Monday, August 12, 2013

A Lead Heading Into the Sixth - Call It

Much has been written - even here - about the Atlanta Braves bullpen.  They tend to focus on the ERA, best in baseball.  Or the closer - also best in baseball (see below).  Maybe someone can whine about bullpen usage (hi).

There's a number I have been looking at over the past two days that astonishes me and fortunately, the Braves were able to be nice enough to give me an example of the number yesterday.  The Braves entered the sixth with a 4-3 lead, thanks to a three-run shot by Freddie Freeman.  Mike Minor immediately gave up the lead, but the offense would score the final five runs of the game to cruise to a 9-4 win and a series victory.

It was the 51st time this season the Braves entered the sixth with the lead.  Their record in those games: 48-3.  Forty-Eight Up, Three Down.  A ridiculous .941 winning percentage.

Now, obviously, teams - even those that aren't the best - will win more games than they lose when they have a lead with the opposition having only nine outs left.  So are the Braves that much better than their recent history or even better than the likely playoff clubs?  The following table takes a look at the last ten years, including this year, with the record and winning percentage of the Braves when they enter the sixth with the lead.

Year W L %
2004 67 15 .817
2005 70 17 .805
2006 59 13 .819
2007 67 6 .900
2008 54 12 .818
2009 67 15 .817
2010 56 11 .836
2011 59 9 .868
2012 75 10 .882
2013 48 3 .941

So, there is something to the idea this season is extra special.  Only once during this sample did the Braves reach a .900 winning percentage on all of the games they entered the sixth with the lead.  How does this compare to other NL playoff contenders this season?

Team W L %
Atlanta 48 3 .941
Pittsburgh 45 6 .882
St. Louis 55 7 .887
Cincinnati 46 11 .807
Los Angeles 45 9 .833
Arizona 35 9 .795

The Braves are not only the best team in the NL during this sample, but it's not all that close.  Pittsburgh lost yesterday after entering the sixth inning with a lead so it dropped them under the Cardinals for the second best record.  What makes the Braves so much better?

A good portion of it comes down to the bullpen.  The Braves rank, among NL clubs, first in ERA, FIP, and WAR.  I am with the #killthewin crowd and never put much into a win-loss record, but it's astonishing to this point that the Braves bullpen has been credited with just nine loses all season. The Pirates are second with four more loses.  Having a deep bullpen is extra-important in the playoffs  It was often an Achilles' Heel for the great 90's teams that ended October without a ring. This team goes five-deep in high leverage situations.  That's a rare quality.  The Diamondbacks, who are fading fast, are 10th in NL bullpen WAR and only three teams have a worse FIP.  Wonder why they are fading so quickly?  The Reds, the second worst of this group, have the tenth best FIP and second worst among playoff contenders.  The other four clubs, including the Braves, rank in the top six in bullpen FIP in the National League.

Starting pitching also makes a big difference.  Atlanta starters are fifth in WAR and sixth in FIP.  But here's where a secret weapon comes into play.  Only the Reds have gotten more innings from their starters.  The Pirates, who rank second in bullpen WAR, have a starting staff that has thrown the third fewest innings in the league.  Atlanta starters give the Braves quality innings.  They may not match up ace vs. ace as far as productivity goes, but they have a complete staff that often doesn't have off nights.

But when they do, the Braves have unparalleled power.  If the bullpen does give up a lead after the sixth, the Braves offense kicks into gear with bats that can change the score in a hurry with one swing.  Some people hate that.  They want to manufacture runs.  Atlanta kind of does that.  With their strikeouts and walks, they increase the pitcher's pitch count and bring the bullpens into play in the sixth and seventh inning, giving the Braves an advantage.  It's from there that the Upton's, Freeman, Heyward, and McCann can prompt the scoreboard operator to get ready to change things.

Sunday showed all of this and it wasn't an aberration, but just the way the Braves roll.  Mike Minor was off, but he did go seven innings.  He threw three more pitches than his counterpart, Henderson Alvarez, but recorded three more outs as Alvarez was done after six.  The Braves bullpen shut the door from there with Luis Avilan and the rarely called-upon Anthony Varvaro not allowing a hit while throwing one inning a piece.  And finally, the power put the game out of reach in the bottom of the seventh.  With the score 5-4 and runners on first-and-second, Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson picked up a pair of doubles (though Johnson's was less impressive) to make it 8-4.

When the media talks about the best teams in baseball, they better remember the Braves.  They aren't a fluke with a couple of win streaks.  They are a team that has a plan and rarely gets thrown from that plan.  You might beat them, but often, you have to beat them as they play their game.  And few match up with the Braves in those games.

*Re: Mo Rivera: I just want to throw this out.  Is anyone else sick of hearing how Mariano Rivera is the best closer in baseball?  I get that, for his career, no one has been better, but nobody said Jerry Rice was the best receiver in football when he was playing for the Raiders.  Why?  Because he was old and not nearly as good.  Guess what.  Rivera is old and not as good as he once was.  Nothing wrong with that, but the "best?"  Hardly.

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