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2017 Atlanta Braves Season in Review: Relief Pitching

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The next installment of Talking Chop’s season in review series takes a look at the bullpen and how it might develop in the future.

Atlanta Braves v Colorado Rockies Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

It’s a bit of an obvious statement that bad teams don’t need good bullpens. That bears itself out pretty well if you look at the standings and the bullpen ranks: of the top 10 bullpens by fWAR in 2017, six of them are taken up by playoff teams. To that end, it’s not surprising that the Braves finished the season with the league’s fourth-worst bullpen by fWAR (fifth-worst by RA9-WAR).

The Braves only used 19 relievers in 2017. That’s actually perhaps a bit surprising, given that they used 26 in 2016, and 33 different relievers in 2015. An average team uses about 20 relievers in a given season, and good teams tend to keep a relatively short list of 15ish relatively effective relievers. For example, during the Braves’ most recent competitive stretch, the Braves used only 14-16 relievers each year.

Here’s an overview of the results for the 2017 Atlanta bullpen.

If you look at the above list, you’ll probably notice some names you may have forgotten. Chaz Roe had only three unfortunate outings for the Braves in April before missing time with injury and eventually being traded by the Rays, where he went back to his effective ROOGYing ways in September. Eric O’Flaherty put up gnarly, ineffective relief outings through June before hanging up his cleats. Josh Collmenter also contributed some terrible relief for the first two months of the year before an epic seven-run extra-inning meltdown got him booted from the major league team; he finished out the rest of the year in Gwinnett.

On the additions front, the Braves grabbed Sam Freeman in the offseason, and promoted him from Gwinnett in May. Freeman was one of the team’s best relievers over the course of the year. Rex Brothers came back to baseball after sitting out the 2016 season on a minor league deal, and also got a shot pitching in relief. He was incredibly effective against lefties, but sadly, was left in to face a bunch of righty hitters in his outings: fewer than 40 percent of the hitters he faced batted lefty. Jason Motte was signed during the first week of the season and started making appearances in April, but was roundly awful, saved mostly by his low BABIP-against. As usual, the remaining reinforcements came from the team’s minor league system, including a very dominant A.J. Minter.

The Good

A quartet of strong relief performances buoyed the bullpen. Arodys Vizcaino and Sam Freeman were the consistent, reliable members of the relief corps, putting up sub-3.00 ERAs and sub-4.00 FIPs. In late August, the Braves called up A.J. Minter and reinstated Daniel Winkler after his return from a gruesome elbow injury. While they managed fewer than 30 innings between them, they were dominant when they pitched: Minter had a hilariously good 0.96 FIP and 1.63 xFIP, to go with a 43.3 percent strikeout rate and 3.3 percent walk rate (no I didn’t make those numbers up I swear), while Winkler was less ridiculously good but still highly effective with a 2.81 FIP and a strikeout rate that saw him whiff more than a third of the batters he faced.

The Meh

A lot of the Braves’ relievers were kind of just “there” in 2017, which again, makes sense given the overall low quality of the team. The aforementioned Rex Brothers had his value tanked by being put in to face righties. Luke Jackson pitched 50 innings in relief after being acquired from the Rangers for Tyrell Jenkins, and was about as bog-standard as possible, putting up a 4.62 / 4.24 / 5.29 pitching triple slash while working in thankless middle relief. Jason Hursh also got ten or so innings of relief work this year, and failed to make any sort of impression.

The Braves also used the bullpen as a way for their gaggle of young starters to get some work in. Lucas Sims, Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, and Matt Wisler all pitched out of the bullpen at one point or another throughout the season. Wisler’s tenure there was disastrous (8.89 ERA, 5.36 FIP) as he shuttled to-and-fro from Gwinnett.

The Ugly

As the Atlanta bullpen wasn’t very good, there was definitely some ugliness going on, and it can be summarized mostly by player.

  • Jim Johnson had a very dramatic, and very rapid, turnaround of his season. He was dominant in April despite some rough luck with regard to sequencing, and pretty good in May. June saw yet another very good month from him. But then, July saw him suffer a few blowups. The peripherals were bad, but not eye-poppingly so. Yet, the slide continued — as the calendar turned to August, Jim Johnson found himself not only unable to keep runs off the board, but unable to get outs. His line was savaged by four terrible outings in a row in mid-August, with the last one having him enter the game, allow four runs, and exit the game without having retired a hitter. Even working in lower-leverage situations did not prove a healing salve for his pitching woes, as Johnson finished out September with a similar bout of ineffectiveness. Johnson finished the season with the sixth-worst WPA among all relievers in baseball.
  • Ian Krol had a pretty unremarkable (read: bad) major league career up until 2016, where he did what relievers sometimes do: pull a good season out from underneath a baseball cap. Krol managed a top-50 reliever season in 2016, which isn’t fantastic, but definitely solid. However, he went all sorts of backwards in 2017, from the very start of the season, being unable to put up an effective inning at any given point. He showed flashes of his old self in June (25 percent K-rate, no walks), but then went right back to being frankly, fairly terrible. It was a very disappointing follow-up for a player that may have been a part of the bullpen on the next good Braves team, and should stand as yet another reminder that relievers generally can’t be trusted to repeat their performances.
  • Jose Ramirez survived an entire season in the Atlanta bullpen in 2016, somehow avoiding getting lit up despite a high-strikeout, high-walk approach that saw him outpitch his FIP by half a run, and xFIP by about a run and a half. Ramirez actually managed to keep doing the same thing in 2017, with a 3.19 / 4.88 / 5.00 pitching triple slash that saw him slide into high leverage relief roles early in the season due to good April and May performances, before also falling apart for most of the rest of the year.
  • The various retreads the Braves tried to rely on in 2017 didn’t work out. Eric O’Flaherty, Jason Motte, and Josh Collmenter managed to put up a combined win below replacement (actually, -1.1 fWAR). Josh Collmenter actually managed to be the Braves’ worst reliever and lose over a full win by WPA, despite pitching just 17 innings all year.

Also, a special shoutout in this section goes to the Braves’ weird non-use of Akeel Morris. Morris had great stats in AA after being acquired in the second Kelly Johnson-to-the-Mets trade, followed that up with pretty good stats in AAA, and only got a seven-inning shot in Atlanta, where he put up a 2.34 FIP (4.77 xFIP, though). However, he wasn’t asked back to pitch out of the ‘pen in September, while the Braves continued to sink innings into Luke Jackson, Matt Wisler, and Jason Motte. It’s not clear whether there’s something else going on with Morris, but the Braves’ refusal to give him an extended shot is baffling at present.

Looking Forward to 2018

At present, writing this kind of future outlook is quite difficult. The Braves are in limbo in more ways than one, and it is entirely unclear whether they will try to compete or do anything at all given the impending punishments from MLB and the uncertainty of the Front Office situation.

While the Braves definitely need bullpen upgrades to compete in 2018, it is unclear whether that will even be a goal for the team in the coming months. Further, paying free agent relievers for past performance can be a dangerous game: the Rockies had to give former Brave Mike Dunn $19 million over three years, just to be a generically mediocre reliever. The Braves may be better suited to the trade market if they want to upgrade their relief arms, but the market for relievers has appreciated, and trades like the Tyler Thornburg deal can be quite worrying. (Thornburg didn’t pitch at all for the acquiring Red Sox in 2017, and Travis Shaw broke out for the Brewers in a big way, putting up more fWAR in one season than Thornburg had in his career to date.)

In addition, the Braves have a bunch of live arms in the minors that can likely do in a pinch, or even in high leverage situations. Plus, the Braves will have to do something with their glut of starters, not all of whom will presumably have spots in the Atlanta rotation, and the bullpen makes a logical place for them.

Next year’s bullpen will likely include:

  • Jim Johnson (for better or worse), who is signed for $5 million through 2018;
  • Arodys Vizcaino, who will be entering his third of four years of arbitration;
  • Daniel Winkler, arbitration-eligible for the first time;
  • Sam Freeman, also arbitration-eligible for the first time;
  • A.J. Minter and his bad, bad, bad self; and
  • Presumably Jose Ramirez, again, for better or worse.

In addition, Akeel Morris, Ian Krol, Rex Brothers, the injured Jacob Lindgren and Armando Rivero, Jesse Biddle, Luke Jackson, Matt Wisler, and Aaron Blair may also be in the mix. Caleb Dirks, who pitched at Gwinnett in 2017, is another name to watch for a bullpen spot.

The bullpen will likely remain somewhat of an open question up through the end of Spring Training, as it usually does. However, the Braves have many more pressing issues elsewhere, and with Vizcaino, Winkler, and Minter in the mix, they have a reasonably good relief core (and corps, I crack myself up) to build around. Of course, they could also seek to move some of their relievers for a return, which could pay dividends down the line or immediately. The cautionary tale of Ian Krol suggests that Sam Freeman may be a prime candidate for this type of transaction.