Despite such a strong showing during the first half of the 2019 season — in which the Braves’ bullpen featured the second-best ERA (3.69) in the majors — GM Alex Anthopoulos was forced to bring in reinforcements due to a complete meltdown after the All-Star break.
In the span of 20 days (July 12-31), the Braves’ bullpen went from one of the best to one of the worst, posting a 7.11 ERA (second-highest in MLB) after allowing a whopping 13 home runs with 41 walks (6.47 BB/9) in 57 innings. Something needed to be done, and, thankfully, Anthopoulos didn’t sit on his hands, as he brought in relievers Shane Greene, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin. Those acquisitions may have very well saved the Braves’ season, stabilizing a relief core that was all out of sorts.
That three-week stint of horrible relief pitching in 2019 must’ve really made an impression on the Braves’ GM. Fast-forward to the present, just days away from the start of Spring Training, and the team now wields one of the most dangerous bullpens in the majors while also featuring at least three different relievers that are capable of closing games for the Braves.
Anthopoulos added to his transactions from last season, investing over $50 million this winter by signing former Giants closer Will Smith, re-signing Martin and Darren O’Day, and wisely holding on to the arbitration-eligible Greene. Also, Melancon returns in 2020 for his final season of a 4-year, $62 million deal he inked with the Giants back before the 2017 campaign.
So, who the heck is supposed to close games for the Braves this coming season? Of these five relievers I’ve mentioned thus far, only two have averaged less than 12 saves per season over the last five years (Smith, O’Day) while the other three have all been, at one time, their former teams’ feature closer:
Average Save Totals (2015-19)
- Will Smith: 12 saves
- Mark Melancon: 25 saves
- Shane Greene: 13 saves
- Chris Smith: 2 saves
- Darren O’Day: 3 saves
Just after signing Smith last November, Braves’ manager Brian Snitker surprisingly still declared Melancon as the team’s official closer (his role in 2019), opting to go the having-a-set-closer-is-meaningless route rather than naming the more obvious choice in Smith. At the time, it was certainly a rather odd choice.
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) February 15, 2020
Smith is coming off a 34-save season in which he struck out 96 batters in 65.1 innings (13.22 K/9) in 2019; that after a career-year in 2018, which featured far less saves (14) but even better run prevention (2.55 ERA in ’18 / 2.76 ERA in ’19). However, Snitker’s logic wasn’t necessarily wrong. Choosing any of the Braves’ back-end relievers probably isn’t a bad choice.
On Friday, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman wrote about just that, noting that Smith, Greene, Luke Jackson and Melancon all combined for 87 saves last season, with Smith and Greene both earning their first All-Star selections. Also included in Bowman’s article, were some comments by Snitker, suggesting that perhaps he had maybe changed his view a bit when it comes to the Braves’ closer role in 2020:
“I think it’s just going to be a great tool to have. The games will dictate [usage]. They’re not matchup guys. You can foresee Will pitching the eighth and Melancon the ninth right now. On any given day, hopefully we’re going to need more than one of those guys to close games. That would be the ideal situation.”
… and Melancon offered even more of a team approach to the subject:
“Can Smith [handle the closer’s role]? Of course. Can I do that role? Of course. Can Shane do that role? Of course. We’ve got Chris [Martin], too. [Luke] Jackson has done it. We’re powerful down there. That’s the end of the story. You don’t need anything else. Roles are roles, so that you know when to be prepared. It’s good to know the roles, but we’re capable of mixing and matching.”
Both Snitker and Melancon are correct. The Braves have enough high-leverage talent in the bullpen this year that attempting to regulate either of them to a “set” role wouldn’t seem right. As long as the situation calls for it, Snitker should be fine using any of his back-end guys.
I will say there should be one caveat, though, and that’s that a closer-by-committee set-up should probably not be something Snitker runs with for the entire season. Like Snitker said in his quote above, neither Melancon or Smith are matchup guys, meaning neither of them seem to have splits that suggest they prefer any particular handedness when it comes to opposing batters. If that weren’t true, I would even still be hesitant to operate with a mix-and-match type closer. Here are two main reasons why:
- Stress. It may not seem noticeable or even significant, but when a manager utilizes his relievers based on matchups he is often times forced to warm his pitchers up excessively in an attempt to insert his guys at just the right time. Sometimes, a pitcher may get up to throw in the ‘pen, only to be told to sit back down, depending on how the situation unfolds during the game; that kind of back-and-forthness puts a lot of unnecessary stress on reliever’s arm over the course of an entire season.
- Managers. It may seem crazy, but a closer-by-committee is rough on managers, as it invites all kinds of second-guessing and criticism from fans. There’s no exact science to managing a bullpen. Sometimes a pitcher has it and sometimes he doesn’t; you can’t expect a manager to always know the pulse of his relievers. Naming an official closer forces the players and fans to buy into the process, but more importantly, when the process fails (and it will occasionally), the manager at least can have the piece of mind that he stuck with his plan. If Snitker mixes and matches all season long, guess who will be blamed when that day’s closer gives up a 3-run lead?
Personally, I’m not opposed to letting the closer role figure itself out during the first few weeks of the season. None of these guys have thrown yet, and nine or ten innings in Spring Training isn’t enough to get a good feel either. Regardless, deciding who’s going to close games for the Braves bullpen will be a tough decision for Snitker, though it’s not one that needs to be made immediately. It’s at least a good sign that he’s aware of that, because this is a good problem to have. Anthopoulos invested money into one of the team’s weaknesses this offseason, and it appears that he’ll receive quite a solid return in 2020.