For most of the season, the Braves bullpen has been abysmal. They were responsible for over half of the team’s losses and really felt the effects of losing guys like Mark Melancon and Darren O’Day. However, it always felt like this group had too much talent to continuously be as awful as they had been. Positive regression had to hit them at some point, and over the last month or so, it has — even if it might not feel like it after last night.
Let’s start with the man responsible for yesterday’s debacle, Will Smith, who blew a two-run lead in the ninth by allowing three runs on three hits and a walk. He’s been far from infallible all season, which can be seen by his 3.63 ERA. However, entering last night’s game, he had been living up to the expectations of his lucrative contract since the middle of June. In Smith’s last 19 appearances, he surrendered just two earned runs — good for a 0.95 ERA — and opponents were batting just .186 off him. I completely understand the frustration surrounding Smith. He hasn’t been the guy we expected when the Braves handed him a $40 million contract two offseasons ago, but as of late — excluding last night, obviously — he’s been one of the more dominant closers in the game.
Smith isn’t the only one enjoying some positive regression, either. After being untouchable in 2020, Tyler Matzek got off to a shaky start this season, but he’s turned into one of the most reliable relievers in the majors again. Since June 6th, Matzek has a 0.86 ERA in 23 appearances (21 innings). His 14 walks over that stretch are a bit worrisome, but they haven’t come back to haunt him because he’s holding opponents to just a .132 batting average against. In my bold predictions for the 2021 season, I predicted Matzek to be the team’s closer by the end of the season. I’m not sure I would do it now because the Braves are in the heat of a pennant race, but he’s certainly pitching like a shutdown closer of late, and I would have no problem if Brian Snitker decided to switch things up.
The Braves also have a group of unsung heroes that have come out of nowhere to really provide some consistency to the bullpen. Luke Jackson has been marvelous this season — pitching to the tune of a 2.14 ERA — after a forgetful 2020 that saw him left off the team’s playoff roster. Edgar Santana has proved to be a worthwhile addition, especially recently. The righty has a 1.96 ERA over his last 16 appearances (18.1 innings). And who could forget about Jesse Chavez? The 37-year-old journeyman has been a miracle out of nowhere for Atlanta, posting a minuscule 1.72 ERA in 14 appearances.
There’s no denying it — this is far from the sexiest group of relievers. However, with this core plus the addition of Richard Rodriguez, who has been flawless in his first four appearances with the Braves, they are getting the job done. Here are a few stats from David O’Brien of The Athletic that reflect their dominance:
For the month from July 7 through Aug. 6, #Braves relievers had the lowest bullpen ERA (2.72) in the National League, allowed the fewest home runs (5) and had the second-lowest WHIP (1.09). https://t.co/ErgZS4GElQ
— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) August 8, 2021
Now, the question is — is this sustainable? With the current group, I don’t think so. However, the Braves have even more additions to their bullpen on the way. Huascar Ynoa could be used in relief when he returns, and Brian Snitker could opt to use Touki Toussaint, Drew Smyly, or Kyle Muller out of the bullpen once Ian Anderson comes back. I also haven’t totally given up on A.J. Minter, either, who has been absolutely flawless for the Stripers since getting demoted. In six appearances, he’s yet to even allow a hit, let alone a run. With a little more help, this Braves bullpen can be quite formidable down the stretch run.