The Atlanta Braves bullpen is both good and bad. Name a category and you’ll find the pen near the middle in bullpen rankings. Well, except for walks, but you’re probably a Braves fan. You don’t need to hear about walks from relievers. You probably have dints in your wall from watching Braves’ relievers walk a small village earlier this season.
Those walks have helped several relievers have poorer numbers than how they are actually pitching right now. Over the last thirty days, Sam Freeman has struck out a quarter of all hitters while walking 5%. My quick math skills suggest that his K-BB% is 20%. That’s superb. The strikeout number is about par for the course when it comes to his yearly mark, though the walk rate is radically different from the 14.3% mark he carries. Freeman may be the most extreme example I can point to, but both Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter – pitchers with huge early-season walk totals – have since lowered their walk rates to 5.1% and 6.5% respectively over the last 30 days.
In fact, over the last thirty days, the highest FIP among Atlanta’s top five relievers (the aforementioned three plus Daniel Winkler and Jesse Biddle) is 3.62. The lowest, from Winkler unsurprisingly enough, is 1.12. These five have formed a strong core for manager Brian Snitker to lean upon. Minter has been hit by the BABIP overlords to the tune of a .464 BABIP, but the other four have strong ERAs to boot. All follow the same couple of principles. Strike out a whole bunch of people and don’t walk anyone. Shockingly, that works.
Yet, the Braves don’t appear to be moving up the ranks compared to other bullpens and that is a direct result of the rest of the bullpen. After early season dominance, Shane Carle found some trouble with runs surrendered in four straight contests until his last two outings of nearly perfect ball. He has earned the benefit of the doubt, though expecting a return to the guy who ran a dozen scoreless games together earlier this season might be a bit too much to hope for.
Right-hander Peter Moylan has been a nice story and in some ways, he hasn’t been half bad. However, unlike several of the names we have brought up, his control has not improved as the season has waged on. His groundball rate is currently the worst of his career (min. 20 innings). And unlike last season, when 31% of batted balls were graded as softly-hit, that mark is down to just 16%. He’s getting hit hard and often and while some expectation of regression might be expected in his .386 BABIP, the 89.1 mph average exit velocity (versus 84 mph last year) is a real concern.
And then, there is the eighth guy in the pen. Sometimes, it’s Lucas Sims. Sometimes, it’s Matt Wisler. More recently, it’s been Luiz Gohara or maybe even Luke Jackson. Miguel Socolovich…is a name we will never speak of again. Whatever the case, that eighth guy has often been bad and the only times they have been valuable have come in games like Tuesday when Jackson worked three innings for a save. While this is an intentional use of the eighth guy as a multitude of players that can be cycled on-and-off the roster for a fresh arm, has it made the Braves better? Not really.
It’s fair to argue that most bullpens face similar problems. Having seven or eight guys you can count on in high leverage situations rarely happens. As I told a fellow fan on twitter, it’s the goal but should not be the expectation. While that is true, the Braves can’t simply rely on their Front Five to make up for the Terrible Trio. That is a quick way to tire out a bullpen – especially with a young and inconsistent starting staff.
A trade seems not just a possibility, but a certainty. Names like Kelvin Herrera of Kansas City seems like a good bet with his 0.76 ERA and 1.97 FIP. Other arms like Brad Hand (2.01 ERA, 2.86 FIP) or Craig Stammen (1.88 ERA, 2.00 FIP) of the Padres make a lot of sense. I’m sure you can add to the list with some other arms that would be just as logical for the Braves. That number will only swell as the season continues and teams continue to drop off and decide to repurpose relief arms for future assets.
Before the Braves go down that road, they may be smart to give a couple of arms in the minors a shot who have earned it. To be fair, Jackson should be on that list as well with 34 K’s in 21.1 innings and a 1.57 FIP. Also on this list is Josh Ravin. He’s appeared twice with the big-league club this year and 35 times total in the bigs between the Dodgers and Braves. Control remains a concern with a 12.2% walk-rate in Gwinnett, but you can get away with that a bit with a 39% strikeout rate. Now, it’s foolish to expect that level of dominance in the majors (or even a .222 BABIP), but the 30-year-old who has yet to allow an earned run with Gwinnett deserves another look.
And then, there is 23-year-old righty Evan Phillips. A 2015 pick in the 17th round, Phillips has always been high on stuff. However, until this year, his stuff took him out of the strike zone too often to be effective. This season has been a different story – especially after his second game. He walked three batters that day, giving up just as many runs. Heading into play Friday, in the 18 games since that stinker, he has walked seven batters in 27.2 innings. He has struck out 40 batters. He’s allowed just two extra-base hits – both doubles – in that time frame.
Phillips’ numbers are just as dominant than that of Ravin or Jackson and are more legit with a .323 BABIP and 76.5% LOB%. Those numbers suggest no luck aiding the 6’2″ righty. Instead, he’s doing the thing you love to see – progressing as a player. No arm in the minor league system for the Braves right this second deserves a call-up more than Phillips and yes, that includes Kolby Allard. Oh, and until a more recent move to closing games, Phillips often pitched at least into a second inning of work so he’s comfortable giving the team a couple of innings.
To put it simply – #FreeEvanPhillips
Whatever the Braves do, they would be wise to help out their Front Five. It’s a long season and the Braves currently have six players on pace for at least 65 games. Expecting them all to remain healthy is foolish. Making moves now is the surest way to have the most value from your decision – whether it’s to add a more effective arm from the minors or bring in a new addition via trade. Waiting might decrease the price tag for the latter, but also decreases the number of games that player can positively affect your ballclub. The Braves have a chance to go to the playoffs this year – a good one. It’s time to stop cycling through guys who probably shouldn’t be on a good ballclub’s roster and start going for something special in 2018.