Over the past number of years, the Braves more so than any other team have been dominant in the bullpen. According to pretty much every metric, the Braves have had the most effective bullpen in baseball over the past few seasons. Much of that has to do with having the best closer in baseball, but having guys like Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, David Carpenter, and Anthony Varvaro pitch lights out from basically coming from nothing has been a huge boost as well.
This season, the Braves are struggling in this department and it's one of the big reasons they are not a few games ahead in the NL East. Even though the bullpen WAR is fifth and the team's FIP is tops in the game at 2.99, the reliever ERA is a lackluster 3.59 -- which is just 14th best in baseball.
Make no question about it, if the Braves are going to succeed the rest of the season and specifically in the post season, they need a top notch bullpen. The starting staff is solid, but it's not full of blockbuster front line type guys. It's full of a few high potential starters and some mid-rotation types. In order for the team to prevent as many runs as it needs to in order to win the division, they need to pitch closer to their current FIP than their current ERA.
Which brings me to my next point, the team has gotten relatively unlucky in the bullpen. Andrew wrote a great post about David Carpenter. He has not had the results he had last season, but he hasn't necessarily pitched worse. Relievers are always stuck in the small sample, especially in the early going, so a few bad outings has hurt Carpenter's traditional stats but his peripherals are solid.
Despite my confidence in Carpenter, he probably will get a couple of weeks off as he is battling biceps discomfort. That will push Jordan Walden and Shae Simmons into the set up role with Anthony Varvaro essentially acting as a back up set up man and middle reliever. I really like those three plus Kimbrel in the back end from the right side.
Back to the numbers, only the Tigers and Rangers have bigger gaps between their FIP and ERA. If the Braves had not had such a great history of quality performance, even though they are missing Venters and O'Flaherty, I would have less confidence in them to rebound even with this current group. The bullpen should be fine, although I am not quite ready to say that they absolutely will be fine.
My issues with the bullpen lie on the left side. Luis Avilan was a very fortunate pitcher last year and his struggles this year are unsurprising. Him being the lone left-hander on the roster is a very serious concern. The team should be out looking for left-handed relievers, since Ian Thomas has not been what we hoped so far and Alex Wood will be back in the rotation sooner rather than later. If the Braves cannot have at least one effective left-handed reliever, they will continue to struggle with match up problems and it will cause the right-handed middle guys to work more innings. Of course, staying out of obsessively long extra innings games should help too.
To be clear, the overall picture of the bullpen is still pretty bright. Having Craig Kimbrel, despite his inconsistency at times this year, makes everything a lot easier. Having quality changeups from Simmons and Walden should lessen the need for multiple good left-handed relievers, but one is still essential. Varvaro has been solid and has kept the group from implosion, and while Hale has not been what we want of late he is still effective as a long guy -- just as long that's the role he actually acts in. I cannot blame Fredi for Hale having to pitch in awkward situations, since most of those are due to the long extra inning games.
What could be even more beneficial to the bullpen is the rotation getting back to deep starts with limited stress. Nothing helps a bullpen like quality starts, and Ervin Santana and Mike Minor have not quite been themselves the past few outings. Them getting back to the type of starters we know they can be would be a very nice boost to the bullpen in terms of rest. There is certainly reasons to worry about the bullpen, but there are as many reasons to be confident that they will get back to their usual successful performances.