Unsung heroes key to the success of the Braves bullpen

MLB: JUL 22 Braves at Brewers

Despite what many Braves fans might think, Atlanta’s bullpen has been one of the better units in the league. It’s far from perfect, and I still believe it should be a top priority heading into the trade deadline, but the depth of this group has been incredible, and it showed in a big way over the weekend in Milwaukee.

There aren’t many bullpens in baseball that could lose four of their top guys and still look like a formidable group, but that’s exactly what the Braves have done, thanks to contributions from many players that weren’t even on the roster to begin the season.

Let’s begin with Ben Heller. The right-hander was acquired in a trade with the Rays about a month ago. Soon after, he was added to the major-league roster, and on Sunday, he pitched a scoreless eighth inning in a two-run game to help the Braves win their first series of the second half of the season. This is a guy who had not pitched in the majors since 2020, and with the Braves, all he’s done is pitch to the tune of a 2.57 ERA over 15 appearances.

Even if the club gets nothing out of Heller the rest of the way, he’s already been a pivotal piece to the Braves success this season. It’s these types of signings that fly under the radar nationally, but they are why this organization is consistently successful year after year. Heller has been a gem, and I have a feeling this might only be the tip of the iceberg for him in Atlanta.

Up next is a 26-year-old who hasn’t yet had as much of an impact as Heller to this point, but there’s a chance he’s a critical piece to this bullpen moving forward. Daysbel Hernandez made his MLB debut in Sunday’s game, striking out the side in the seventh with the Braves down a run. His performance kept the team within arm’s reach, and Ozzie Albies delivered the game-winning home run the following inning.

Hernandez looks the part of a major-league pitcher. He was attacking hitters with high-90s fastballs and never flinched. This isn’t a new development, either. On the farm, Hernandez hasn’t allowed a run since May 3rd, punching out batters at an alarming rate. He’s another arm that could prove to be a pivotal one down the stretch run and into the postseason.

The last name I want to mention is Michael Tonkin. Unlike Heller and Hernandez, Tonkin has been with the Braves since the beginning. He won a spot out of Spring Training, making his first major-league appearance since 2017 on April 2nd, and what he’s provided the team in long relief cannot be understated.

Tonkin has been able to cover several innings, recording a 3.22 ERA over 24 appearances (50.1 innings). He’s kept the team in games they had no business in and taken a lot of stress off the rest of the unit in the process. Without him, the Braves wouldn’t have anywhere close to an 11.5-game cushion in the NL East.

Depth is often a forgotten aspect of elite pitching staffs. I can’t imagine there has been another group of pitchers tormented by the injury bug as heavily as the Braves in 2023. Despite that, these guys haven’t missed a beat. It’s a testament to the front office’s ability to evaluate talent and the Braves tremendous coaching staff who makes these guys believe in themselves when very few others have.

The Braves star power is what will capture national headlines, but it is these kinds of stories that really separate the organization from others. Alex Anthopoulos’ hit rate on pitchers that most people have never even heard of is outstanding, and there are a lot of people — scouts, the players themselves, and coaches — that deserve credit for that.

Which should have everyone optimistic about what Pierce Johnson and Taylor Hearn could bring to the Braves bullpen.

Photo: Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire

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