Atlanta Braves 2013 Bullpen: A Review, and a Look Forward



The Atlanta Braves' bullpen has long been a hallmark of this team. We've had the fortune of having many dynamite relievers during the recent history of the Braves, including pitchers such as John Smoltz, Craig Kimbrel, Billy Wagner, Jonny Venters, and Eric O'Flaherty. Unfortunately, injuries have decimated the bullpen this season, taking down 2 of the Braves' top 4 relievers, O'Flaherty and Venters. Despite this fact, the bullpen has kept its head above water up to this point. Luck has been a part of that fact, although the Braves' bullpen, despite the loss of the O'Vent portion of O'Ventbrel, is still a solid unit. However, would a left-handed reliever behoove the Braves down the stretch in 2013?

I'm just going to come right out and say it--the Braves have gotten lucky in 2013 as far as the success as its bullpen is concerned. So far, the Braves' bullpen has posted 1.5 WAR (a figure that is dragged down by the -0.3 WAR of Cory Rasmus, who is no longer with the big league club and managed to accumulate -0.3 in only 3 appearances). That figure is good for 8th in baseball, unsurprisingly behind some teams, such as the Red Sox and Yankees, and surprisingly behind such teams as the Rockies and Tigers. That figure is somewhat disappointing for a team that had the almost universally-touted "best bullpen in baseball" heading into the season. Of course, torn UCLs for Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, both of whom were key cogs in the highly successful Braves bullpens of the past few seasons, is partially attributable to this somewhat disappointing ranking. (Look at me, complaining about a bullpen currently ranked 8th in WAR. I've been spoiled lately.)

While the Braves bullpen has done a respectable job this season, there are clear signs pointing towards regression in the latter half of the season. Only three Braves relievers who figure into the team's second-half bullpen, Luis Ayala, Alex Wood, and Cristhian Martinez (all of whom have had very limited sample sizes thus far), have ERAs higher than their xFIP figures.





Alex Wood




Luis Ayala




Cristhian Martinez




Poor C-Mart! While Ayala's and Wood's ERA and xFIP figures aren't too dramatically different, Martinez has been hurt by one thing--a tiny sample size. Seriously, the guy's only pitched in 2 games and 2.1 innings this season. So really, what we can surmise from this is that, as a whole, pretty much everyone in Atlanta's bullpen has been lucky to some degree this season. Some much more dramatically so than others. Let's take a look.





Craig Kimbrel




Jordan Walden




Anthony Varvaro




Cory Gearrin




Luis Avilan




David Carpenter




A few things jump out at me here--

For one, wow, Luis Avilan has been extremely fortunate. In turn, the Braves (and Fredi Gonzalez) has also been fortunate. Why is that, one may ask? Well, Gonzalez's usage of Avilan has mostly been in high and medium-leverage situations. He's been using Avilan quite a bit in the 7th and 8th innings as a set-up guy in close games. 17 of Avilan's 30.1 innings, or 56% of his innings, have come in these medium and high-leverage situations. In medium-leverage situations (11.2 IP), Avilan has allowed 1 ER, good for a stellar 0.80 ERA. In high-leverage situations (5.1 IP), Avilan has allowed 2 ER, amounting to a 3.53 ERA. In total, his ERA in these rather important situations is a very good 1.59. However, the peripherals suggest that this luck will not perpetuate. Avilan has a somewhat astounding .193 BABIP against, which is a crucial component of his success this season. With a K:BB ratio of only 17:12, one would expect that his numbers would look quite different than they currently do. However, his luck on balls in play, combined with the fact that he has somehow allowed zero home runs this season, have contributed to his impressive-looking numbers so far this season (at least on the surface). With the league-average BABIP hovering somewhere around .290-.300 and a typical HR/FB rate being around 9.5%, Avilan's luck figures to end sometime soon. I'm not personally sold on him as a reliever in such important and high-leverage situations. While he has certainly been a strong contributor for the Braves since initially being called up in mid-July of 2012, I'm a little leery of the fact that his peripherals suggest major regression. That isn't to say that Avilan can't still occupy an important role in the bullpen, however. He's a solid left-handed reliever who has held opposing lefties to an excellent .157/.236/.210 line in his short major league career, so his value against opposing lefties definitely exists. I just don't think I can fully trust him in a 2-2 7th inning with Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and Allen Craig coming up, for instance. I like his value more as a LOOGY and a guy who can give you an inning or two in lower-leverage situations.

Second, Cory Gearrin's high usage concerns me a bit. He has already made 36 appearances, pitching 30 innings this season, and has accumulated a -0.1 WAR and has generally been very "meh." He hasn't been frequently used in high-leverage situations, but he does occasionally find himself used in close, late-inning games. Although his 3.30 ERA isn't awful and he's been victimized by a slightly high .313 BABIP and 10.0% HR/FB rate, his control leaves much to be desired (4.5 BB/9), and he doesn't do a great job of missing bats either (6.9 K/9). He has been fortunate in terms of stranding runners on base, allowing only 19% of inherited runners to score, a number that is, frankly, flukily low number.

Essentially, I really see Gearrin as a mirror image of Avilan in many different ways. Neither sport an impressive K:BB number, both have been lucky (although Avilan more extremely so than Gearrin), and both are better suited as OOGYs against righties and lefties, respectively. I understand that the injuries to O'Flaherty, Venters, Ayala, and Walden have forced Fredi's hand and made him use Gearrin and Avilan in more important situations than he has probably wanted to thus far in the 2013 season. Walden's return and Ayala's pending return should somewhat remedy this situation, but the lack of a really strong left-handed reliever in the Braves' bullpen concerns me when it comes to the second half of the 2013 season and (hopefully) the playoffs. With no other left-handed option in the pen besides Avilan, I would expect Alex Wood to be a fixture in the bullpen this season, barring a trade (which we'll discuss later). While Wood's minor league numbers are fantastic and he has started well as a big-leaguer, he doesn't have extensive relief experience in professional baseball. As a matter of fact, after being drafted out of the University of Georgia in the 2012 draft, all of his professional games pitched were as a starter until his call-up to the bigs in May. This, and Wood's lack of experience, concerns me a bit, despite Wood's obvious talent.

As for the other members of the bullpen, Walden and Kimbrel, who will almost certainly figure to be the set-up man and closer in Gonzalez's bullpen in the second half of 2013, have pitched well. I am in no way concerned about their capabilities to serve as relievers in high-leverage situations. Kimbrel has already proven himself to be an elite reliever, and no one would argument with the assessment that he is the premiere closer in all of baseball. As for Walden, he has great velocity and "stuff" out of the back of the 'pen, generates a strong K:BB ratio of 2.98 career, and was an underrated steal for the Braves this offseason. Thanks, Jerry Dipoto, for somehow believing that Tommy Hanson was still salvageable. He's posted an ugly 5.10 ERA this season, and his peripherals and declining velocity say that this trend won't be bucked. I feel badly for Hanson, as his career has really nose-dived, but getting a reliever of Walden's caliber for him in the off-season has really, really helped, especially now that Venters and O'Flaherty have gone down for the season. Anthony Varvaro figures to be a useful long relief guy to be used in low-leverage situations, and Luis Ayala is an experienced reliever who can be another solid low-leverage righty out of the 'pen once his anxiety medication issue is straightened out in Gwinnett.

Looking Forward

So, right now, I see the Braves' bullpen (barring injury, which is inevitable), basically looking something like this for the remainder of 2013:

  • Anthony Varvaro
  • Luis Ayala
  • Cory Gearrin
  • Jordan Walden
  • Craig Kimbrel
  • Luis Avilan (L)
  • Alex Wood (L)
  • Depending on how the Beachy situation works out, you may see Beachy, Medlen, or Maholm working in the 'pen this season, although I imagine Beachy would be the most likely of the trio.

That's not a terrible looking bullpen. Obviously, Kimbrel and Walden are an elite duo in the back of the bullpen, which is the most crucial component to a bullpen's success. However, I believe that the Braves would be well-served to make a move for a good left-handed reliever before the trading deadline. Personally, I do not like to see Alex Wood in the Braves' bullpen as a guy used in low-leverage situations when he could be continuing to pitch at Gwinnett, preparing himself for a future in the Braves' rotation, which certainly figures to have a spot for him in the fairly near future. Gonzalez has been reluctant to call upon Wood in important situations during his time in Atlanta's bullpen, using him in low-leverage situations in 10.2 out of Wood's 12.2 total innings. To me, it seems crystal clear that Wood does not serve an important purpose and would be better-served in Gwinnett if Gonzalez refuses to use him in a more high-leverage capacity in Atlanta. To me, it seems as if the acquisition of a proven left-handed arm for our bullpen would allow us to add a more reliable left-handed option than Avilan in our bullpen, while allowing Wood's development in the minor leagues to continue.
So, who could the Braves possibly target, and at what cost? Below, I've compiled a (short) list of names speculated to be available, some of whom have been connected to the Braves. I think these are names of players who make sense as a fit in Atlanta and could add an important dimension to our bullpen sensibly.

Dunn, a former Brave, has posted a solid 2.97 out of the Marlins' bullpen this season, although his peripherals (4.36 xFIP), suggest that he's gotten a bit lucky. Dunn has been tough against lefties throughout his career, limiting them to a .224/.327/.328 line against him. He has somewhat surprisingly pitched more innings against right-handers in his career, and has had considerably less success against them, allowing a .245/.363/.433 line. Dunn's struggles against righties and relatively high BB/9 (projected to hover around 5) are a bit off-putting, but the Marlins likely wouldn't require much in return for his services, and the Braves' brass is familiar with him due to his past as a Brave.

Wesley Wright was one of the lone bright spots on last year's Houston Astros team. He posted a very impressive 9.29 K/9, 3.27 ERA, and 3.30 xFIP for the 2012 Astros. He hasn't been as good this season, with an ugly 4.61 ERA and a reduced 7.57 K/9, although he has improved his walk rate slightly. His peripherals suggest that he has gotten quite unlucky this season, however, as his BABIP allowed stands at .371 and his xFIP is a much lower 3.55. Wright, much like Dunn, has been very effective against lefties in his career and much less effective against righties, allowing lines of .230/.318/.330 and .271/.362/.507, respectively. I like Wright as a trade candidate for the Braves, as his poor start to the 2013 season has likely slightly depressed his trade value, and he has a very Braves-friendly $1M/1 year contract as of now.

Oliver Perez shows up as somewhat of a shocker on this list. A formerly highly-rated prospect with the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets, Perez had a few solid seasons as a starter in the National League until his career tailspinned in 2009 with the Mets. Since then, his career has experienced a renaissance as a left-handed reliever in Seattle, posting a 1.58 ERA in 57.1 relief innings combined between 2012 and 2013, facing a fairly equal amount of right-handed and left-handed batters. Surprisingly, he's fared better against righties than lefties, although this could be a small sample size aberration, as he's been better against lefties than righties in his career. Many of Perez's problems as a starter could be attributed to his ridiculous BB/9, which was 8.16 (!) in his last season as a starter with the Mets in 2010. He's posted a BB/9 of 3.77 in his time in Seattle's bullpen, combined with an attractive K/9 of 9.73. Perez has always had good stuff, and now that he's harnessed his control more effectively, he's been great in Seattle. Perez is also only under team control through this season, which would be attractive to Atlanta.

In summary, I'm not too perturbed about the future of our bullpen in 2013. Although some regression will likely occur, slightly for guys like Walden and Kimbrel and more severely for guys like Avilan and Gearrin, we still have a solid bullpen that should be an good to very good unit. I believe that the acquisition of a left-handed reliever would benefit the 'pen, allowing Wood to continue to gain experience as a starter in the minors and a more experienced left-hander to be used by Gonzalez in high-leverage situations. The Braves have been noted to be looking for a left-handed reliever since Venters and O'Flaherty went down, so it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Wren make a move for a guy like one of the three listed above.
This is my first big fanpost I've done over here, so I hope you enjoyed it. I'm sure there are various mistakes strewn throughout the piece, but hopefully I was of some use. Cheers.

This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.

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