Brewers’ entire pitching rotation returns from last season
“It was 2000 and I was really struggling in spring training,” recalled Wolf. “He said, ‘I want you to make this team, but we have to be able to justify it.’
“So, I went out and actually had two good games. I went away from what I was working on and focused strictly on getting good results. I made the team out of spring training, but I’ve had other years when I’ve had incredibly bad spring trainings and it didn’t matter.”
For the first time that anyone associated with the Milwaukee Brewers can remember, results in spring training will have nothing to do with the formation of the starting rotation. All five starters are back from a successful 2011 season and assured of jobs, barring health issues or the unforeseen.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” said manager Ron Roenicke, who has the luxury of beginning his second season with the Brewers with the rotation intact.
“That’s really nice. They all had a nice year for us.”
In fact, all five starters posted double figures in victories, the first time that happened for the Brewers since their 1982 World Series season. Budding ace Yovani Gallardo topped the staff with 17 victories, followed by Zack Greinke with 16, Shaun Marcum and Wolf with 13; and No. 5 starter Chris Narveson with 11.
With all five spots locked up, each pitcher can be allowed to work on getting ready and not be consumed with wowing the club’s brain trust. It makes for a more relaxed spring, with each pitcher concentrating on things that might make them even better in 2012.
“That’s the counterproductive thing about spring training,” said Wolf. “People get caught up in the results and it hardly ever transfers to the season. You get guys doing things on the mound or at the plate because they’re trying to make a team.
“ ‘Narvy’ didn’t really have a good spring training last year. But he started off great; his first 14 innings he didn’t give up a run. It doesn’t transfer over; it really doesn’t. We don’t want to get too caught up in results.
“The main thing is if we’re healthy, we’re going to be a good pitching staff. You just want to get better every start and get ready for the season.”
Established in a starting rotation for the first time, Narveson has a specific focus this spring. Having seen Wolf succeed with a new grip on his cutter after working with pitching coach Rick Kranitz a year ago, Narveson wants to get more comfortable with that pitch as well.
“ ‘Wolfie’ went to a new grip with it last year and it took him all spring to get used to that type of pitch,” said Narveson. “It worked well with him. That’s what we want to do. If you can establish something else, it can take you to the next level and get that much better.”
As for not having to win a job for the first time in his career, Narveson said, “I don’t think my mind-set has changed too much. It’s all about preparation. Being established helps out with what you want to do in spring. If there’s a couple of things you want to work on, now is the time to do it because you have the time.”
Marcum using legs more
Marcum, whose late-season collapse tarnished an otherwise strong first season with the Brewers, also has a particular focus this spring. His wife came across an old college photo that showed him driving forward more with his lower body, and he wants to get back to that style of delivery and what he expects will be better consistency.
“It’s a huge difference in using my legs,” said Marcum. “I think that’s going to help out a lot. I couldn’t figure out when (he changed his delivery). I don’t even know how I did it or when I did it.
“I sent Rick some pictures. He was pretty impressed. It lets you get further down the mound and releasing the ball closer to the plate. I should have later action on my two-seamer and changeup. That’s part of the problem I ran into last year. I was further back, so everything was breaking a little bit sooner. They were picking it up earlier and were able to lay off it.
“A lot of it is location for me. Having those legs underneath me and being able to release the ball closer to the plate, I should have better action on my pitches.
“I can’t wait to go out and do it.”
Marcum isn’t sure if he could have avoided his playoff collapse (0-3, 14.90 ERA in three starts) with more leg drive but figures it can’t hurt.
“There were times when people asked me if I was hurt or tired,” he said. “I wasn’t. I felt good. More than anything, I was trying to make a perfect pitch every time instead of just throwing.
“When you try to make that perfect pitch and hit that perfect spot every time, more times than not you’re going to miss because you’re trying to be too fine.”
Greinke eyes better start
For Greinke, it has to be a better spring than his first go-round with the Brewers. Before he threw his first pitch in camp, he cracked a rib in a game of pickup basketball—an extracurricular activity that won’t be repeated this spring.
Greinke was shut down after two poor outings and placed on the disabled list, missing the first five weeks of the season. Still, he went 16-6 in 28 starts, including a remarkable 11-0 mark and 3.13 ERA in 15 home outings.
“No one was really dominating last year (throughout the season) but every game was going to be a quality start and keep us in the game,” said Greinke. “The pitching didn’t carry us completely, but it was the bigger part of our year.”
Gallardo finishes strong
No one on the staff was throwing the ball better at the end of the season than Gallardo, who posted a 3.20 ERA after the all-star break and really kicked it into gear in the postseason.
Pitching in Game 1 and the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS triumph over Arizona, Gallardo surrendered only two runs in 14 innings, allowing the Brewers to win by scores of
4-1 and 3-2 (10 innings).
Gallardo, who doesn’t turn 26 until later in the month, has posted a 53-34 record and 3.63 ERA in 118 career games (115 starts) with the Brewers.
“ ‘Yo’ is getting better every year,” said Wolf. “People forget how young he still is. It’s exciting to watch him because he wants to get better and looks for ways to get better. He’s never complacent; he works hard.
“I played with (Los Angeles’ Clayton) Kershaw when he was developing and now I’ve played with Yo. There’s a big similarity. Both really work hard; both want to be good. And both were big curveball guys that all of a sudden have sliders. And that turned everything around.
“They both were fastball-curveball guys. You get a lot of strikeouts but you go deep into counts. When Yo started throwing that slider, he got better. And he’ll keep getting better. I think he can be a 230-inning guy. (Gallardo had a career-high 207 1/3 innings in 2011).”
Estrada capable, too
The Brewers actually go six-deep in returning starters. Right-hander Marco Estrada, the swing man who filled in admirably (3-2, 3.70 ERA in seven starts) when Greinke and Narveson were on the DL, also is back, providing a cushion should someone go down again.
“Marco was big for us,” said Narveson. “We didn’t miss a beat when he was in there.”
There’s no reason that the entire rotation can’t be better in 2012. Wolf is the oldest of the five at 35; Marcum and Narveson are next, both having turned 30 in December. Greinke, who is 28, Marcum and Wolf can all be free agents after the season (the Brewers have an option on Wolf), which provides even more incentive to put together big years.
“They always say contract years turn out to be great years,” said Narveson. “That could be a plus for us. It sometimes gives more focus when there’s more on the line, and that can be good for the team as well as the player.”