Braves: Once again there are options for the ninth inning 

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I basically wrote this same exact article 13 months ago, leading up to the 2020 season, just a day or so after Braves manager Brian Snitker made the somewhat surprising announcement that he intended to use Mark Melancon as the team’s primary closer instead of the assumed-favorite, reliever Will Smith

Of course, opting to go with Melancon worked just fine last season. The 35-year-old veteran wound up converting 11 of his 13 saves, on his way to a 2.78 ERA (3.72 FIP) in 22.2 innings overall. Even with a dramatic dip in his K rate, it’s fair to say that Melancon got the job done in what was a very weird 2020 campaign. Smith, meanwhile, dealt with what was probably the most frustrating season of his eight-year MLB career as he surrendered seven home runs in 16 frames, a homer-rate just under four per nine innings; somehow he miraculously managed to finish the year with a respectable 4.50 ERA, though his 7.00+ FIP painted a much clearer picture of the type of player he was.

Now, with just seven days until the Braves 2021 regular season opener versus the Phillies (Thursday, April 1), it appears it is Smith’s job to lose, given Melancon is now a Padre and Atlanta opted to stay the course with most of their bullpen from last year. 

Snitker hasn’t officially made a decision regarding the closer position, but just about any depth chart on the internet will have a ‘C’ next to Smith’s name. 

Roster Resource — another beautiful feature that’s now integrated into FanGraphs — has the Braves 2021 relief pecking order looking like this:

The “co-closer” tag given to both Smith and Martin is perhaps an interesting discussion on its own, but my main takeaway from this group of high-leverage Braves relievers is that nearly all of them have, at some point in their MLB careers, experience as a closer. 

(Tyler Matzek, following a four-year absence from the majors spanning from 2016 to ’19, has never recorded an MLB save.)

Chris Martin, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, and of course Smith, all have pitched in a ninth-inning role at some point, albeit Martin’s experience as a closer features just six career saves (with four of them coming as a Texas Ranger during the first-half of the 2019 season). 

If you remember this article from last year (yeah… me either), I said the exact same thing about Atlanta’s relief core heading into the 2020 season, as the high-leverage depth chart consisted of Melancon, Smith, Shane Greene, Martin and Darren O’Day — a crew that all had notched a few saves in their day. 

Once again, it appears, Snitker will have plenty of choices when it comes to the ninth inning.

 

Who’s trending up?

The past few days were significant in terms of transactions as Chase reported on Thursday that reliever Carl Edwards Jr. opted out of his minor league contract, becoming a free agent, and both Kyle Wright and Jacob Webb were optioned to the Braves alternate site. This comes a week after lefty Philip Pfeifer was released altogether and all of Chad Sobotka, Victor Arano, Kyle Muller, Patrick Weigel, Jasseel De La Cruz and Tucker Davidson were optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett. 

With cuts aplenty lately, Atlanta’s big league bullpen is beginning to take shape.

As the roster continues to evolve into what it will become on Opening Day, it’s important that the Braves high-leverage arms from the ‘pen are at their best, which fortunately, appears to be the case down in the Sunshine State.

Through five appearances spanning five innings this spring, Smith hasn’t allowed a run and has struck out ten batters so far; his breaking ball looks a lot like it did when he was in San Francisco. Also pitching perfectly during the team’s Spring Training is Martin, who through three appearances, hasn’t let a run score; the former Rangers reliever picked up the save in Atlanta’s win over the Rays on Thursday. Last but not least, and perhaps 2020’s biggest surprise star, Matzek also worked on Thursday, and though he allowed a run in that particular outing, the 30-year-old lefty has been sharp in Florida, sporting an impressive 2.25 ERA in eight appearances. 

Even the team’s lower-leverage guys are trending up at just the right time.

Both Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin each have an ERA of 2.25 apiece. Nate Jones — who’s fighting for a spot in the bullpen with his unique, and so far, difficult-to-pick-up delivery — has pitched 6.1 scoreless frames; and starter/reliever hybrid Touki Toussaint currently has a 2.00 ERA through nine innings, also featuring nine strikeouts. 

At the moment, it doesn’t seem like the Braves will have any trouble holding leads in the latter-half of games in 2021. Remember, this is a unit that finished last season with the major’s fourth-best bullpen ERA, according to FanGraphs.

Across baseball, the closer role has evolved into something much different than it was just a few seasons ago. No longer are teams simply committing to one guy to cover the ninth inning, which in the past was oftentimes pre-determined regardless of recent performance or even specific circumstances within a game. With so much more data, coupled with the fact that relievers are just so volatile in general, most teams will either approach the ninth with a committee of relievers or simply opt for the hottest hand at the time. 

I ended last year’s article by saying I’m not opposed to simply letting the closer role sort itself out during the first few weeks of the 2020 season. This year I feel the same way. Snitker may give Smith the official ‘closer’ title in the coming days, but by the end of September, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves closer is someone else. And given how much talent is in the Atlanta bullpen right now, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. 

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