The Braves bullpen began the season in atrocious fashion, handing out seven earned runs on Opening Day in only three innings of work. That was the trend of the first month of the season: the offense building a lead, and the bullpen figuring out a way to blow it. But Alex Anthopoulos never stopped moving things around, and eventually, he found his island of misfit toys (as I like to call them) – a group of guys that may not have the reputation of the elite relief arms but have done more than their share in turning this ship around.
It began with the emergence of Luke Jackson into the closer’s role, as Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter promptly exited the major league bullpen altogether. The sliderman hasn’t been the lights out 9th inning arm championship teams need, but his effectiveness as a whole cannot be denied. He’s only allowed nine earned runs in 37 innings pitched since Opening Day and has 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings. His work, however, would be irrelevant if it wasn’t for a couple of young studs turning into elite set-up men.
Once a starter, Sean Newcomb has been sensational coming out of the bullpen. An argument can be made he is the most valuable when in the rotation, but lefties that can come out of the pen and throw multiple innings should not be taken for granted. What Newk is doing in his new role is nothing short of insane, and the Braves should not be eager to make him a starter again. He has not allowed an earned run since May 24th and has only given up two since making the switch to a reliever (21.9 innings pitched). These are Andrew Miller-esque numbers, and the Braves need him most in the role he’s in now, or maybe even as the closer down the road.
Newk’s counterpart, Jacob Webb, has been equally as unhittable. The right-hander was a prospect we pegged as a potential bullpen breakout candidate in the offseason, and he’s making us look like geniuses. Webb’s toting a 1.33 ERA for the season, has allowed one earned run since the middle of May and is another arm that could be in line for some save opportunities if Jackson continues to falter.
Those three have been around the majority of the last two months and been the critical cogs in turning this unit around, but it is Anthony Swarzak – who Alex Anthopoulos acquired for nothing – that has put the Braves bullpen over the top.
The former Mariner has come to Atlanta rejuvenated now that he’s in the heart of a Pennant race. Swarzak has been used 15 times since May 22nd and only allowed one runner to cross the plate – Howie Kendrick on a solo home run. His ERA sits at 0.54 for the Braves, and his best moment might have come last night against the Cubs. He relieved Sean Newcomb in the 8th inning with two on and nobody out but quickly forced Kris Bryant into a double play to ease the pressure. Then struck out Anthony Rizzo looking. Atlanta went on to beat Chicago by a score of 3-2.
Because of these four arms (and a few others), the Braves now have the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League on the season. That’s pretty spectacular considering how incompetent they were for the first month or so, and it is because of their recent work. The Braves have the best bullpen ERA in the majors since acquiring Anthony Swarzak (2.67).
#Braves bullpen now boasts the third-best ERA in the National League (3.78). Entering play today that was good for sixth best in the Majors.
— Kevin McAlpin (@KevinMcAlpin) June 26, 2019
Given how poor relief pitching has been across the board this season, Atlanta has found themselves a substantial advantage. Who would have thought that even a month ago? That’s not to say bullpen help is no longer a need heading into the trade deadline. Regression is bound to happen, and the Braves have to find a solution for the 9th inning. But these unappreciated toys deserve a pat on the back because they have been a primary reason as to why Atlanta has established a 5.5 game lead in the NL East.