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The Braves’ Bullpen Blindspot

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In an era where the bullpen is increasingly important, the Braves have neglected theirs.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Bullpens are more important than ever in Major League Baseball. Relievers set the record for most innings pitched in 2018, breaking the record set just one year prior. Relievers accounted for 40.1% of innings pitched in 2018. For the Braves, they accounted for 38.2% of innings pitched in 2018 (up 1.7% and 30 innings from 2017). Relievers become even more important in the postseason, as they accounted for 49.7% of innings pitched in the 2018 postseason (up from 46.5% in 2017).

The Ringer’s Michael Baumann recently summed up the evolution of the modern bullpen:

It’s not enough to just have one or even two relief aces whose primary purpose is to protect a lead late in the game; key bullpen roles and assignments are becoming more fluid and numerous, requiring as many as half a dozen hard-throwing relievers to fill them. Stacking high-quality relievers isn’t about shortening the game anymore. It is the game.

The trend is clear: To contend for a championship, teams increasingly need a strong, dynamic bullpen. Case in point, each of the teams that made it to the League Championships Series in 2018 had top-5 bullpens in their respective leagues.

It isn’t just baseball writers and statisticians who recognize the increased importance of having a strong bullpen – GMs do, too. Virtually all of the teams that were most aggressive in improving their teams this offseason invested in their bullpen: Mets (Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia), Yankees (Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino), Phillies (David Robertson), Nationals (Trevor Rosenthal, Tony Sipp), Cardinals (Andrew Miller), Reds (Zach Duke).

The bullpen will be particularly important to the Braves in 2019. They will rely on an abundance of young starters this year who will inevitably encounter rough patches. Many of the young pitchers have not had to work through starts against major-league hitters when their stuff isn’t at its best. And that’s okay – it’s natural to their growth. But for a team trying to contend, it means that you better have confidence in your bullpen.

The Braves’ 2018 bullpen, however, left a lot of room for improvement. It ranked 10th in the NL in ERA (4.15), and 8th in FIP and WAR. Most troubling, though, was the bullpen’s walk rate, which was the highest in all of baseball in 2018. More walks lead to higher pitch counts and more high-stress pitches, which can wear on the unit over the course of 162 games. This was likely a factor in seeing so many Braves relievers suffer an injury or battle fatigue at the end of last season.

The Braves did very little to improve their below-average bullpen over the offseason. They have marketed Darren O’Day, who was acquired with Kevin Gausman in a midseason trade with the Orioles, like an offseason acquisition since he was out for the remainder of the 2018 after being acquired. However, O’Day required season-ending hamstring surgery last June and is 36 years old. He is currently on the Injured List with a forearm injury and has not yet resumed throwing. His timetable for return is as clear as mud. Relying on O’Day to provide a boost as the only significant addition to the bullpen is ill-advised, to say the least. The Braves also added Josh Tomlin to the bullpen as a long reliever, but given that he was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2018 (worst FIP and fWAR of any pitcher with at least 60 IP last year), I won’t spend much time discussing his value.

The Braves simply don’t have many good, reliable relievers as the 2019 season begins. Here’s a look at the Braves’ current bullpen occupants and hopefuls:

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
The Braves hope that AJ Minter can return soon from injury to bolster its bullpen.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

AJ Minter: Minter is the best bullpen arm that the Braves have. He certainly fits the bill of good and reliable, at least when healthy. However, he is currently on the IL with a shoulder issue as a result from a fender-bender. He will be a big boon for the bullpen upon his return.

Arodys Vizcaino: Vizcaino’s numbers in 2018 looked good on the surface (16 saves and 2.11 ERA), but his peripherals were not so impressive (his 3.71 FIP was higher than in his 2016 season when he posted a 4.42 ERA). Vizcaino also has a long injury history that has allowed him to pitch more than 40 innings in only one season. Vizcaino isn’t a bad pitcher, but given his injury history, you probably don’t want to rely on him too heavily as one of your top two relievers.

Jonny Venters: I love me some Jonny. However, objectively Venters is 34 years old and has a bionic arm after 3.5 Tommy John surgeries. He’s an incredible story but is projected as a replacement-level reliever this year.

Jesse Biddle: Biddle had a nice rookie season in 2018, but he certainly faded down the stretch. His 7.71 ERA in September (7.45 FIP) suggests he needs to be given proper rest throughout the season. He could be an above-average reliever if used properly.

Shane Carle: Carle was a pleasant surprise in 2018 by starting the season hot and then coming back down to Earth as the season wore on. He was a surprise because nothing about his stats above Double-A suggested that he would post an ERA around 3 like he did in 2018. He is a regression candidate, as he projects as a replacement-level reliever in 2019.

Chad Sobotka: Like Carle, Sobotka was an unexpected boon in 2018. He was not on many prospect radars entering the 2018 season but rose all the way from High-A to the majors and posted a 1.88 ERA over 14.1 innings for the Braves. Sobotka is another regression candidate after a rough Spring Training (10 ER in 9.1 innings).

Wes Parsons: Parsons represents the best story from Spring Training as he earned his Opening Day roster spot in the bullpen. As great of a story as it is, though, Parsons has only pitched five innings in the big leagues, during which he allowed 4 ER, and has yet to establish that he can be relied upon as a major league reliever.

Luke Jackson: Jackson making the Opening Day roster is an indictment on the Braves’ lack of bullpen depth. Jackson is not and has never shown to be worthy of being on a major league roster.

Max Fried: Fried has done everything the Braves have asked of him and more. He will likely settle into a sixth starter/reliever role well. However, Fried may still profile better as a starter (2.93 career ERA as a starter vs. 3.92 career ERA as a reliever; both are small samples; his xFIPs are similar for both and the disparity in his ERA and FIP is largely driven by HR/FB%). Depending on how the rotation shakes out, Fried might not be in the bullpen for much of the season. In fact, he would be better suited not being a reliever.

MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves
Max Fried has adapted well to the bullpen. But would he be better used as a starter?
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Other bullpen candidates not on the active roster:

Dan Winkler: Winkler has shown that he can be a very good reliever at times. His 2018 campaign was a rollercoaster, displaying dominance through May and in September but struggling to suppress runs in June and July. He starts the season in AAA after encountering elbow soreness in Spring Training and could have a positive impact on the bullpen if and when he can get healthy.

Grant Dayton: The Braves claimed Dayton off waivers during the 2017 offseason. Dayton missed the entire 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. He put up some intriguing numbers before the surgery but likely will not factor into major-league consideration until this summer at best.

Other pitchers like Corbin Clouse, Patrick Weigel, Thomas Burrows, and Jacob Webb might make their major-league debuts out of the bullpen at some point this season, but predicting how they will adjust to major-league hitters requires telepathy.

(For a more in-depth look at the Braves’ bullpen projections, check out Ivan’s preview here.)

Of the names listed above, how many would you trust in high-leverage situations in a playoff race or in the playoffs?

To be fair, the Braves hope that some of the young pitchers who are left out of the rotation, like Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, or Mike Soroka, can improve the bullpen’s production this season. However, converting young starters to relievers is a shaky proposition, and a smooth transition cannot be assumed. Toussaint struggled in his brief foray into the relief role, allowing three earned runs in two innings. Fried adjusted the best to the relief role, but even some of his splits show he is a better starter than reliever, when you’d figure that going max effort in short stints would have the reverse be true. It’s a tall ask for a young pitcher trying to adjust to major-league hitters to do so in an unfamiliar role.

The bottom line is that there aren’t enough relievers that have demonstrated that they can be trusted as a reliever at this point in their careers. Maybe Fried or Parsons, for example, have a strong impact this year, but this is nothing more than wishful thinking. For every potential break-out candidate, there are one or two injury-prone or legitimate regression-candidate relievers.

Furthermore, there has not been a cogent plan to improve the bullpen. The current plan seems to be hoping that the same relievers will perform better than last year and that the young pitchers can transition smoothly to a relief role. With the Braves’ payroll sitting significantly lower than expected this year, the Braves could have done much more to acquire relievers that instill more confidence than the current lot.

To address the flame-throwing elephant in the room, Craig Kimbrel is still a free agent and could still join the Braves’ bullpen. While Kimbrel would make any bullpen much better, the Braves’ bullpen is so lacking in depth that one reliever can only do so much, even if he is a legendary closer. Certainly, slotting guys like Minter and Vizcaino down would help significantly and would expel someone like Luke Jackson from the active roster, but the depth issue would persist, only to a lesser extent.

85th MLB All Star Game
Signing Craig Kimbrel would be a massive boost to the Braves’ bullpen, but it might not be the cure-all that fans might think.

The most puzzling thing is that there were plenty of opportunities to improve the bullpen over the offseason without spending a lot of money. Ideally, the Braves would have acquired a couple of bullpen arms at a combined annual value of Kimbrel’s or less. Here’s just a list of relievers that signed deals this offseason that would’ve improved the Braves’ bullpen on reasonable deals: Kelvin Herrera (2 years/$18 million with White Sox), Cody Allen (1 year/$8.5 million with Angels), Greg Holland (1 year/$3.5 million with Diamondbacks), Sergio Romo (1 year/$2.5 million with Marlins), and Tony Sipp (1 year/$1 million with Nationals). This is not to mention all of the potential trade options.

To be clear, this is not a knee-jerk reaction to the Braves’ Opening Day roster or the bullpen implosion on Opening Day. The bullpen was a weakness in 2018, and the Braves have done next to nothing to improve it. While the bullpen roster is likely to change significantly from its Opening Day form, the internal options only represent a return to essentially the same below-average bullpen from 2018. And while the Opening Day game was merely 1 of 162 games, it should not be outright dismissed, either. The Braves’ bullpen may have already cost the team a win against a division rival that it will be competing against in a tight division race.

The bullpen is an area of increasing importance in baseball, and the Braves have neglected it despite many opportunities to improve. If the Braves are serious about contending in 2019, the bullpen needs to be addressed before it’s too late.