Differing styles work for Boyer, Thornburg

Differing styles work for Boyer, Thornburg

MILWAUKEE -- There are the yin and the yang, night and day, the bratwurst and the Polish and, of course, the Brewers' Blaine Boyer and Tyler Thornburg.

As seen on Wednesday night at Miller Park, Boyer and Thornburg took their different pitching styles to the mound in relief of a 4-3 win over the Braves, and did so as they have for much of the season: successfully.

Boyer, a sinkerballer who relies heavily on soft contact, pounded the zone to retire two batters in the sixth to preserve a 4-2 lead. Then, in the ninth, the newly appointed closer, Thornburg, picked up the save that included a strikeout on a sharp curve in the dirt.

With his 12.34 strikeouts per nine innings ranking among league leaders and an average fastball of over 95 mph, Thornburg has fit the mold of a hard-throwing, late-inning arm that has become a common trend in baseball. Meanwhile, Boyer's 3.26 ERA and 3.76 FIP that accompany a league-low 3.62 K/9 show that there, in fact, is more than one way to be an effective relief arm in baseball today.

"Each guy has to do what he's good at," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "It is going to be different for each guy. You can't ask Blaine to be a big strikeout guy. That's not his strength. His strength is early count contact. That's his strength."

Thornburg echoed his skipper's sentiment.

"I think especially at the beginning of the year we were all amazed that Blaine had like five strikeouts in his first 20 innings or something, but he always got weak contact," Thornburg said. "There's so many ways and different styles of pitching."

Boyer first learned to effectively tailor his pitching to his particular skillset in St. Louis is 2009 under pitching coach Dave Duncan, he said. Then 27 years old, Boyer's approach was to miss bats with his fastball -- which was just over one mph faster on average than he throws now at 35, per Brooks Baseball -- until his approach to attacking hitters reversed its course.

"When I went to St. Louis, I was not a good pitcher," Boyer said. "I had a good arm, I had a good fastball; but I just learned how to pitch over there. I learned how to take the stuff that I have and my abilities and give the team the best chance to win.

"When I pitched to miss bats, I walked a ton of guys. As a pitcher, this is my identity as a pitcher: weak contact and going right at somebody and trying to get it done in a few pitches or less."

Counsell on Brewers' 4-3 win

Advanced metrics confirm that Boyer has been successful in his execution. Of the 172 pitchers that have allowed at least 150 balls in play this season, he has the lowest average exit velocity against at 85.1 mph, according to Statcast™.

"You get soft contact," Boyer said. "It's all about not getting squared up, not getting hit hard. You can get a guy out on his front foot, get a ground ball. If you can get a guy to take a huge hack and you're throwing sinkers, you're going to get a ground ball.

 "For me, it's my sinker. Hopefully that thing is going down and I'm getting guys to see that thing. Then when it gets to the bat, it's lower than they thought it was."

Thornburg, meanwhile, misses bats and lots of them.

Among qualified relievers, Thornburg's 35.4 strikeout percentage ranks third among all NL relievers. As of Wednesday, on his two primary pitches, fastball and curve, the right-hander had induced strikeouts on 23.4 and 41.7 percent of swings, respectively. Thornburg has seen an uptick in velocity of nearly three mph on his fastball, which he attributes mostly to a healthy off-season entering the campaign.

In 37 games since May 7, Thornburg owns a 1.01 ERA with nine walks and 47 strikeouts.

Interestingly enough, Thornburg has reversed course from 2015 when his changeup was his primary offspeed strikeout pitch. Last season, he threw the change over 28 percent of the time, compared with just over 10 percent this year -- including none on Wednesday.

"I think it's just a situation when you're throwing late in games," Thornburg said. "It's one of those where if you're already beating the guy's bat with the fastball, it's really difficult to throw changeups. All of a sudden, make a mistake and it's a tie game or you blow the lead. It's one of those situations, where depending on the score we feel like we can go other places than the changeup."

Curt Hogg is a reporter for MLB.com based in Milwaukee. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.