I imagine most of Braves Country let out a collective groan when Brian Snitker announced that it would be Robbie Erlin starting for Atlanta on Sunday, not one of the Braves highly touted prospects. Erlin had only made one appearance for the Braves before yesterday’s start, giving up four earned runs off three home runs in just 2.2 innings against the Phillies, and most recently was let go by the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates after just two outings.
Beyond that, Erlin also has primarily been used as a reliever and doesn’t appear to have near the upside of the Braves top prospects. And that’s important, considering Atlanta doesn’t just need a pitcher to eat innings at the back end of the rotation (although they could use that too), they need a #2 arm to go with Max Fried, who is looking like an early-season favorite for the NL Cy Young award. However, beggers — like the Braves — can’t be choosers, and Erlin has the potential to become quite valuable over this shortened season.
Yesterday, Erlin was incredibly efficient over four innings against the Marlins, allowing just one hit, no walks, and no runs while striking out five. Because he’s yet to throw more than 45 pitches in an outing this year and only made one start all of last year, the Braves wisely limited his pitch count to just 68, but there were no signs of him slowing down when Snitker decided to make a change.
It would have been impossible to believe two months ago, but only a few weeks into this season, the Braves had to turn to Robbie Erlin for a start. And not only that, but he also delivered one of the best performances by a starter not named Max Fried. Yes, it was a diluted Marlins lineup, but it was still more than enough to earn himself another start and possibly more.
The Braves are in a position where they don’t have a choice but to stretch Erlin out and hope he doesn’t break. But based on his career numbers, it’s best that we temper our expectations.
Erlin was a third-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2009 and was later traded to the San Diego Padres in 2011 for reliever Mike Adams. By 2013, he was in the majors after an impressive minor league career. He appeared eleven times that year (nine starts), posting a respectable 4.12 ERA. However, success after that would be few and far between.
Erlin only appeared 19 times for the Padres over the next three seasons, recording a mediocre ERA a little below five. His numbers in AAA were just as discouraging too, which led to the Padres moving him into more of a bullpen role. Erlin next made an appearance in the majors in 2018 and 2019 — still with the Padres — but a 4.60 ERA over those two seasons forced him to settle for a minor-league deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. And after just two outings with the Bucs, he was DFA’d on August 2nd and claimed by the Braves.
Erlin’s advanced statistics don’t predict that he will be a long-term success story for Atlanta, either. According to Baseball Savant, he’s currently in the bottom 1% in terms of barrel %, bottom 13% in xSLG, and bottom 14% in exit velocity. It’s a small sample size, and he is in the top 19% for K% and top 30% for xBA, but Erlin has shown enough over his career for us to know what he offers.
Hopefully, the Braves can squeeze another few quality starts out of Erlin until there is more stability in their rotation, but there’s no reason to believe he’s going to experience some sort of resurrection in 2020. He’s an innings eater at best, but right now, that’s extremely valuable to the Braves.