Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The 2017 Braves Bullpen Could be Something Special

By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational
(Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In the early months of the 2016 season, the Atlanta Braves had a big problem. Their bullpen was one of the worst in baseball. InApril, the pen combined for a 5.10 ERA and -0.1 fWAR. This was largely due to walks, something that no other team was worse at than the Braves before May. They weren't being aided in any way by a .326 BABIP, third worst in the majors. Atlanta used 14 different guys in a relief role during the month, including Matt Wisler, which is less than ideal when you consider the team was a month into the season.

But things would begin to change. In May, they finished with a monthly ERA of 3.91 (next to a 3.26 FIP) and dropped to the middle of the pack in walks as a percentage. Meanwhile, they continued to strike out a ton of guys. Even more, they were starting to find a group of guys to rely on. Arodys Vizcaino was deadly during the first few months and after early season issues, Jim Johnson would return after an injury and flourish. The unsung hero, though, was Ian Krol. After being cut in camp, Krol came back to the majors with a vengeance and developed into the best full-inning lefthander the Braves have had in a few years.

The pen would continue to move guys in-and-out, but by August, they had found a few new arms to rely on. Mauricio Cabrera surprised many by throwing strikes while the Braves were getting big lifts from Chaz Roe and Jose Ramirez. By the final month, the Braves' pen was reaching elite status.

Let's look forward to 2017. While the Braves have been busy adding depth to the starting rotation, the pen hasn't been reshaped much at all. The team re-upped with Johnson, who had a 2.29 FIP and 3.09 xFIP after returning from the DL in June. They added a number of arms to compete for innings, but left the pen to be decided later.

Turns out that may have been a good idea.

In Johnson, Krol, Vizcaino, and Cabrera, the Braves have a quartet of pitchers who combined for a 25% strikeout rate, a 9% walk rate, 3.1 fWAR, and a FIP of about 3.10 (take with a grain of salt as I used an average). That's including Vizcaino's late struggles after he fought oblique and shoulder issues.

Of course, one might and maybe should rain on my parade. Of the four I mention, only Johnson has a real history of success (and a recent history of great failure). It's important to remember that, but anytime you can realistically head into the season with a core of four arms that put up the kind of success this quartet did last season, you have to feel good about the future.

Those four can't do it alone, though. How good the Atlanta Braves bullpen in 2017 depends on who fills out the other slots. Braves fans remember just how badly the Braves struggled down the stretch in 2011 as the trio of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and Eric O'Flaherty began to struggle with the workload because Bobby Cox lacked competent options to fill in. Brian Snitker may not have to worry about that, though, because there are a number of exciting arms to jump from J.V. to Varsity.

I mentioned Ramirez and Roe before. Neither has had much success in the majors, but both pitched exceptionally well down the stretch. Ramirez has some issues - his 5.03 xFIP suggests he may struggle moving forward. Roe, on the other hand, had an even better FIP (1.75) and xFIP (2.75) than his ERA of 3.60. A groundball pitcher who K'd well over a batter an inning with good control? More of that, please.

Daniel Winkler and Shae Simmons have one thing in common. If healthy, each can be x-factors in anyone's pen. Add Luke Jackson to the discussion and even if only one of that trio becomes a trusted asset in 2017, it'll bring the core four some depth to allow them to have nights off without the Brave manager getting a bit antsy about their replacements.

By Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USA (P. Rodriguez)
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Left-hander Paco Rodriguez hasn't pitched in the majors since May 29, 2015, but don't sleep on him being a big part of the 2017 pen. In 85.1 innings in the majors, Rodriguez has a 2.98 FIP/3.00 xFIP built on solid control and an excellent strikeout rate. He's been deadly in high leverage (opposing .202 wOBA) and righties have only been moderately more successful than lefties (.271 wOBA versus .220).

I can go on. Rule 5 pick Armando Rivero has upside, veterans Eric O'Flaherty and Jordan Walden could be salvageable, John Danks has left-hand reliever potential, and Josh Collmenter has value in long relief. Young arms like Bradley Roney, Evan Phillips, Steve Janas, Akeel Morris, Chad Sobotka, Caleb Dirks, and Kyle Kinman need only to take that next step like Mauricio Cabrera.

And then, there is a guy like A.J. Minter. If you look up the word "dominance" in the dictionary, there is a picture of Minter. In nearly 35 innings last year over three stops, Minter K'd 47 next to just 11 walks. We knew he was a first round talent when the Braves drafted him in 2015 and once finally healthy, he put on a show. What can he do over a full season?

A hidden weapon might have been those veteran starters the Braves picked up. Only four more teams had bullpens that logged more innings than the Braves (567.1 innings) and only one made more calls to the pen. That's in no small part of a cause of a starting rotation that averaged 5.5 innings per game, 19th best in the majors. Of the ten playoff teams, only the Dodgers and Orioles were worse. Aaron Blair (15 starts) and Williams Perez (11 starts) each failed to average 5 innings a start. Bartolo Colon averaged 5.8 innings per start despite being 43 years old. R.A. Dickey also averaged 5.8 while Jaime Garcia averaged 5.5 innings per start. If you add that to Julio Teheran's workhorse 6.3 innings per start and Mike Foltynewicz's 5.6 innings per start, you get an average of roughly 5.8 innings per start. That would have have been right in tune with the Washington Nationals, Cleveland Indians, and New York Mets - all playoff teams in 2016. While the difference of .3 innings per start may not wow you, it's like having your starting staff throw 40 to 60 more innings. Not only will the extra innings likely be quality frames, they will put less of a strain on your bullpen.

Listen, I know there are nearly as many questions about this bullpen as there are reasons to be excited. But despite the fact that the Braves have refused to significantly alter a bullpen that finished 2016 14th in fWAR and 24th in xFIP, I believe that the pen is destined for very big things next year and beyond. Sure, not all things will go the Braves' way and relievers have a tendency to just "lose it." Nevertheless, this pen has a chance to be pretty special.

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