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Braves performance check-in: Pitchers

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How we got here, part 2

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We’re back with the second part of our performance check-in, this time focusing on pitchers. Part of the story of the 2021 season for the Braves has been the extreme shredding of its pitching depth due to injury, injury, and you guessed it, more injury. The Braves have reached so far down the depth chart that Jesse Chavez actually started a game at one point, and Kyle Muller looks like he’s going to draw starts for some part of the rest of the season. It’s not like they’re through these shark-infested waters, either: Ian Anderson was recently placed on the shelf with shoulder concerns, so it’s highly possible that the Braves’ already-untenable-for-a-team-that-wants-to-contend pitching situation gets worse before it gets better.

Anyway, let’s glance at stuff player by player once again.

Charlie Morton - 99 IP, 3.64 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 3.42 xFIP, 2.1 fWAR

Morton was the big addition to the Braves rotation this past offseason and he has pretty much delivered. He’s been more durable than expected, as he’s yet to hit the shelf in his age-37 season. He’s been about the same as expected production-wise, as his 83 FIP- and 82 xFIP- are similar to his 76 FIP- and 78 xFIP- across his past five seasons before 2021, despite him now being in his late 30s. If you take out some of his exposure to the third time through the order (4.37 xFIP, nearly 1.00 higher than his seasonal line), his numbers would be even better.

Morton was not an addition the community had particularly high expectations for: around 75 percent of respondents figured he’d fall short of 3.4 fWAR, and short of 4.5 fWAR/200. Both are true right now, but if he stays healthy, he might very well clear that 3.4 mark. The 4.5/200, we’ll have to wait and see — he’s basically right there right now, so a few good or bad starts can throw this one in either direction.

Max Fried - 72 23 IP, 4.71 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 3.93 xFIP, 1.0 fWAR

The Braves need a big second half from Max Fried. Fried got off to a rough start and then suffered a strained hamstring while running the bases in a game where he was already way behind. He returned from a stint on the Injured List and pitched better but just hasn’t been as consistent. It’s been a bizarre campaign-going-on-career for Fried all-around, as he had ERA > xERA > FIP > xFIP in 2019, and followed that by ERA < xERA < FIP < xFIP in 2020. This season, he’s back to the first one, though his FIP and xFIP are much closer together. In other words, Fried was unlucky and didn’t manage contact well in his breakout 2019, which he followed up by getting all sorts of lucky and managing contact super-well in 2020. Now he’s not managing contact well once again and getting some bad luck to show for it. Fried is probably the most critical piece of the Braves’ rotation in the second half, and if he can’t right the ship to something that resembles an above-average starter, the Braves are going to have even more questions going into 2022.

Suffice to say, nearly everyone (over 90 percent) thought Fried would clear 2.6 fWAR in 2021, and two-thirds of respondents took the over on an fWAR/200 of over 3.6. He’s got a lot of work to do to clamber back up to those marks.

Ian Anderson - 96 IP, 3.56 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 3.70 xFIP, 1.9 fWAR

Anderson has put up good numbers but has been a bit up and down at times. The walks have creeped up of late and those extra base runners have hurt him. Even worse, there now appears to be some question in regards to the health of his shoulder, and he may start the second half on the injured list. The Braves are hoping that it isn’t anything serious and is just a product of an increased workload, but Atlanta can ill afford to lose Anderson at this point — that would mean Morton would be their only healthy, fully-effective starter on the season, which would be nightmarish.

Like those for a lot of pitchers, Anderson’s O/Us tried to be cognizant of workload: only 2.0 fWAR, but 3.6 fWAR/200. 79 percent of folks took the over on the former, but only 48 percent did on the former. That seems reasonable — he’s very close to crossing the over on the former already, but the latter’s gonna be close... provided he doesn’t just get shut down for the rest of the season.

Drew Smyly - 78 13 IP, 4.48 ERA, 5.19 FIP, 4.89 xFIP, 0.2 fWAR

The other big pitching addition from the offseason, Drew Smyly, couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. His ERA was over eight through the first month as he struggled to keep the ball in the yard. He has settled in of late as predictably, his home run rate has stabilized. With Anderson’s health in question, Smyly becomes even more important to the Braves for the second half. The problem is more that he hasn’t really been very good. Scenarios envisioned for Smyly for 2021 were “good but injured” or “kinda mediocre,” but he’s fallen well short of either of those. You can’t even point the finger solely at his usage the third time through, because he’s been awful the second time through as well.

Smyly’s total fWAR O/U was a generous 1.3, roughly what it would take for him to break even on his contract at $9 million per WAR. He’s very far off the pace; 64 percent of respondents said he’d clear 1.3. The O/U for fWAR/200 was set at 2.7, and that was more of an even split among the community, but the unders are probably going to take this one unless something crazy happens.

Other Starters

The hope was that Mike Soroka would be ready to rejoin the Braves rotation at some point in the first half. Now after suffering first complications and then a second torn Achilles, you have to wonder when, or if, he will make it back at all. Soroka was, even among the most modest guesstimates, being counted on for around 3 WAR for 2021. Across him and a few other guys expected to contribute like above-average regulars, the Braves have lost a huge chunk of their production.

To compensate a bit, Huascar Ynoa was a big surprise over eight starts for Atlanta and looked like he was ready to take a big step forward before he punched the bench between innings in Milwaukee and broke his hand. Ynoa has resumed throwing and will be back at some point in the second half and may shift to a bullpen role when he returns. Ynoa still has the seventh-highest fWAR among Atlanta hurlers this season, including the fourth-highest of the rotation, so that in and of itself is fairly telling about the travails of this pitching staff.

Tucker Davidson was another of Atlanta’s young pitchers that showed some promise through four starts and then got hurt. He is currently on the Injured List with what was called a forearm strain but the hope is that he will be ready to return at some point later this season.

We were all somewhat surprised to see Kyle Muller get the call during the first half of the season, but his performances didn’t do anything to indicate that he wasn’t deserving. Muller posted a 2.45 ERA and a 3.10 FIP in three starts while striking out just under 12 batters per nine. He was sent down prior to the All-Star Break so that he could continue to get regular work, but should begin the second half in the Braves’ rotation.

Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright were again working on the periphery of the rotation but have thus far failed to take advantage of their opportunities. Now it seems they have fallen behind guys like Ynoa, Muller, and Davidson. Neither has really done much of anything in 2021, and even as expectations for both pitchers keep sliding down the rungs, they’re still not meeting them, or getting particularly close. Wilson’s NLCS start and Wright’s few successful outings at the tail end of 2020 seem like a distant memory, if not a mirage altogether, at this point.

Relievers (no charts, because relievers)

Will Smith - 36 23 IP, 3.68 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 3.82 xFIP, 0.9 fWAR

While no one should be a fan of handing out big money contracts to relievers, Will Smith put together a pretty solid first half. His strikeouts are up over their 2020 levels, and the homer rate is, of course, down a ton. Saves are terrible, but he’s only blown two of them so far.

There has been a lot of angst about the loss of Mark Melancon to the Padres as a free agent this past offseason. Melancon racked up 27 saves during the first half and was named to the NL All-Star team. Dive a little deeper though and Smith has the much better strikeout rate and their walk rates are near identical. They have both allowed four home runs. Melancon has a 2.04 ERA but his 4.12 FIP suggests that he has been somewhat fortunate. Now when you factor in their contracts, sure that dings Smith quite a bit, but it’s interesting to take a deeper look at the numbers and realize that Melancon’s benefited so much from his defense... and that when you isolate his pitching to what he can control, he’s been way worse than Smith.

While being a reliever means that things can go south in a hurry, Smith has already basically beat his performance expectations without appearing in the season’s “second half” yet.

Luke Jackson - 33 IP, 1.64 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 3.97 xFIP, 0.2 fWAR

Luke Jackson rebounded from a tough 2020 season and has again become an important piece of Atlanta’s bullpen. He will carry a 1.64 ERA into the second half but his 4.04 FIP suggests that some regression is coming. The best news in regards to Jackson is that he is striking guys out again with his strikeout rate back up to 25%, which is more in line with his career average. It’s been an amusing turnaround for the guy who was tormented by underperforming his peripherals horribly in 2019, as Jackson is now benefiting from a nearly-100 percent strand rate and .241 BABIP-against; aside from a cup of coffee in 2015, his previous BABIP-against low was .311.

So, it’s kind of funny: Jackson might actually fall short of expectations if his peripherals don’t improve, even though he’s barely allowed any runs to cross the plate.

Chris Martin - 21 23 IP, 3.32 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 4.34 xFIP, 0.3 fWAR

Despite being slowed by a shoulder injury, Martin turned in another solid first half despite his strikeout rate cratering to a career-low level. Martin hasn’t looked completely healthy at times, but has otherwise put up a good performance and Atlanta is going to need more of that in the second half. General expectations were that Martin would essentially be the team’s best reliever, but he hasn’t really managed that in any regard.

Tyler Matzek - 32.2 IP, 3.31 ERA, 3.44 FIP, 3.78 xFIP, 0.4 fWAR

Overall, Matzek has been pretty good again for the Braves in 2021 but his walk rate has nearly doubled over last season’s mark and that is concerning heading into he second half. There might be something to be said for his performance relative to the sticky substance ban, or even how he was able to find success and overcome anxiety during a season with no or few fans in the stands, but honestly, he’s been pretty effective anyway — just not Death Star levels. As a solid reliever, he’s probably right around where someone’s best guess for how his 2021 would go would have been anyway.

A.J. Minter - 32.1 IP, 4.18 ERA, 2.89 FIP, 4.00 xFIP, 0.8 fWAR

At some point, nearly every member of the Braves bullpen has struggled. That has been the case with A.J. Minter and I was a little surprised that his numbers are as good as they are. His strikeout rate is down slightly, but so are his walks. That 2.89 FIP suggests that he has been unfortunate at times as well. The real story for Minter is that his implosions have come at the worst times — only five relievers in baseball have lost more WPA than Minter has, and he’s absolutely imploded in high leverage while dominating in low leverage. Like Smith, Minter has already been way better than expected... but it doesn’t actually feel particularly gladdening because of the timing of his implosions, and the Braves’ general inability to bail him out.

Shane Greene - 11 IP, 10.64 ERA, 6.26 FIP, 5.13 xFIP, -0.2 fWAR

Reports were that Shane Greene went into free agency with a high price tag and went unsigned. He eventually relented and the Braves came calling as they were struggling with right-handed options in the bullpen. The early returns haven’t been promising, as Greene has allowed 16 hits, 13 runs, three homers and six walks in just 11 innings. Maybe he was rushed into action and the All-Star Break will allow him to reset, but there really isn’t anywhere to go but up.

The Braves have also run out a variety of other arms. Josh Tomlin has continued to operate in that mop-up relief role but has occasionally popped up in a non-low-leverage spot which usually hasn’t gone well.

Atlanta picked up Edgar Santana off waivers from the Pirates and he has been mildly effective. Sean Newcomb struck out 29 batters in 21 2/3 innings during the first half. He also allowed 18 hits and 14 runs while walking 19 batters and is back at Gwinnett. 37-year-old Jesse Chavez is fifth on the team in relief fWAR; the combination of Grant Dayton, Ty Tice, Edgar Santana, Jesse Biddle, Carl Edwards Jr., Tomlin, Jacob Webb, Jay Flaa, Greene, and Nate Jones have combined for -1.4 fWAR in over 125 innings. Nate Jones deserves a special mention for a particularly horrible 10 13 innings as a Brave before he was sent packing; his next 8 23 innings with the Dodgers didn’t really go any better (improved xFIP, much worse ERA) and he hasn’t latched on with anyone else since.