Braves: Just how great has the bullpen been in 2020?

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For some reason, despite it being one of the most consistent aspects of the team in 2020, we here at SportsTalkATL haven’t talked about the Braves’ bullpen much this season. And we definitely should, given it’s the best group of relievers the team has had in quite some time. 

Even 2019’s relief core doesn’t compare, and it entered last year’s All-Star break carrying the majors second-best ERA (3.69), primarily made up of the same players as this season. Although, and this is most likely at least partly due to the condensed season in 2020, last year’s bullpen didn’t possess the kind of consistency as this season’s. After posting that 3.69 ERA during 2019’s first-half, Braves’ relievers ended the campaign with an ERA almost 1.5 runs higher (at 4.94), going from one of MLB’s top-two bullpens to one of the bottom-six, in terms of run-prevention. 

That’s not the case in 2020. It’s not even two full months of data, but check out the bullpen’s run-prevention this season split up by each month, including its rank among MLB;

  • July — 3.78 ERA (13th-best)
  • Aug. — 3.05 ERA (4th-best)
  • Sept. — 3.59 ERA (8th-best)

 

And July is a bit weird as it only features 33.1 collective innings by the bullpen, and though the Braves’ ERA for that month is still solid, six different teams finished July this season with a sub-2.50 ERA, including the Cardinals’ 0.98 mark over just 18.1 innings. Regardless, you can see that’s some strong run-prevention by the Braves’ relief core, and though ERA isn’t the only way to quantify a bullpen’s performance, preventing runs obviously plays a huge part in its success. 

On a month-by-month basis, the Braves have wielded a top-ten bullpen all season long, and I shouldn’t have to tell you just how important that’s been given the struggles of the team’s starting rotation. Entering Wednesday, the Braves’ relief core was tied for seventh among all MLB bullpens this season in FanGraphs WAR and ranked third in the National League

*Stats are from before Thursday’s game

2020 Braves bullpen ranks (MLB)

  • 2.4 WAR — t-7th
  • 3.36 ERA — 3rd
  • 3.80 FIP — 5th
  • 9.09 K/9 — 21st
  • 3.55 BB/9 — 9th
  • 0.89 HR/9 — 4th
  • 88.2 mph EV — t-9th
  • 13 saves — t-6th

 

In just about every standard statistic, save for strikeout-rate, the Braves’ bullpen ranks among the ten-best in baseball, and that’s in spite of the fact that it’s been the fourth most-used bullpen in MLB, totaling 243.2 innings so far in 2020. 

So of the 20 different Braves’ relievers to appear in a game in 2020, here’s a look at the five-best thus far and what each has done to dominate (stats are through Tuesday and ordered by fWAR):

 

Tyler Matzek, LHP

19 G, 26.2 IP, 3.04 ERA, 12.8 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.7 WAR

Among relievers on the team this season with more than four innings-pitched, Matzek leads in K-rate and is second to only Josh Tomlin in FIP (2.05).

So far in 2020, the 29-year-old Matzek got completely rid of his changeup and is throwing his 94-mph four-seam fastball over 67% of the time, which is more than twice as much as he did during his last big league season — all the way back in 2015 with the Rockies. And the drastic change is paying off as Matzek’s heater is currently holding opposing batters to just a. 203 AVG and even lower .168 expected AVG. The 29-year-old — and former 11th-overall pick (2009 draft) — is easily having the year of his life as a pro pitcher. 

 

A.J. Minter, LHP

20 G, 19.2 IP, 0.46 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 0.5 WAR

What a resurgence Minter is having in 2020 after stumbling through the 2019 campaign and posting a 7+ ERA while walking 7+ batters per nine. We saw how great he was in 2018 when he made 65 appearances for the Braves, but injuries and just plain old ineffectiveness made him impossible to trust last year.

Luckily, Minter has turned the ship around, increasing the velocity of both versions of his fastball (cutter & four-seamer) by several ticks and incorporating his changeup a tad bit more. No, that 0.46 ERA above isn’t a typo, and it leads all Braves’ relievers with at least ten innings-pitched in 2020. The lefty hasn’t allowed a run since his second appearance of the season back on July 27th against the Rays. Minter will be crucial in the playoffs. Welcome back.

 

Chris Martin, RHP

17 G, 17 IP, 0.53 ERA, 10.1 K/9, 1.1 BB/9, 0.5 WAR

Minter may have the better ERA so far in 2020, but Martin has gone more days without allowing a run as he last surrendered one on opening day against the Mets. And when it comes to giving up walks, the righty just continues to be one of the stingiest relievers in baseball. Since the start of 2018, Martin has maintained the lowest walk-rate in baseball by far, with 0.94 BB/9. That kind of consistency has been a blessing for the Braves since he was acquired from the Rangers at the 2019 trade deadline. And even when opposing batters do make contact versus Martin, it very rarely turns into a hit as he leads the bullpen right now with just a .105 AVG against. At 34-years-old, the five-year veteran is pitching his best as a Brave.

 

Josh Tomlin, RHP

15 G, 37.1 IP, 4.82 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 0.4 WAR

My pick for Mr. Dependable, for almost two seasons now the 35-year-old Tomlin has pitched like a guy in his mid-20s. In 2019, only young guns Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb tallied more relief appearances, and in 2020 Tomlin has done it all, from making six-inning spot-starts when needed to getting just three outs late in a close game. With a salary of just $1 million this season, you can’t ask for much more from the veteran, and given how shaky the starting rotation has been all year, the Braves may have to again lean on Tomlin to get the team through the first few innings of a game (though this time it may be in the playoffs). Hopefully, nothing to worry about, but Tomlin has struggled in his last 30ish innings, posting a 6.59 ERA and allowing a .327 AVG by opposing batters since August 12th. Keep in mind, though, his 0.4 WAR listed above is as a reliever. Tomlin has been worth 0.6 WAR when combining his relief contributions and numbers as a starting pitcher.

 

 Darren O’Day, RHP

17 G, 15 IP, 0.60 ERA, 12.0 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.4 WAR

Earlier this month, I wrote about O’Day and the career-year he’s having this season, which has been a few years in the making for the Braves, given he has dealt with several different injuries since being acquired from the Orioles at the trade deadline in 2018. Fortunately, everything has come together in 2020 for the 37-year-old righty as he’s maintained the bullpen’s fourth-lowest ERA and third-lowest FIP (2.11) this season. At the time of the profile piece linked above (Sept. 9), O’Day was holding opposing batters to just a .050 AVG with his fastball. Miraculously, he’s been even more dominant with the heater since then, with batters now hitting just .048 through Tuesday. And though he’s only thrown the pitch 27 times in 2020, O’Day still hasn’t surrendered a hit with his sinker. It appears the veteran is peaking at just the right time.

 

Other contributors

The Braves’ bullpen is as deep as it is dominant. Of the ten relievers to have pitched at least ten innings this season, only two are currently holding a 4.50+ ERA (Will Smith & Luke Jackson), to go along with five that own a sub-2.50 ERA. Here are three others that have pitched well in 2020:

 

Shane Greene, RHP

25 G, 24.2 IP, 2.92 ERA, 7.30 K/9, 2.55 BB/9, 0.4 WAR

He doesn’t punch out batters like he once did, currently striking out one less batter per nine innings this season compared to his career average. However, in terms of run-prevention, Greene is pitching like he did when he was with the Tigers in 2017, a season in which he posted a 2.66 ERA across 71 appearances — good for 0.7 WAR. 

 

Mark Melancon, RHP 

21 G, 20.2 IP, 2.18 ERA, 4.79 K/9, 2.18 BB/9, 0.3 WAR

The Braves’ WPA leader, Melancon has flourished in the closer role in 2020, converting 11 saves so far despite striking out less than five batters per nine. He has the bullpen’s highest ground ball rate among regular Braves’ relievers, so Melancon’s definitely keeping the ball down this season — a good approach when trying to hold onto small leads late in the game. 

 

Grant Dayton, LHP

16 G, 22.2 IP, 2.38 ERA, 10.32 K/9, 3.57 BB/9, 0.2 WAR

Did you know that claiming Dayton off waivers (from the Dodgers) back in November of 2017 was GM Alex Anthopolous’ first transaction as leader of the Braves? Well, that small move has paid dividends as the lefty currently owns a 2.60 ERA across 34.2 innings with the Braves since the second-half of 2019 (he started in Triple-A Gwinnett in 2019, following his recovery from Tommy John surgery). Dayton has been a bit lucky in 2020, currently running a FIP roughly 1.5 runs higher than his ERA, but that luck doesn’t necessarily have to run out anytime soon. 

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