Braves bullpen remains elite despite significant injuries

braves minter 2020

Unfortunately, the Braves’ 14-game winning streak came to an end yesterday, and they fell one win short of the franchise record. Still, 14-1 is a fantastic outcome for a 15-game stretch. The club rattling off all these wins can’t be attributed to just one area of the team either; every facet is working in perfect unison.

Despite Ronald Acuna Jr. and Matt Olson slumping against the Nationals, Atlanta’s offense is on fire. The lineup is first in the National League in home runs and boasts the league’s individual home run co-leader in Austin Riley. Dansby Swanson is also on a tear, and he’s been one of the hottest bats in all of baseball over the last month. They’re also getting contributions from unexpected sources: William Contreras has taken it to another level, Adam Duvall finally broke out of his slump, Orlando Arcia is doing his best Ozzie Albies impression, and Michael Harris has completely surpassed expectations at the plate.

The rotation is also doing their jobs. Max Fried and Kyle Wright are All-Star favorites as both starters inch closer to the conversation for the NL Cy Young. Spencer Strider, much like Harris, has totally exceeded projections. That’s all with Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson getting off to slow starts this season. Moreover, the Braves bullpen has been even better than last year, despite all the injuries.

Entering the season, the bullpen was supposed to be a major strength. The top four relievers of The Night Shift were set to return, but Alex Anthopoulos wasn’t satisfied with just that. The Braves signed Collin McHugh, Kirby Yates, and Kenley Jansen, giving them the deepest bullpen in the majors. Brian Snitker had an embarrassment of riches.

However, injuries struck. Luke Jackson suffered an elbow injury that resulted in season-ending Tommy John surgery before throwing a single regular-season pitch. Then, after struggling early on, Tyler Matzek landed on the IL in the middle of May due to shoulder inflammation. To make matters even worse, McHugh ended up on the COVID-19 injured list on June 7. That’s not even considering Will Smith‘s predictable struggles — a 4.05 ERA with four homers allowed through his first 13 appearances.

Given all of those circumstances, one would think the Braves would struggle to close out games; well, it’s been the complete opposite. The Arm Barn, the bullpen’s new moniker, ranks in the top five in nearly every significant pitching metric. They’re first in WAR, SIERA, and K% while ranking fourth in ERA, xFIP, and HR/9.

Much of that success has to do with Jansen, who remains an elite closer with 18 saves, second behind only Josh Hader and Taylor Rogers (19), and A.J. Minter, who is making a strong case for an All-Star selection. His 0.98 ERA and 0.76 WHIP are absolutely ridiculous, which shows he’s been one of the best relievers in all of baseball. Minter’s 1.3 fWAR also ranks second among all relievers behind the Yankees’ Michael King.

However, the reason the bullpen has been so elite is the contributions from the lesser-known relievers. Darren O’Day, Jesse Chavez, Dylan Lee, and Jackson Stephens have been absolutely instrumental in the team’s recent success.

O’Day’s 3.60 ERA isn’t indicative of how good he’s been. Opposing hitters have only a .214 batting average against the grizzled veteran, and he’s posted an impressive 10.80 K/9. AA trading Sean Newcomb for Chavez turned out to be a great decision, as the 38-year-old  Chavez boasts a 1.74 ERA and 10.45 K/9. Lee’s minuscule 0.77 ERA is also an underappreciated part of the bullpen; he’s only allowing opposing hitters to average .186. Stephens is probably the biggest surprise of the group, posting a 2.42 ERA and two saves over 22.1 innings with 21 strikeouts and only five walks.

That’s not even considering what Spencer Strider gave the team as a reliever. He had 37 strikeouts, a 2.22 ERA, and a .167 opponents’ average in 24.1 relief innings before shifting roles just over two weeks ago.

The team expects to have McHugh, who posted 25 strikeouts with five walks in 23 2/3 innings before he landed on the COVID-19 IL, back very soon. And Matzek should return around the All-Star break. That’s not even considering the expected addition of Kirby Yates. Once all three return to The Arm Barn, the Braves will undoubtedly have the best bullpen in baseball and maybe in the club’s history.

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