MLB bullpen report: A couple of things to keep an eye on in June

Jun 6, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks (31) reacts after getting the final out against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 6, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Liam Hendriks (31) reacts after getting the final out against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

As the calendar flips to June, here are a couple of interesting MLB bullpen situations to keep an eye on.

The Chicago White Sox got a huge boost at the end of May, with the return of Liam Hendriks from his battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Sox are 6-2 with Hendriks back, and while it may take some time for him to get up to speed, he has already taken over the closer role, and that allows Pedro Grifol to use some of his other bullpen arms in different situations. Chicago is eight games under .500, sure, but this isn’t necessarily a shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic type scenario. Just 3.5 games out of first place, the AL Central is pretty much up for grabs, and a revitalized White Sox bullpen will be a big piece of a team searching for sustainable success.

With Hendriks’ homecoming, Kendall Graveman will be bumped into more of a setup role. After a rocky start to the season, Graveman has been outstanding across his last 14 appearances, allowing just 2 hits in 14.1 innings, he has not allowed an earned run since April 30. Joe Kelly and Reynaldo Lopez move into a seventh inning or later/high leverage situational role, with Kenyan Middleton now throwing more middle relief. Lopez can be wild at times, and his walk rates are not really a ton of fun to look at, but he is seeing career high whiff rates on his slider this season and pairs that a triple digit fastball, so his strikeouts per 9 are also currently his career best. Middleton is another key cog here, another White Sox reliever with a clean slate through his last 12 appearances, he has not allowed a run since April 29 and is striking out more than a batter an inning. Liam Hendriks has the potential to be one of the most dominant closers in baseball, he’s a three-time All-Star who has finished in the top 8 in Cy Young voting twice. He’s a fiery competitor, and emotional leader for the Sox, and his presence in the bullpen gives Chicago a distinct advantage moving forward.

Don’t look now, but the Cincinnati Reds are 8-5 over the last two weeks and have moved into third place in the NL Central, another division that is essentially up for grabs. Milwaukee sits in first, with the slimmest of leads over Pittsburgh, and the Redlegs are now just 5 games back. Cincy has seemingly changed their approach midseason, calling up the rookies and letting the kids play, it appears to be working, but you don’t win eight out of 13 games without some help from the back end of the bullpen. Buck Farmer has become a reliable set up man for one of the best closers in baseball, Alexis Diaz, while Ian Gibault, and Alex Young are also throw in important situations, and it looks like Cincinnati has stumbled itself into some reliable late innings from some unlikely sources. The key here is Diaz. He makes this whole thing work, with 10 saves in his last 14 appearances. Cincy is 12-2 since May 2 when he takes the mound. Buck Farmer has allowed just two earned runs in his last 17.1 innings, and it will be fun to watch this bullpen evolve as the lineup changes and Reds find themselves playing close late in games.

At the top of the NL Central sit the Milwaukee Brewers and their elite closer, Devin Williams. Williams came into this season with just 18 career saves, and really just took over the closer role in Milwaukee after Josh Hader was traded last season, but his career K rates have always shown that he had the ability to put away close games. To start 2023, it would appear he is smack dab in the middle of a career year. Posting an 0.44 ERA through 20 games, he has allowed just one earned run and struck out 28 batters. Relying on pretty much on just a fastball and changeup, opponents are having a hard time getting around on either pitch. Since giving up a home run on May 7, he allowed just two hits, while striking out 14 batters in 10 innings. In a hotly contested division, the Brewers are lucky to lean on Devin Williams in close games.

Quietly, in Kansas City, Scott Barlow is having a heck of season for the Royals. After a tough start, he’s gotten his ERA down from 9.45 to 3.52, by surrendering just two earned runs in his last 16.1 innings. He has struck out 25 batters over those same frames with a slider, curveball, and fastball. While he doesn’t have elite velocity on his fastball, his slider and curve are amongst the best in the league. He has thrown his slider 154 times this season and it induces a 30.4 Whiff% and 26.8 Putaway%, but opponents have seen his curveball 115 times and produced a just a .036 batting average against it. That sucker can move.

With Kansas City toiling away at the bottom of the league, and the 30-year-old Barlow still with one remaining arbitration year, he could be a nice bullpen piece for a serious contender to add come this year’s MLB trade deadline.

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