The Braves bullpen, as we've seen, as struggled over the past few weeks. But, more or less, the bullpen has somewhat seen a lack of identity behind Craig Kimbrel this season. Kimbrel is his usual dominant self when it comes to closing games out in the 9th inning, but what about before the 9th?
It was a set plan that the 7th and 8th innings could be a mixture of David Carpenter, Luis Avilan, and Jordan Walden. Avilan would face lefties, Walden against righties, and Carpenter, well, against everyone. Over the 2013 season, Carpenter went from a mop-up inning man to a setup man. He was becoming yet another example of the wonders the Braves' front office could do; taking a player from a AAAA-quality waiver claim and making him into a star. Anthony Varvaro was in that mold and is know seeing more high leverage situations. Some could say this was just another Fredi-ism, but Varvaro certainly was showing improvement. He's already topped his 2013 fWAR of 0.2 with 0.3 this year, and he has a 2.60 FIP.
And Carpenter has indeed "graduated" into a setup role; in 2013, the average Leverage Index when he entered the game was 1.12. In 2014, such Index was 1.44.
David Carpenter pitched to a 1.78 ERA, 2.83 FIP, and 0.9 fWAR last year. And, being put into a setup role, he has allowed a lot of contact against him. All hitters have a .331 average against him, and Carpenter possesses a 1.73 WHIP. He's also given up more hard contact, with Line Drive Percentage jumping from 22.9% in 2013 to 30.1% in 2014, and Ground Ball Percentage dipping 38.2% in 2013 to 31.3% in 2014.
FanGraphs' Shutdown and Meltdown statistics have also shown that he has done worse for the team this year. A "shutdown" is any outing in which he adds 0.06 WPA or more to his team, and a "meltdown" is any outing in which he detracts 0.06 WPA or more to his team. In 2013, he had 17 shutdowns and 4 meltdowns. This year, he's had 10 shutdowns and 6 meltdowns. That isn't a very good ratio for an 8th inning setup man. The common scale of Awful to Excellent on FanGraphs would say that 6 meltdowns is above average, 8 is average, and 10 is below average. Carpenter has 6, and we are just under halfway through the season.
There are other stats that would say Carpenter has really declined from last year. His WPA is outright negative this year, and Pitchf/x says hitters make a fairly larger amount of contact with his pitches outside the strike zone and overall. Therefore, you can say that Carpenter hasn't responded well to being used in higher leverage, i.e. "setup" roles this year.
And then there's Luis Avilan. Avilan was spectacular last year. However, Avilan has fallen in 2014. In 2013, in 37.2 innings of medium and high leverage situations, Avilan held batters to a .154 average and .248 on-base percentage. In 2014, in 9.0 innings of medium and high leverage situations, Avilan has allowed a .371 average and a .542 on-base percentage. Fredi certainly hasn't used him as he should be used: a LOOGY. Avilan isn't a guy you give the entire 7th or 8th inning to; he should be a specialist brought in to face left-handed hitters with medium-to-big splits.
And then there's Waldo. Walden has 5 years of major league experience, one of them entirely as a certified closer for the Angels in 2011, in which he saved 32 of 42 games. Walden has a career 3.22 ERA, 2.83 FIP, and 82 FIP-. Walden has an established assortment of pitches, including a fastball that reaches 95+, a devastating slider, and a well-developed change up that spells trouble for both lefties and righties. In 2013, in 25.0 innings of medium and high leverage situations he allowed a .193 average and a .304 on-base percentage. In 2014, in 8.2 innings of medium and high leverage situations, he allowed a .133 average and a .211 on-base percentage. In his career, in 106.2 innings of medium and high leverage situations, Walden has allowed a .201 average and a .304 average.
Walden's effectiveness against lefties and righties has also been well documented. In his career, Walden has allowed a .202/.289/.324 slash line to lefties, and .237/.313/.358 slash line to righties.
It is my conclusion then, that Jordan Walden should be the team's true setup man. The team no longer has any guy to truly trust with a tie game or one, two, or three run lead before the 9th inning that has truly proven himself. While Shae Simmons certainly looks to have, he's still only pitched in 8.2 career Major League innings. Jordan Walden has shown he's a solid setup man, who is good insurance in case of anything "happening" to Craig Kimbrel. The past few years, the Braves bullpen, before the closer's spot, has largely consisted of players who they have either taken off the scrap heap (O'Flaherty, Varvaro, Martinez) or are young, middle-of-the-road pitching prospects (Gearrin, Venters, Avilan). We're sitting on what could be a big opportunity for the Braves. While non-closing relief pitchers generally don't get multi-year contracts or deserve ones, I do believe the Braves both need to give such a deal to Walden, and can easily afford it. However, there is probable worry with Walden's injury history and unusual throwing motion. Therefore, I feel that a 2-year extension would be proper, with an option for a 3rd year, in the area of this: