Outlining the high-leverage portion of the Braves’ 2020 bullpen

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Since Day 1 of the current offseason, grumblings surfaced about what to do with reliever Shane Greene, who the Braves acquired in a deadline deal with the Detroit Tigers this past July. Greene’s projected 2020 arbitration salary ($6.5 million) coupled with a FIP roughly 1.5 runs above his ERA in 2019, led many to believe that he could possibly wind up as the odd man out in this new-and-improved bullpen. However, as we all know now, the 31-year-old righty was tendered a contract on Monday, along with five other arbitration-eligible Braves, meaning the foundation of the team’s bullpen appears to be all but set.

So while remaining mindful that part of the Braves’ bullpen is currently under construction, let’s look ahead a bit and outline how the back-half of the current ‘pen may function during the coming season, while highlighting the various strengths each reliever brings to the table. Keep in mind, this isn’t the entire bullpen, but a layout of how the Braves’ could structure its high-leverage or late-innings arms this coming season:

 

CLOSER

RHP, Mark Melancon

2019 stats: 66 G, 67.1 IP, 3.61 ERA, 12 SV, 9.09 K/9, 2.41 BB/9, 1.2 WAR

2020 Steamer: 65 G, 65 IP, 3.73 ERA, 26 SV, 8.45 K/9, 2.65 BB/9, 0.6 WAR

The rundown: After a slow start, Melancon became one of the more consistent arms in the Braves’ bullpen following his acquisition from the SF Giants at the deadline this past season. His 5.91 ERA with the Braves in August quickly turned into a 1.74 mark in September, as the righty held hitters to a measly .179 AVG during the final month of the 2019 campaign. His performance down the stretch must’ve paid off, being that even with the celebrated addition of Will Smith — one of the top FA relievers this offseason — the Braves still plan on using Melancon as the primary closer in 2020.

Strengths: Melancon isn’t a high K rate guy, nor is he necessarily dominant versus any one flavor of hitter (righty or lefty), but what the burly pitcher is excellent at is generating ground balls. In 2019, Melancon maintained a ground ball rate of 62.1%, the highest GB rate of his career, and 4th-highest in the majors. That’s an excellent strength to have coming from your closer, as fly balls late in the game are never ideal. Also, Melancon doesn’t mess around with walks. In his 11-year career, the former 9th round pick has walked just 2.14 BB/9.

 

SET-UP (A)

LHP, Will Smith

2019 stats: 63 G, 65.1 IP, 2.76 ERA, 34 SV, 13.22 K/9, 2.89 BB/9, 1.2 WAR

2020 Steamer: 65 G, 65 IP, 3.39 ERA, 8 SV, 11.64 K/9, 3.11 BB/9, 0.8 WAR

The rundown: After another big season in 2019 — he was worth 2.0 WAR in 2018 — Smith came into the current offseason ranked by FanGraphs as the top free-agent reliever and No. 16 overall free agent on the market before the Braves quickly swooped in and signed the lefty to a 3-year, $40 million deal (includes a $13 million option for a fourth season). Rightfully so, GM Alex Anthopoulos looks determined to feature a strong top-end bullpen this coming season, and bringing in a guy who has averaged 10+ strikeouts per nine over 410.2 career innings will certainly assist in that.

Strengths: Looking a little deeper into Smith’s distinct ability to rack up strikeouts, you’ll find that the 30-year-old achieves his dominance by throwing a nasty slider. Using FanGraphs’ Pitch Value leaderboard, Smith has the best slider in the majors since the start of the 2018 season, ranking ahead of guys like Adam Ottavino, Amir Garrett, and Ken Giles. To illustrate just how incredible his slider is, consider that opposing batters have hit just .108 against the offering in the last two years combined. For perspective, that pathetic average comes from 23 hits allowed in 212 at-bats since 2018; not to mention 55.8% of those at-bats have ended in a strikeout. It’s pretty simple with Smith… throw the dang slider.

 

SET-UP (B) 

RHP, Chris Martin 

2019 stats: 58 G, 55.2 IP, 3.40 ERA, 4 SV, 10.51 K/9, 0.81 BB/9, 1.0 WAR 

2020 Steamer: 50 G, 50 IP, 3.36 ERA, 10.18 K/9, 1.89 BB/9, 0.7 WAR

The rundown: Martin has unfinished business to attend to after injuring himself while warming up in the NLDS a few months ago. Following his acquisition from the Texas Rangers at the deadline this past season, Martin made 20 appearances for the Braves, tallying 17.2 innings and striking out 22 batters with just one walk. His steady pitching down the stretch in 2019 earned him a 2-year, $14 million deal last month and a seat at the high-leverage table inside the Braves’ bullpen.

Strengths: Shall I say more? Just look at his walk-rate. If you thought Melancon’s rate was impressive, of the 216 total batters faced in 2019… Martin threw ball four to precisely five of them. Wow. The Texas native runs a career walks per nine rate of 1.3, the best rate in the majors amongst all relievers over the last two seasons.

I have Martin tabbed as the “Set-up B” simply because in today’s game, you hardly ever see the same guy pitching the 8th inning. A lot of different variables come into play, but usually, teams will have two sometimes even three guys they could turn to on a nightly basis for set-up work. And while we’re on the subject, I don’t expect Melancon to be used solely as the closer, either. There will be times Smith or Martin close as well. Today, most all high-leverage options are interchangeable when it comes to innings 7-9.

 

7TH INNING

RHP, Shane Greene

2019 stats: 65 G, 62.2 IP, 2.30 ERA, 23 SV, 9.19 K/9, 2.44 BB/9, 0.9 WAR

2020 Steamer: 72 G, 72 IP, 4.06 ERA, 2 SV, 9.20 K/9, 2.97 BB/9, 0.4 WAR

The rundown: Just like two of the three relievers listed above, Greene was acquired at the deadline this past season, and just like them, he struggled at first with the Braves. But after posting a 4.73 ERA in August, the 31-year-old settled down and held batters to a .200 AVG, capping off September with a strong 3.18 ERA. 

Once the offseason came and Greene’s projected $7 million 2020 salary came to light, many pegged him as a non-tender candidate or a potential trade chip. However, Anthopoulos did the right thing and tendered the man on Monday, adding to what was already a reinforced Braves’ bullpen.

Strengths: Armed with a mid-90s fastball, Greene isn’t necessarily a flamethrower; although, this past season, he featured a top-10 cutter (No. 6 on FG’s leaderboard) that he’ll run up into the low-90s at times. That cut-fastball can be hell on right-handed batters, as righties slashed just .154/.211/.272 against the offering. 

Also, Greene seems to get stronger as the pressure increases (hence him being a successful big league relief pitcher). Consider his career numbers when separated by leverage:

Low Leverage

166 IP, .271 AVG, .335 wOBA, 20.6 K%

Medium Leverage 

168.1 IP, .249 AVG, .308 wOBA, 21.7 K%

High Leverage

82 IP, .228 AVG, .293 wOBA, 25.4 K%

 

7TH INNING 

RHP, Luke Jackson 

2019 stats: 70 G, 72.2 IP, 3.84 ERA, 18 SV, 13.13 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, 1.2 WAR

2020 Steamer: 55 G, 55 IP, 3.48 ERA, 10.98 K/9, 3.53 BB/9, 0.7 WAR

The rundown: After two years of primarily mediocre relief pitching for the Braves, Jackson put up a career-year in 2019, becoming one of the Braves… this is weird to say… most trusted arms. Jackson wore down during the final month of the season (6.48 ERA in Sept.), but the righty has earned a medium-leverage role for the Braves in 2020, at least for now. With such a strong back end to the ‘pen, manager Brian Snitker shouldn’t deploy Jackson in stressful situations on a nightly basis, though considering Jackson’s 2019 performance, you could argue that the 28-year-old seems to deserve as many innings as the rest of the group.

Strengths: Despite Jackson being a righty, which traditionally means he’s supposed to be tougher on same-handed hitters (aka righties), that’s not the case. In fact, Jackson is far more dominant against lefty hitters, essentially giving the Braves another lefty specialist in the ‘pen. His career numbers are stark, as righties have hit .316 against him, compared to just a .214 average by lefties. Snitker could utilize Greene as his primary 7th-inning guy in 2020, but versus tough lefties, the Braves’ manager should turn to Jackson. 

A lot of Braves’ fans are still skeptical about Jackson’s success in 2019, which is understandable, especially considering his poor end to the season. However, he has always had an above-average K rate during his career, and his revitalized slider has allowed him to take off — the pitch went from a below-average offering in 2018 to the 6th-best slider in the majors this past season. Don’t expect 70 appearances from Jackson in 2020, but he should still get some high-leverage work.

Other late-inning candidates

 

LHP, Darren O’Day

At 37-years-old and coming off numerous injuries, prime-time O’Day is no more. However, the old man can still get batters out, and this appears to be the year the Braves finally get to utilize him after acquiring the former 1st round pick (2008) back in 2018.

 

RHP, Jacob Webb

The 26-year-old righty got a taste of the big leagues this past season and did exceptionally well, finishing with a 1.39 ERA in 32.1 innings pitched (albeit, with a 4.30 FIP). Webb’s high-90s fastball, along with his slider and changeup, played well in the majors as all three offerings rated above-average per FanGraphs’ Pitch Value. He could potentially work his way up the relief pitching hierarchy in 2020.

 

RHP, Jeremy Walker

Even younger than Webb above, the 24-year-old logged 9.1 innings (6 appearances) in the majors in 2019, providing a promising sample of outings. The Braves 22nd ranked prospect (per FG’s THE BIG BOARD), Walker doesn’t flash a crazy-hard fastball, but he certainly knows how to locate the pitch and keep the ball in the park. In 90.2 total innings (38 appearances) between Double-A Mississippi, Triple-A Gwinnett, and the majors, Walker allowed just three home runs. 

 

RHP, Bryse Wilson 

The Braves’ 5th ranked prospect has made exactly six relief appearances in his pro career, including four at the major league level over the last two seasons… so this is an out-there prediction. And we know Wilson is expected to compete for the Braves’ final spot in the starting rotation. But let’s use our imagination for a moment:

If previous performance means anything, a smart bet would be that former starter Sean Newcomb will win the battle for the No. 5 starter this Spring, leaving Wilson and possibly Kyle Wright on the outside looking in. If so, Wilson could contribute differently for the Braves, providing late-innings relief with his 5-pitch repertoire. The 21-year-old has always thrown hard (95 mph average fastball velo) and is known for his bulldog mentality on the mound. His always-attacking-the-batter way of pitching could make for a secret weapon out of the Braves’ bullpen.

 

LHP, Sean Newcomb 

We all saw the beautiful transition from starter to a reliever by Newcomb in 2019, and you could make a strong case that he belongs in the bullpen again this coming season, despite the general assumption that he’s the frontrunner for the Braves’ final rotation slot. However, with the Braves going down a tier and signing Cole Hamels (one-year, $18 million) on Wednesday, there might be room in the budget for Anthopoulos to add another starter from the FA market.

Newcomb may have only logged a little over ten high-leverage innings out of the ‘pen in 2019, but he most definitely showed he’s capable of more responsibility.

 

 

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