvement actually began over the final two months of last season, when he went 5-1 with a 2.56 ERA over 12 starts. He has continued trending upward this year, going 11-4 with a 2.81 ERA in 24 starts, with leaps forward in WHIP (1.117), hits per nine innings (7.4), walks (2.7), strikeouts (8.6) and home runs allowed (0.9).

Of Johnson’s influence, Anderson said, “He has challenged us to be better pitchers, and a lot of the credit goes to him. I owe a lot to him. He’s very humble, an awesome guy.

He approaches pitching at a different level. He’s very smart. He looks at pitching in so many different ways than a lot of guys look at it. He’s very big on the mental game; keeping your mind quiet. He has taught me so many things that I didn’t know.

“He didn’t really push anything on me. He wanted me to try certain things, and they worked. He’s very open-minded. He’ll let you see how something feels and decide for yourself. He has helped each guy, individually, get the best out of our deliveries and abilities. Look at what he did with Jimmy.”

Anderson referred to the dramatic change that Nelson underwent last season with the encouragement of Johnson. The big right-hander was tormented by command issues that were preventing him from taking full advantage of his natural talent and stuff, so he worked with Johnson on a modified, shortened delivery in which he appears to be throwing every pitch from the stretch.

The results weren’t there immediately but it all came together this season for Nelson in stunning fashion. He cut his walk rate nearly in half, from 4.3 to 2.5, reduced home runs allowed from 1.3 to 0.8, and—most impressively—boosted his strikeout rate from 7.0 to 10.2.

As a result, Nelson was rolling along with a 12-6 record and 3.49 ERA over 29 starts before suffering the shoulder injury while diving back into first base in a game in Chicago.

Not surprisingly, the modest Johnson gave Nelson all of the credit for that transformation.

“The stuff with Jimmy is way less about me and what I did. It’s what he did,” said Johnson, 46. “It’s how he took it and processed it. You can get anyone to change his delivery, and say, ‘This is a better way.’ But you’re unraveling years of this movement pattern, this delivery that he has had.

“So, it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what he does, and how he does it.”

Davies, who ranks among the top winners in the majors with 17 victories, is a completely different pitcher than Anderson and Nelson, who can blow fastballs past hitters. The 155-pound right-hander is a finesse pitcher who relies on hitting spots and mixing speeds, not lighting up radar guns.

This is where two of Johnson’s primary traits as a coach come into play—individualization of instruction and listening when it’s time to listen. Toss in the Corey Knebel-led relief corps, where veteran bullpen coach Lee Tunnell provides tremendous assistance, and Johnson has a dozen or more pitchers at any one time with whom to work.

“He’s really good at finding out what each guy needs. He’s not a cookie-cutter type guy,” Davies said. “It’s not one way. It’s whatever knowledge he has to help specifics and the guy’s mechanics, and things like that. It’s not a single philosophy. He tries to stretch out and help each guy personally.

“It takes a lot of preparation to do that but it also comes with the knowledge of the best way to do things. Everybody is different. We’re always going over sequencing and how to attack hitters. For me, it’s not so much mechanics. It’s more how to prepare for games, how to go after hitters.”

Asked for the bottom-line to his approach to helping pitchers, Johnson said, “The biggest part of coaching is knowing your players, more than anything else. You have to know your craft as well but it’s knowing your players and how to get them to respond. In my mind, that’s way more important than anything else.

“All coaches think certain things about the game and that’s what our experience gives us. You have to be open to new interpretations of that. I think your philosophy, if you call it that, always changes. And it changes because of your players, who you have and what they bring to the table. Once you adapt to that, I think it helps you grow as a coach.”

Upon reconfiguring his coaching staff after the 2015 season, Counsell made it clear that he equated coaching with teaching. He considered the latter perhaps most important because the Brewers were rebooting their roster with young, inexperienced players and pitchers who would need consistent supervision and counseling.

“D.J. is a teacher,” Counsell said. “I think his college background has helped. When he has had the ability to get time with willing students, they’ve gotten better. That’s the story. Give the teacher willing students and he’ll help them get better.

“D.J. was definitely thrown into the fire. He was inexperienced but he’s a fast learner. At the end of two years, he has been able to refine what he knows is important and gets results. I think any teacher will tell you that more time with your students is the best thing you can have, and consistency of that time.”

And, thanks to Johnson’s students, the rebuilding Brewers are still playing meaningful games in the last week of the season.



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