The departure of three of the team’s most productive relievers from the 2020 season — Mark Melancon, Darren O’Day, and Shane Greene — is no excuse; the Braves bullpen shouldn’t be performing this badly in 2021. Entering Thursday, Atlanta’s relief core ranked within the bottom-seven in the MLB in ERA (4.63), walks per nine (4.96 BB/9), and fWAR (0.1). Despite having some team-wide success these last few days, featuring a three-game sweep of the Nationals, it doesn’t appear the bullpen — if left as is — is ever going to operate at the level needed this season.
Before Thursday’s game against Washington, here were the only Braves relievers with both an above-average ERA- and FIP-…
2021 Braves top ERA-/FIP- performers
That’s it… I promise. Sure, the Braves have had some flashes of brilliance from Luke Jackson, who’s sporting a 1.80 ERA; however, his 5.20 FIP, 10.9 Barrel%, and 46.4 HardHit% paint an entirely different picture and has resulted in some incredibly stressful outings. In short, Jackson may have the best ERA- among Atlanta’s relievers (44), but it’s easy to see from his 128 FIP- that what he’s doing isn’t sustainable.
The only other arm in the Braves bullpen that probably doesn’t deserve to be thrown in the group of underwhelming performers (not yet, at least) is lefty Sean Newcomb, who had perhaps the worst outing of his young 2021 season when he allowed two runs from two hits in 2/3 of an inning against the Blue Jays back on April 30th. Up to that point, Newk had been nearly unhittable through his first five relief appearances, allowing just a .118 AVG from opposing batters while pitching to a 1.69 ERA in his first 5 1/3 frames.
But three relievers don’t make a bullpen, folks. You know that. And that’s what made the 2020 pen so strong — it seemed like Atlanta could lean on seemingly any one of the team’s relievers at any time.
If you recall, last year, the Braves finished within the top 10 in baseball in bullpen fWAR (2.2) as the group posted a 3.50 ERA / 3.91 FIP. I know the sample sizes make it a bit of an apple-to-oranges comparison, but check out Atlanta’s above-average ERA-/FIP- performers from 2020…
2020 Braves top ERA-/FIP- performers
The difference is staggering between then and now, as you see the ten Braves relievers with above-average ERA- and FIP- marks. And it wasn’t just several random relievers with only a few innings either, for the list above is actually the ten most-used arms out of Atlanta’s bullpen last season; Huascar Ynoa was the only one that posted less than 10 innings.
If it’s any consolation, though, the Braves bullpen has been stronger of late, especially during the team’s three-game series versus the Nationals; in those last three games in D.C., Atlanta’s relievers pitched to a 3.00 ERA to go with 10 strikeouts and five walks in a combined nine innings, perhaps a sign that better days are ahead.
However, Anthopoulos would be crazy to settle at the deadline this season, especially given the talent currently dominating for teams likely to fall out of contention between now and the end of July. So let’s look at a few possible trade candidates, ordered by most attractive (not necessarily most affordable or realistic)…
*stats are through Wednesday
(CHC) Craig Kimbrel, RHP
2021 stats: 13 IP, 0.69 ERA, 0.5 WAR
2019-21 stats: 49 IP, 4.16 ERA, 1.5 WAR
Contract: final year of 3-year, $42M deal ($16M vesting option for ’22 season / $1M buyout)
Craig Kimbrel, 87mph Knuckle Curve (swing/miss) and 96mph Fastball (backwards K), Individual Pitches + Overlay. pic.twitter.com/KmKMAJ0Y85
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 6, 2021
This seems like perhaps one of the best opportunities in a while for Kimbrel to reunite with the team that drafted him in the 3rd round back in 2008. The 32-year-old righty is (so far) having one of his best overall seasons since at least 2018, and his 2.26 FIP through Wednesday is his best mark since all the way back to the 2017 campaign. Per Baseball Savant, Kimbrel ranks within the 90-percentile in MLB in HardHit% (26.1%), expected-AVG (.171), strikeout% (42%), Whiff% (42.1%), and expected-SLG% (.276), thanks to a knuckle-curve that opposing batters have managed to hit just once in 18 at-bats. The man is still making guys look silly with two pitches: a 97 MPH fastball, he pounds the top of the zone nearly 60% of the time… and that nasty curve the rest of time.
Kimbrel’s club option for next year becomes vested once he reaches 110 games combined between the 2020 and ’21 seasons, which must include at least 55 games during the current campaign. It’s a steep price, and I’m sure $16 million for a reliever isn’t part of Anthopoulos’ mid-season plans, but Kimbrel could instantly lengthen the Braves bullpen — not to mention provide some much-needed stability in the latter innings. Of course, all of this is first dependent on whether or not the Cubs can bounce back from a rough first month of the 2021 season because I guarantee that if Chicago’s still in by July, they won’t be trading their top reliever.
(COL) Mychal Givens, RHP
2021 stats: 11 ⅔ IP, 3.09 ERA, -0.1 WAR
2019-21 stats: 97 IP, 4.18 ERA, 0.3 WAR
Contract: 1-year, $4.05M
The Rockies stink and the #Braves need a RH reliever. I wonder if AA is looking early and, if so, Mychal Givens has got to be available for the right price.
— Ryan Cothran (@baldheaded1der) May 6, 2021
Givens has been on us Braves writers’ radar for a while now, beginning during his days in Baltimore. From 2016-18, the Orioles righty logged the third-most innings (230 IP) among MLB relievers and posted a 3.29 ERA / 3.37 FIP during that three-season span, which altogether comes out to a solid 4.2 WAR (or an average of 1.4 WAR per year).
And even now into his 30s — he turns 31 this month — Givens hasn’t lost much of what made him so dependable several years ago. Through his first 12 appearances so far in 2021 (through Wednesday), Givens has struck out 10 batters per nine and walked only 2.3 per nine. He may not sustain his current 3.09 ERA, given he’s allowing a career-worst 16.1 Barrel%. Still, that changeup– an offering he throws roughly half of the time — has been nearly unhittable this season, allowing a stingy .111 AVG by opposing batters.
The Orioles are playing close to .500 ball right now but are still in last place in the AL East — unfortunately, John Means can only pitch once a week. They’ll for sure be selling by the deadline, and Givens is pitching on a cheap enough deal that a two-month rental should be more than worth it for the Braves.
(SEA) Kendall Graveman, RHP
2021 stats: 13 ⅓ IP, 0 ER, 0.5 WAR
2019-21 stats: 32 IP, 3.38 ERA, 0.8 WAR
Contract: 1-year, $1.25M
Graveman has spent much of his MLB career out West — a season with Toronto, four with Oakland, and the last two with Seattle — as a starting pitcher, only transitioning to the bullpen last year with the Athletics. As a starter, the veteran righty was essentially average, featuring a career-best performance back in 2016 when he posted a 1.9-WAR season thanks to a 4.11 ERA in a career-high 186 innings for Oakland. But this season especially, Graveman has drastically increased his strikeouts as a reliever, and at a low price, he could be a decent right-handed option for the Braves in 2021.
This season, Graveman is dominating with an ultra-hard sinker (97 MPH) that he throws over 60% of the time, allowing just a .100 AVG with the pitch. And so far, his overall 3.6 Barrel% is the lowest mark of his career.
But perhaps what’s most impressive is that, despite a below-average 8.78 strikeouts per nine in 2021, Graveman ranks within the 90th-percentile in eight of the 12 most common MLB percentile rankings according to Baseball Savant, a clear sign that this guy has everything working for him…
Graveman’s 90th-percentile rankings (2021)
- 84 MPH avg exit velo – 95th-percentile
- .230 xwOBA – 96th-percentile
- .252 xSLG – 94th-percentile
- 102.3 MPH max exit velo – 92nd-percentile
- 1.96 xERA – 96th-percentile
- 17.9 HardHit% – 99th-percentile
- 37.9 Chase% – 98th-percentile
With the Mariners bound to return to earth at any time now, after winning 17 of its first 32 games so far this season (good enough to put them in second place in the AL West), I wouldn’t be surprised to see them cash in on Graveman.
Shane Greene, RHP
2020 stats: 27 ⅔ IP, 2.60 ERA, 0.3 WAR
2019-21 stats: 90 ⅓ IP, 2.39 ERA, 1.3 WAR
Contract: Currently a FA
Here’s a crazy idea! Why not simply bring back one of your bullpen regulars from last season? Simultaneously addressing the bullpen without giving up any assets would make sense. Just because Greene went unsigned this past offseason doesn’t mean he can’t once again be a valuable addition to the Braves ‘pen. I mean, the guy has been just as valuable (WAR-wise) as Kimbrel over the last 2 ¼ seasons… and best of all, Greene comes at a fraction of the cost in salary.
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