Back in late November, the Braves claimed RHP David Carpenter off waivers from the Red Sox. At the time, it was a noticeable move, but the impact of the deal wasn’t expected to be more than a possible bullpen piece if everything fell into place.
Well, like many pieces in the bullpen, what Carpenter has done for the Braves in 2013 has been huge. So far in 45 innings, he’s posted a 1.80 ERA and has become a very important piece in the best bullpen in baseball. The table below compares Carpenter's pre-Braves numbers with 2013's. Because we’re dealing with relievers and small samples, keep that in mind and focus on the strikeouts and walks (xFIP is also generally works best for smaller samples).
So how did he manage to increase his strikeout rate and drop his walk rate along with run prevention, by fairly noticeable margins?
After digging around and doing some research on Carpenter, one of the first things that jumped off the page was his fastball velocity is trending upwards. According to Brooks Baseball, his average FB sat at 94.63 in 2011, then jumped a half tick to 95.12 in 2012, then jumped another half a mile per hour this season, at 95.65. You can see this broken down below by game.
Considering Carpenter recently turned 28, it’s odd to see this type of velocity improvement at a fairly late stage. Whatever the cause of it, I believe this is one of the reasons he is turning into a trusted high-leverage reliever.
Another reason for Carpenter’s success is the addition of his changeup. This is something I also brought up with Jordan Walden last month. Carpenter has always been a fastball/slider guy, throwing the change only 3% v. LHB. This season he has still been fastball/slider dominant, but has upped the usage of his changeup to 12% v. LHB. This isn't necessarily a drastic increase or a direct reason for success, but it is another wrinkle in his arsenal to opposing handed batters.
Carpenter is yet another example of a fantastic find and pickup by Frank Wren. I know this gets mentioned a lot around here, but at the same time it can’t be mentioned enough. Frank Wren has done a phenomenal job at constructing dominant bullpens for cheap. Their scouting department has done wonderful job finding these arms from other teams, then allowing the coaches to refine their approach. I also don’t think Roger McDowell gets enough credit for the work he has done with the staff, but that could be a 2,000 word post in and of itself.
Another angle that can’t be overlooked with Carpenter is that he doesn’t become arbitration eligible until 2015. This means the Braves will have another solid right handed power arm in the ‘pen for multiple years. While he may be out-pitching his peripherals a bit this year, this happens with highly volatile positions like relievers. Carpenter's true talent is probably closer to a 3.00 ERA, but even that is a highly valuable piece in a bullpen.
Pickups like Walden and Carpenter appear even larger looking towards the playoffs. Strong bullpens carry more value because of "do or die" games, along with the fact relievers can be used more frequently in the playoffs because of the amount of off days that take place. Managers are more likely to play the matchups and have a quicker hook with starters. Obviously, this plays right into the Braves' hands and is just another reason to be really excited about this team going forward.