The Braves' Bullpen: A Continuing Tradition Of Striking Dudes Out

Craig Kimbrel has been a huge part of the Braves' bullpen's strikeout excellence this season.

Last night, the Braves' top 3 relievers (Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel) struck out 6 batters in 3 innings. This is nothing new for these guys, or for the Braves' bullpen as a whole, this year. The team has five different relievers with at least 10 innings pitched and at least 8.5 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched (K/9): Kimbrel (13.5 K/9), George Sherrill (12.2 K/9), Cory Gearrin (11.1 K/9), Venters (8.6 K/9), and O'Flaherty (8.6 K/9).

So it should come as no surprise that the Braves' bullpen leads all of baseball in strikeout rate. They've averaged exactly a strikeout per inning this year (9.0 K/9): 183 strikeouts in 183 innings.

An entire bullpen averaging a strikeout an inning is pretty rare. It's been done only 10 times before. The #1 team should be pretty familiar:

  1. 2010 Braves, 10.06 K/9 (wow!)
  2. 2001 Cubs, 9.82 K/9
  3. 2010 Padres, 9.57 K/9
  4. 1999 Mets, 9.39 K/9
  5. 1999 Astros, 9.36 K/9 (another Billy Wagner team)
  6. 2010 Cubs, 9.26 K/9
  7. 2005 Cubs, 9.20 K/9
  8. 2004 Angels, 9.07 K/9
  9. 2010 White Sox, 9.05 K/9
  10. 1997 Astros, 9.00 K/9 (Wagner again)
  11. 2011 Braves, 9.00 K/9 (in progress)

Last year was a great year for bullpen strikeouts, wasn't it? But the Braves topped them all, led by Wagner, Takashi Saito, and Venters (with assists from Kimbrel, Kyle Farnsworth, and Michael Dunn).

In fact, the 2009 Braves, despite having none of those six relievers, also led MLB in strikeouts. That team put up an 8.46 K/9 thanks to dueling closers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, plus Kris Medlen. So if this year's team keeps it up, that'll make 3 straight years topping MLB in bullpen strikeout rate, despite huge turnover. I think some applause is in order.

Much more about the Braves' history of bullpen strikeouts, dating back to the 1990s, after the jump.

In the list above, I gave the top 10 K/9 seasons of all time. If I had extended that list to the top 40 seasons, there would have been six more Braves teams on there: every year from 1997 through 2001, plus that league-leading 2009 total I mentioned above.

What's that sound I hear? Is that a commenter complaining that the Braves' bullpens sucked during the division title streak? That possibly hallucinated sound is wrong, though. The Braves' bullpen was actually great pretty much every year from 1993 through 2003. Sure, they weren't any good in 1991 or 1992, and yes, there were those dark years in the mid-2000's (more on those later), but in between? Dominance.

Allow me to show you something. Here is a graph of the Braves' bullpen's strikeout rate since 1990, compared to the league average (click image to enlarge):

Braves_k_rate_1990-2011_medium

During the height of the Mark Wohlers era, the Braves consistently had one of the most strikeout-heavy bullpens in baseball. They ranked in the top 5 in MLB every year between 1993 and 2001, including 1st place finishes in '93, '94, and '98.

The Braves dropped a bit to 8th in 2002 and 5th in 2003 before cratering to well below-average from 2004-2006. I like to call this "The Chris Reitsma Effect." During his 3 years in the Braves' bullpen, they finished 18th, 20th, and 25th in strikeout rate.

After ditching Reitsma, the Braves' K/9 numbers not-so-mysteriously rose, hitting 12th in 2007 and 8th in 2008. And of course they have led the league in each of the past 3 seasons.

All in all, this is quite an illustrious tradition of bullpen strikeouts--one that is mirrored by success in other pitching metrics (though those will have to wait for another post).

Here's another graph that illustrates the same point. On this graph, I use K/9+ instead of K/9. K/9+ is like ERA+ in that 100 is the league average and each point above/below 100 is equal to 1% above/below average. So a 110 mark is 10% above average and a 92 mark is 8% below average. Just how much better than the league have the Braves' been over the years?

Braves_k_rate_plus_1990-2011_medium

The Braves' relievers have been at least 10% better than average at striking batters out in 13 of the last 21 years, and above average in 16 of the last 21 years. They were at least 11% above average every year from 1993 to 2001. Every year. For 9 straight seasons. And they're working on another 3-season streak right now.

The Braves have two of the top 10 seasons since 1990 in terms of K/9+ (last year at #7 and 1999 at #9). Counting this season, they have 9 seasons in the top 43. Only the Cubs (3 in the top 10, 7 in the top 40) can compare, but all of those Cubs seasons have come since 2001, so their tradition of strikeouts is not as long as the Braves'.

Basically, with the exception of the Reitsma Effect, the Braves have had great strikeout bullpens consistently for nearly 20 years. And with Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and other great young arms under team control for many more seasons, there is no end in sight.

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