MILWAUKEE — Jeurys Familia walked out of the clubhouse Thursday afternoon with the same big smile on his face as always. He bumped fists with trainers and coaches, he shook hands with a security guard and ran out onto the field for his pregame work with a smile on his face.
Less than 24 hours after he allowed two runs in the ninth to the Marlins, Familia had clearly let it go. His manager also was not dwelling on Familia’s fourth blown save of the season.
Mickey Callaway argued Thursday afternoon that this year, Familia is the best version of himself in his seven years in the big leagues. He thinks Familia is better than in 2016, when the closer saved a team-record 51 games.
“I think that if you look at the numbers, he’s been our best reliever. There’s no way around that. People can say ‘Well, nobody else has four blown saves.’ Nobody else has pitched in (as many) really close games in save situations,” Callaway argued. “I think that if you look at it, the year he had 51 saves, all of his numbers are better than that. He’s having a career year numbers wise. There is a reason that some teams don’t value having a closer, because saves don’t matter. It’s about what the person does on a consistent basis. If he goes up there and three times this year he’s given up a couple of runs, one-run games, he can’t do anything about that.
“He can only go up there and control what he can control,” Callaway continued. “His strikeouts are up. His walk rates are down. This is the best version of himself he’s ever been since he’s been pitching.”
Compared to past full seasons, Familia went into Thursday night’s series opener against the Brewers at Miller Park with the second lowest walk rate (3.1 walks per nine innings) behind 2015 when he averaged 2.1 walks per nine. He has struck out 28 over the 23 innings he has pitched this season for a career-high 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings.
After allowing two runs on a career-high tying four hits Wednesday night at Citi Field, Familia has four blown saves through 45 games in 2018, which is eyebrow raising. When he notched 51 saves in 2016, Familia had a total of five blown saves.
Callaway came into this season preaching that he was not planning to use Familia in the familiar closer role, because he wanted to use his best reliever in the highest leverage situations. He said he has gotten away from that plan because of the quick development of long men Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, and because he does not have the versatility he expected at the back end of the bullpen with the injury to Anthony Swarzak. He did not say it, but Callaway has been limited by the struggles of Jerry Blevins and AJ Ramos, who were expected to give him more flexibility as well.
So Familia has been called on in big spots and has already pitched 10 high-leverage innings so far this season, tied for the fifth most in the majors.
That is a product of their offense struggling and Callaway sees it affecting the pitching staff.
“I think the thing that probably isn’t comfortable, is that every game we play is a one-run game. That’s just how it is. We’ve got to score more runs,” Callaway said. “We’ve thrown the highest leverage innings for starters. We’ve thrown the highest leverage inning for relievers, because we have the closest games in the league. That takes its toll. One of the things that takes its toll on pitchers more than anything, more than usage, more than innings pitched is stressful innings.
“Every inning we’ve thrown this year has been stressful.”