The Atlanta Braves have gone all in on their bullpen this year; or, at least, the offseason it seems. Massive additions have helped add to an already impressive list of names. The venerated Night Shift, from last year’s World Series Champions, will all be returning. General Manager Alex Anthopolous has made signings so far to solidify the group. Namely, two wily veterans who made their previous teams all the better. Let’s save that for later, though. Right now let’s dive in, and preview what could be one of the best bullpens in baseball.
(Note: This is according to Fangraphs’ projected bullpen at the time of writing. Coming out of Spring Training, some parts might look radically different.)
We begin at the bottom with Sean Newcomb. During his entire time with the Braves, he has been a concerted wild card. He is either brilliant or terrible, hearkening back to a time when pitchers like Julio Teheran were rotation regulars. After coming to the Braves in the 2015 offseason, he showed a little promise. His ERA and record weren’t anything to write home about, however he did strike out 108 batters in 100 innings. However, his reliability continues to be a question mark. An 11.20 ERA in four games in 2020 even got him demoted back to Triple-A Gwinnett. That said, his bullpen game has always been his best. Perhaps this year might be the time he finally breaks through.
A.J. Minter is someone whose career can best be summed up in the average roller coaster. He’s had numerous successes since making his big league debut in 2017. However, he’s also had a few flops. After impressing over his first 16 games, he had his first full season in 2018. He was great that year, striking out 69 batters in a mere 61 1/3 innings with a 127 ERA+. In 2019, he became like a ship in a storm, struggling to a 7.06 ERA, a paltry 66 ERA+, and even a demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. In the last two seasons, he has done much to rectify this, turning into one of the most reliable relievers in the Braves’ bullpen. He’s posted a 2.92 ERA in 83 games with a 155 ERA+. Look for him to make another big impact on the relief corps this season.
Next is Jacob Webb, someone who has shown flashes of brilliance in his short career. In 78 games since 2019, he’s posted a 2.47 ERA and a 185 ERA+. During his rookie season, he was outstanding, finishing the season with a 4–0 record, a 1.39 ERA, and a 332 ERA+ in 36 games. He also picked up his first two career saves. During the shortened 2020 campaign, he did not post an ERA, nor did he give up a home run in eight appearances. 2021 was a bit more of a difficult hill to climb (5-4, 4.19 ERA, 106 ERA+), but he still managed an 8.7 K/9 rate. All in all, Webb has been a good, if not great, part of the middle of the Braves bullpen. Given the correct time frame, he could be yet another subtly valuable asset.
Luke Jackson is known as the “Slider Man.” This is no small wonder, as he has utilized the pitch 43.1% of the time since 2016. After breaking into the big leagues in 2015, he was traded to the Braves during the 2016 offseason. He posted mediocre numbers until 2019, when he had something of a breakout season. However, 2020 was a dreadful year (6.84 ERA, 69 ERA+, 20 ER in 26 1/3 IP). That said, much as with Webb, Jackson rebounded, putting up a tremendous 2021 (1.98 ERA, 224 ERA+, 70 K in 63 2/3 IP). He’s always been terrific with the strikeout, putting up a 9.4 career K/9 rate. His struggles lay in the timing of the big runs that he often allows. That said, he truly broke out last season. The question that remains is which Jackson the Braves bullpen will receive this year.
Tyler Matzek has spent the past two seasons establishing himself as a dominant force in the Braves’ bullpen. It’s been his first real taste of success in the big leagues. After coming to Atlanta towards the end of 2019, he wasted no time in proving his worth. During the shortened season, he managed a 2.79 ERA and a staggering 13.3 K/9 rate. 2021 was even better, as he posted a 2.57 ERA and only gave up three home runs all season. However, he’s most known for his performance during Game Six of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the seventh inning, with the Braves ahead 4–2 and the tying runs on base, Matzek executed three key strikeouts. This, combined with his regular season work, has made him a minor celebrity in Atlanta. Only time will tell if he can support this status.
The final piece to the original Braves bullpen is Will Smith, an Atlanta area native. He first broke through to the big leagues in 2012 with the Kansas City Royals. However, his first year as a starter proved fruitless. So, he was moved to the bullpen, and did well before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. It was here where he truly began showing flashes of the reliable reliever he’d become. That said, he wouldn’t tie it all together until his time with the San Francisco Giants. In 2019, he posted a 2.76 ERA and a 152 ERA+. That earned him a contract back in his home area, and he was slotted in as the Braves’ closer. Even though he has yet to replicate that level of dominance, he did post 37 saves last season.
Key Acquisitions For the Braves Bullpen
Two acquisitions are bolstering these arms: Collin McHugh and Kenley Jansen. For McHugh, as with Smith, it’s a chance to play in a familiar environment. The New York Mets took McHugh in the 2008 Draft out of Berry College just outside of Rome, Georgia. He’s bounced around the big leagues, having the most success with the Houston Astros (58–35, 3.63 ERA, 110 ERA+). This is especially true when it comes to his relief work. He was moved there in 2018, and he exploded (6–2, 1.99 ERA, 209 ERA+). Last year with the Tampa Bay Rays, he was a particularly dominant relief option (6–1. 1.55 ERA, 256 ERA+), striking out 74 batters in 64 innings (10.4 K/9).
Finally, we have Jansen, who holds every single Dodger closer record imaginable. He posted 350 saves in 12 seasons in California. In addition, he has a fantastic 0.928 career WHIP, to go along with a 164 ERA+. The Dodgers signed him when he was 16 in 2004, and it took him until 2010 to break into the big leagues. By 2012, he was the Dodgers regular closer and, by 2014, he was posting over 40 saves a season. His best stretch came between 2016 and ’18, when he made three consecutive All-Star Games. He put up 126 saves in the span with a 2.07 ERA, a 194 ERA+, and a 0.805 WHIP. The Braves have already announced him as the primary closer. Hopefully, fans will see more of his consistency.
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