It would be exceedingly fair to say that Brian Snitker has definitely caught his fair share of criticism for tactical decisions made throughout his first year as the Atlanta Braves manager. But, as far as the thrilling game on Friday night goes, where the Braves defeated the Mets by a 3-2 score in walkoff fashion, Snitker should be given credit where credit is due for using his relievers in excellent fashion.
Before going over exactly what was so awesome (if it wasn’t obvious already), I do want to point out that despite the fantastic bullpen management, the bullpen actually blew the lead. And that’s okay, it’s baseball, stuff happens. As a manager, you should put your players in the best position to help them and their teammates win the game, and that’s exactly what Brian Snitker did, even if a bad pitch from Jason Motte and a home run from Travis d’Arnaud spoiled the results portion of the equation. But process is more important, and will lead to better results in the long run, so the phenomenal bullpen management was a delight to watch.
In case you missed it, have no idea what I’m talking about, or need some convincing, here’s a quick but hopefully detailed-enough recap.
The Braves scored their first runs and took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth on Dansby Swanson’s two-out double. Julio Teheran was removed in favor of Johan Camargo, so Brian Snitker had some bullpen decisions to make in the following inning. Due up for the Mets were:
- Curtis Granderson. Granderson had homered earlier in the game, and has an 81 wRC+ against lefties over the last three years, compared to a 125 wRC+ versus righties.
- Travis d’Arnaud. d’Arnaud’s lefty/righty splits over the last three years are a 135 wRC+ against lefties, and a 102 wRC+ against righties.
- Jose Reyes. Reyes is a switch hitter, and for his career, has hit lefties a bit better than righties (110 versus 102 wRC+). However, as he’s aged and gotten worse, the decline has mostly come against righties, as his splits for his last three years are 112 wRC+ against lefties and 81 wRC+ against righties.
To keep the lead, Snitker’s optimal strategy was likely to use a lefty to face Granderson, and then a righty to face d’Arnaud and Reyes. That’s exactly what he did. Out came Eric O’Flaherty, who is probably the second-best lefty reliever the Braves have. (This is important because the seventh inning tends to have lower leverage than the eighth inning, and the Mets also had lefties in their lineup up in the eighth.)
Perhaps needless to say, O’Flaherty is basically a LOOGY at this point in his career, with an xFIP against lefties of about 3.50 (livable) over the last three years, and an xFIP of 5.70 against righties (completely unacceptable). So, O’Flaherty was asked to pitch to Granderson in the fairly high leverage situation of none on, none out, seventh inning (Leverage Index = 1.73, where 1.00 is average, things around 2.00 are “high” and things getting closer to 3.00 are extreme, game-defining situations). Things worked according to plan: O’Flaherty retired Granderson with a strikeout.
Travis d’Arnaud came up, and Snitker appropriately and deftly summoned a righty, Jason Motte. (He probably could have gone to Jose Ramirez here, though Motte hadn’t pitched in two games. Perhaps a valid nit to pick?) Motte himself hasn’t been very good recently, (aside from a short burst of good run prevention with the Braves following his call-up) but boasts similar platoon splits as you’ve seen already a bunch of times in this post: he’s basically unpitchable against lefties, and workable against righties. Unfortunately, Motte’s third pitch went right into d’Arnaud’s wheelhouse (d’Arnaud is kinda weird in that he loves the ball belt-high and inside, and crushes it there, but is actually not very good on anything over the middle of the plate, and especially not outside, but if Motte had great command he wouldn’t have started the year in AAA), and just like that, the game was tied. C’est la bullpen vie.
However, Snitker stuck with Motte to face Reyes, given the switch-hitter’s diminishing propensity to hit righties. Reyes hit an infield lineout, bringing Michael Conforto to the plate. With two outs and the game tied, the leverage situation had fallen to 0.78, but letting Motte face a lefty is a bad idea. In addition:
- Michael Conforto has a career wRC+ of 53 against lefties, but 137 against righties.
So, in came the other non-roster-filler Braves lefty reliever: Ian Krol, of the 3.60 xFIP against lefties and 4.29 xFIP against righties. Not a super-pronounced split, but taking Conforto’s splits into account, a great decision. Krol struck Conforto out on four pitches.
(Side note: Conforto has a 180 wRC+ against lefties so far this year, but generally isn’t allowed to face good lefties, and this is a result of 25 PAs with a HR/FB% of over 40%. So yeah, make Conforto face a lefty in most situations, if you can.)
With the pitcher spot not due up for the Braves, Krol was left in the game, because the Mets had these guys coming up in the eighth:
- Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera doesn’t really have a platoon split, which kind of makes sense since he’s a switch hitter.
- Jay Bruce. 68 wRC+ against lefties (last three years), 110 wRC+ against righties. Again, pretty obvious that he should be facing a lefty.
- Wilmer Flores. 142 wRC+ against lefties (yikes), 89 wRC+ against righties. Don’t let lefties face this guy.
So, given Krol’s worse splits against righties, he could have lifted Krol and had someone else face Cabrera. But, he still needed a lefty to face Bruce, and it’s pretty murky as to whether Sam Freeman should be seeing any high-leverage situations at the moment. So, Krol was left in, was able to retire Cabrera in a high-leverage situation (Leverage Index = 1.85; yay), and then struck out Bruce (double yay). Going by the excellent book, Snitker then did not allow Krol to face Flores, instead bringing in Jose Ramirez. (Ramirez actually has fairly blah xFIPs in general, and hasn’t shown much of a platoon split. Arodys Vizcaino may have been a better choice here, but he also pitched in the previous game while Ramirez did not.) Ramirez’s second, and last, pitch of the game retired Flores, thanks to a phenomenal play by Dansby Swanson.
With very high leverage in a tie game in the ninth, Snitker went to Jim Johnson, who’s been a pretty solid reliever, in aggregate, over the last three seasons, and has been the best so far this year for the Braves (2.56 xFIP is pretty nice!). The Mets had the luxury of having a couple of lefties face Johnson, but Johnson doesn’t have much of a platoon split and more or less pitched around Granderson to face d’Arnaud, who hits worse against righties, to get what would be the last Mets out of this game.
Anyway, probably fairly obvious that this was some good bullpen management by Brian Snitker, but that hasn’t happened too often thus far, and for all the time we collectively spend complaining about managers’ tactical decisions, it’s important to give credit where credit is due. This is one of those times.
As a side note, I’ll also say that this was one of the most entertaining games this year, especially from the sixth inning on. Dansby Swanson took over and owned this game, Ender Inciarte made another ridiculous play, Rio Ruiz came through against a lefty, and so on. There haven’t been too many bright spots for the major league Braves lately, especially with Freeman getting injured, but this game, including the stellar bullpen management, put a big smile on my face. Hopefully you can’t stop grinning either. Also, go to bed.