ST. LOUIS -- If you're upset that the Brewers haven't deployed left-handed relief ace Josh Hader more often in August, blame the games, manager Craig Counsell said Saturday amid a debate of his bullpen choices.
Counsell remained steadfast in his belief that it is in the team's best interest to reserve Hader for tie games or when he can protect a lead. It's a philosophy that has drawn criticism in the wake of games like Friday's 5-2 loss to the Cardinals, when Counsell sent right-hander Jordan Lyles out for a second inning after the Brewers scored twice in the top of the eighth to make it a one-run game.
Among the other options available on Friday was Hader, who had one appearance in the previous nine days, which came on Aug. 11. Hader and his 1.54 ERA and Major League-best 47.7 percent strikeout rate remained idle while Lyles surrendered two runs to make it a three-run deficit.
Counsell did say he understood why critics would argue Friday called for an exception, given Hader's light usage of late compared to April (18 innings) and May (15 innings). In the Brewers' first 14 August games, Hader pitched 4 2/3 innings.
But Counsell gave no indication he intended to start, with six weeks left in the regular season, pitching Hader in circumstances like Friday when the Brewers' win expectancy was 13 percent entering the bottom of the eighth, per FanGraphs. That data is unlikely to satisfy those who prefer managing by gut, but it is part of what drives decision-making for analytically-minded organizations like the Brewers.
And it conjures the other conflict between armchair managers, who say "win today and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow"; and actual managers, who actually worry about tomorrow. Had Hader pitched Friday in a game the Brewers were statistically likely to lose, for example, he would have been available for an inning at most on Saturday and then unavailable on Sunday.
Counsell decided it wasn't a time to go for it, especially with the Brewers' bullpen thinned because of injuries (Joakim Soria and Matt Albers on the disabled list) and recent struggles (Corey Knebel, Corbin Burnes and Taylor Williams).
"I think what happened was, at the start of the year, the games worked out where … frankly, it was an unsustainable pace," Counsell said. "He was on about a 100-inning pace. And it looked really cool, like, 'Wow, he can do this!' He wasn't going to be able to keep it up. … I believe it would have wore him down."
One theory is that Hader is worn down, especially after pitching in the Midsummer Classic and then navigating the fallout from the offensive tweets he sent as a teenager that resurfaced that night. But while there have been days that Hader has reported soreness and been unavailable, he is fully healthy, Counsell said.
Explaining Hader's light usage of late, Counsell said, "Well, we've had off-days. And look at the games."
By Saturday, it was getting to the point of "need to pitch," Counsell conceded. He used right-handed reliever Jeremy Jeffress in such a spot on Wednesday at Wrigley Field, when Jeffress worked an inning on five days' rest in an 8-4 loss to the Cubs.
Such outings are the exception, for Jeffress and Hader and for top relievers all around the game. Take Cleveland lefty Andrew Miller, to whom Hader is often compared. Last season, Miller pitched in 57 regular season games -- and appeared only five times in a deficit. In Hader's first 37 games, he pitched in a deficit three times.
It's likely the conflict between armchair managers and Counsell will continue.
"It's not a bad thing that he's got a week here," Counsell said. "That's a good thing, setting up for the rest of the year. ... I'd like to win the games, but the fact he's got a week off, that's a good thing for us looking forward, and looking at him pitching for the next 10 weeks. He's going to have to carry a really heavy load if we're going to have him pitching for another 10 weeks."
There was some good news on the bullpen front. Soria, sidelined by a groin strain, had a good throwing session on Friday, Counsell said, and would throw a light bullpen on Sunday. He won't be ready to escape the DL when he's eligible Monday, but there is hope that Soria is at least making progress.