The Atlanta Braves Bullpen: Heroes and Villains

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This season, the Atlanta Braves have had to overcome many obstacles. One of these has been their bullpen. Leaky and inefficient at the start, it has shown some improvement in recent weeks. Unfortunately, they have encountered even more trouble over the past two or three games. So, the team is still dealing with the bullpen as a massively uncertain factor. The question is still whether or not this relief corps can hold out for the remainder of the season. For now, let’s journey into the bullpen’s year so far. From this, perhaps we can analyze a bit and determine who the heroes are and who could drown the corps.

The Beginning

The year began with a bullpen unlike the one from the shortened 2020 season. Mark Melancon departed to the San Diego Padres. Shane Greene became a free agent. So, new additions like Nate Jones and Carl Edwards Jr. came in to try and plug those holes. Unfortunately, these experiments did not turn out well for the team. Jones was okay, posting a 3.48 ERA and a 134 ERA+ in 12 games. Sadly, his WHIP of 1.742 and FIP of 8.78 were direct indications of where he was headed. On May 10th, he was released. He made a few more appearances with the Los Angeles Dodgers before being released again. He is still a free agent. As for Edwards Jr., he only pitched in one game. He gave up three runs in a third of an inning, and was shipped off. He’s currently with the Toronto Blue Jays.

So, these things didn’t pan out so well for the Atlanta Braves. Looking for answers, the team went out and signed Greene to a one-year minor league deal. He had been excellent for the team during the shortened 2020 season (2.60 ERA, 188 ERA+, 1.120 WHIP). Perhaps he might have turned into the savior the bullpen required. Sadly, it was not to be. Greene regressed severely, pitching to an 8.47 ERA and a 54 ERA+ in 17 innings. He gave up 16 runs, all earned, and had an H/9 of 11.6. Paired with a BB/9 rate of 4.8 and a FIP of 6.76, it becomes clear that he was not the answer. It seems that Greene was yet another victim of statistic inflation during 2020. Earlier this week, the Braves designated him for assignment.

The Good of the Atlanta Braves Bullpen

The Braves’ bullpen might have had its’ rough patches, but there have been bright spots. Tyler Matzek and Luke Jackson helped carry the corps through these storms. Despite struggling at the beginning of the season, Matzek has caught fire lately. According to Mark Bowman, since the All-Star break, Matzek has not given up a run. He’s also whiffed 12 batters. Overall, he’s posted a terrific 2.47 ERA and a 184 ERA+ in 43 2/3 innings this season. However, what’s impressive is his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. His HR/9 rate is 0.4. He has solid FIP and WHIP numbers as well (3.00 and 1.191, respectively). The only issue here is his BB/9 rate of 5.4. He has walked 26 batters in all this season. In short, Matzek has been one of the most reliable arms in the Braves bullpen all season. If he cuts down on the walks, he’ll be even more so.

For Jackson, it has been a career year. In the shortened season last year, he experienced a statistical deflation. However, he has rebounded to become a very exciting, dominant presence on the mound. His ERA of 2.14 is the best of any pitcher on the team, starting or otherwise. While he carries a losing record, his ERA+ of 203 speaks to his value. Like Matzek, Jackson has an affinity for keeping the ball within the park’s confines. He has given up three more homers, but his HR/9 rate of 1.0 is solid. Unfortunately, he has had a bit of a recent regression, raising his FIP to 4.09 and his WHIP to 1.250.  However, overall, his season has been excellent. Considering his ERA was nearing the seven mark last season, he has shown dramatic improvement.

Other Solutions

Former Braves Jesse Chavez, Edgar Santana, and A.J. Minter have also been plugged into the bullpen. Much as with the corps as a whole, it has been a roller coaster ride. Chavez has been the best out of all three of these pitchers (2-2, 2.60 ERA, 178 ERA+, 1.62 FIP). Santana was picked up earlier this year. He’s undefeated and has posted an ERA in the mid-threes. His ERA+ is holding at a steady 128. However, his FIP of 4.71 presents a concern. He’s also given up the most home runs out of anyone in the bullpen and has an HR/9 rate of 1.8. Finally, Minter, who was recently returned from the minors, has struggled this year. He’s 1-4 with a 4.58 ERA and a 100 ERA+. However, his FIP is an impressive 2.93. It’s his WHIP of 1.358 that’s the most disconcerting here. Nevertheless, if he can return to his previous form, he could become an important asset to the bullpen down the stretch.

The Closer’s Role

When it comes to closers, Will Smith has done a fair job. That said, a string of recent woeful performances reflects the team’s need for someone better. Smith is 23 for 27 in save opportunities. His ERA is nearing four and he’s giving up home runs at a 1.2 HR/9 rate. His ERA+ is an above average 118, but he holds a 3.65 FIP. He also has a BB/9 rate of 2.9 and an H/9 rate of 7.3. The main trouble seems to be on his slider. A wSL of 3.4 attests to this. Considering he throws this pitch 38.9% of the time, mixing pitches more needs to be a priority. His cutter has been particularly effective (-0.3 wCU), however he only throws it 10.3% of the time. Shutting games down efficiently depends on these changes. If he cannot, the team must consider other paths.

This is where Richard Rodriguez comes in. Many fans are wondering why Rodriguez is not in the closer’s role. While that question remains unanswered, Richard has been consistently plugging away. In seven appearances since coming over from the Pittsburgh Pirates, he has yet to allow a run. He’s given up three hits in seven innings along with a WHIP under one and a FIP just over three. He has only allowed one runner to reach via the free pass and has struck out three. The statistics don’t lie. If Rodriguez begins closing games, the bullpen itself could see a massive turnaround. Even though some of these changes have helped so far, this type of return to form is still sorely needed.

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Players Mentioned:

Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Nate Jones, Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler MatzekLuke Jackson, Jesse Chavez, Edgar SantanaA.J. Minter, Will Smith, Richard Rodriguez