Last night, the Braves blew yet another game that they led after seven innings. This time it was A.J. Minter, who walked the first three batters he faced to begin the eighth before he was relieved by Nate Jones, who gave up a game-tying double to the very next batter. Fortunately, they escaped the inning without any more damage despite two more walks from Jones; however, they ended up losing 5-3 in extras.
Only ten games into the season, and it’s already the third time the Braves have lost when leading in the seventh inning or later. That’s significant because Atlanta was a remarkable 23-0 in such games last season. There is no way they would be able to replicate such success over a full 162-game schedule. Still, it’s impossible to overlook an already glaring concern — this team doesn’t have answers in the late innings, and their bullpen could be what prevents them from a fourth consecutive NL East title.
On the surface, things do not look as bleak. Even after yesterday’s debacle, the Braves bullpen actually has the fifth-best ERA in the majors at 2.62, but ERA doesn’t always tell the whole story. Atlanta’s relief core is walking over five batters per nine innings; their xFIP is 4.27, which is 12th in baseball and suggests some substantial negative regression is coming, and their SIERA of 4.12 ranks 22nd in the league.
The real issues thus far, though, have come at the end of games. Brian Snitker has relied on A.J. Minter and Will Smith for the most part in the 8th and 9th innings, and they’ve been Atlanta’s two worst relievers, allowing a combined six earned runs in 10.1 innings.
Minter is a total enigma. At times — like last season, when he allowed just two earned runs in 22.1 innings — he’s looked like one of the best relievers in baseball and somebody that could potentially turn into a shutdown closer. And other times — like in 2019, when he posted a 7.06 ERA in 29.1 innings and was eventually demoted to AAA — he’s looked like another hard-thrower that can’t find the strike zone.
There’s no telling what to expect from Minter the rest of the way. After letting Darren O’Day, Shane Greene, and Mark Melancon walk in free agency, the Braves desperately need him to perform in high-leverage situations. He certainly has the ability, but it also wouldn’t surprise me at all if he wound up back in AAA at some point this season.
I’m a lot more bullish on Smith than I am on Minter. He has a track record of success, and his stuff has looked much better this year than it did last season. Smith’s FIP of 2.54 is also substantially lower than his 5.40 ERA, so in time, I expect him to look like the guy who the Braves gave $40 million two offseasons ago. That doesn’t mean I’m sold on him as a full-time closer. But if not him, then who?
The Braves have a couple of other southpaws that deserve opportunities in high-leverage situations — Sean Newcomb and Tyler Matzek. Newcomb has allowed one run with nine strikeouts in 3.1 innings this season. That’s good for an outrageous 24.3 K/9. Obviously, that’s not sustainable, but I believe in bullpen Newk, and he very well could be the best option to close games for the Braves. Matzek also deserves a look. He was arguably Atlanta’s most reliable reliever last season, and his success has continued early on into 2021. So far, Matzek has yet to allow a run and has six strikeouts in 4.2 innings.
It’s far too early to make any conclusive judgments regarding Minter and Smith, but I also don’t believe they’ve done anything to deserve permanent roles at the end of games. As far as the bullpen is concerned, everything should still be up in the air, and whoever performs the best in these high-leverage situations should get the most opportunities.
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