The way the Braves capped off the first half was as memorable of a stretch of two months that I can remember. They have established a healthy lead in the NL East after most “experts” didn’t even consider them a Wild Card team. Because of that, there was a bevy of spectacular surprises, which makes choosing the biggest of them all pleasantly difficult. However, there were also some considerable disappointments, and my winner likely won’t be the same as yours.
Biggest Surprise: The Island of Misfit Toys
If you’ve been following along with the site, you know I’ve coined the Braves bullpen the Island of Misfit Toys since early May. However, back then, it was Luke Jackson, Jacob Webb, Dan Winkler, and Josh Tomlin. Since, the Braves added two more lifesavers to the group – Sean Newcomb and Anthony Swarzak – and have become one of the best bullpens in the National League.
These four men have turned this unit into a strength rather than a weakness. The Braves currently have the third-best bullpen ERA in baseball (3.64) and are nipping at the heels of the Rays (3.62) for the second spot. Even the Indians (3.45) remain in striking distance, and the way this group is pitching, I would not put it past them.
Sean Newcomb has turned into Andrew Miller in his prime out of the pen. He can go multiple innings and thrives in high-leverage situations. Since the Braves moved him to the bullpen, he’s only allowed a run in three appearances out of 22.
Jacob Webb is a pitcher we tabbed in the offseason as a potential internal option that could aid this bullpen, and he’s turned into a lockdown set-up man. In 32 innings, he’s 4-0 with a 1.41 ERA and even has a couple of saves under his belt.
Since the Braves acquired Anthony Swarzak, Brian Snitker has shown no hesitation to throw him into the fire, and he’s delivered time and time again. The righty has a 0.52 ERA with a 0.81 WHIP and 21 strikeouts in 17.1 innings for Atlanta.
Of course, none of this would be possible without Luke Jackson. The sliderman has been the one reliable piece in the bullpen throughout the entire season. Say what you want about him as a closer, but he’s been a damn good relief pitcher, recording a 2.66 ERA with a 12.1 K/9 in 44 innings. This is no fluke.
Biggest Disappointment: The way they handled the closer’s role
Before I begin on my diatribe of how Alex Anthopoulos addressed the closer’s role, I’ll start with another disappointment I want to mention: The porous performances of Kevin Gausman and Mike Foltynewicz. Combined for Atlanta last year, these two starters put up a 2.86 ERA, making them the top two arms in the rotation coming into the season.
Coincidently, they both began the year on the injured list and missed spring training. Maybe that had something to do with it. Because now, they are both in the minor leagues. I expect them to come up at some point in the second half, but I’m not so confident anything will change. Perhaps Kevin Gausman can carve out a role for himself in the bullpen like Sean Newcomb, and Mike Foltynewicz can fight off his demons in AAA, but neither seems likely at the moment.
However, my biggest pet peeve of the entire season is how Alex Anthopoulos handled the closer’s situation and the bullpen in general. Deciding not to add any relief help, in itself, was mind-boggling after last season. Then he settles for close to 5 million dollars with Arodys Vizcaino, whose arm was hanging by a limb, in arbitration. Not only that, but Anthopoulos expected him to be the closer as well, despite his lingering shoulder issues.
Now, I’m no economist, but tell me why Vizcaino would choose to have surgery that would cost him an entire season before he gets paid – he wouldn’t. Of course he is going to take his money and give the team whatever he has, which was basically nothing, before shutting it down. It’s up to the Braves and their medical staff to see through that, and they failed – plain and simple.
I won’t blame A.J. Minter’s forgetful season on Anthopoulos. Most of Braves Country believed he was the eventual heir to the closer’s role. But he’s been awful this year, posting a -0.6 WAR and 6.75 ERA. It’s apparent Minter has no idea where the ball is going once it comes out of his hand, and I do not expect him to be a significant contributor out of the bullpen in the second half.
Sure, Luke Jackson has saved the Braves, along with Jacob Webb, Sean Newcomb, and Anthony Swarzak, but if anyone could have predicted those kinds of efforts out of them, please pick my lottery numbers. Anthopoulos has been extremely lucky, or this team could be sitting around .500 because of an abysmal bullpen.