Braves Middle Relief – Is There A Plan for Livan Hernandez and Chad Durbin?

After outstanding starting performances last weekend by Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy, Monday saw Tommy Hanson go strong through five then fight back to stay seven in a losing cause. On  Tuesday Randall Delgado earned a victory  but only managed 5 1/3 innings before turning it over to Kris Medlen (who still looks like a better starter.) To be fair to Delgado who had a better idea on the mound Tuesday, a popup lost in the Atlanta dusk gave Jason Bay a cheap double with one out that started the Mets mini-rally of two runs. That’s the good news. The bad news is lack of run support and bad pitch selection cost Tommy a victory he pitched well enough to earn on Sunday and Delgado seemed unable to shake off the error before giving up three more hits and allowing another run to cross in the fourth. Though Delgado  started the sixth, he lasted just three batters and one out  before leaving in favor of Medlen. Today Jair Jurrjens went only four innings while surrendering four runs against the Mets. The Braves went on to win against a weak Mets bullpen and that masks the fact that another starter went less than five innings.  The five or less inning start seems to happen so often that when a Braves pitcher goes longer the fans give them an ovation. It’s the part of the reason the bullpen was so abused last year and I believe it’s the primary reason Livan Hernandez and Chad (Homer an inning) Durbin) are on the team.  They are actually part of a plan to save the back end of the bullpen. Read on, I shall explain.

Before today’s game Durbin and Hernandez had combined to allow nine runs in 8 2/3 innings including four home runs. Neither pitcher has walked a batter but their combined 18 hits means a WHIP of 2.093. Durbin’s been more spectacularly bad than Hernandez giving up a home run in every appearance but, neither would be first choice as integral parts of the bullpen on a winning team. So, Why are they here? I believe the answer is that – at least to begin the year – Braves leadership think six inning plus starts will continue to be hard to find. That means the Braves middle relief corps are likely to be used frequently and longer and put pressure on bullpen arms before we’ve played 40 games. In order  to protect the three musketeers at the back of the pen I believe they chose to add these ‘innings eating” vets and hope they can bridge the gap between the short starts and the high leverage finishing crew.

Expect 5 Be Grateful For More

It’s relatively easy to understand why GM Frank Wren would have little confidence that the rotation will go more than 5 innings. In the 70 games after the All Star break last year the Braves had a 35-35 record. Here’s a look at the starting pitching innings for those games with the Braves won-lost record breakdown.

Less than 6  6 innings 7 & 7+ < 8 8 & > 8
13-18 13-14 7-3 2 – 0

In 44%  (31) of those games pitchers didn’t make the six inning mark. You’ll remember that the Braves didn’t fare very well in those games (13-18) and used the bullpen a lot.  In fact only when Beachy and Hudson managed to keep the pitch count down and stay in the game into the seventh did the team get over 500.  To stay in the hunt last year Fredi Gonzalez was forced to use the best arms we had even if we were losing. Here’s a starter innings break out ( minus Lowe of course) paired with the team’s record in the second half. Beachy and Hudson were the only ones to get into the  7th with any kind of regularity.

2011 Starters > 5 5 & 5+ < 6  6 & 6+ < 7 7 & 7+ < 8 8 & > 8
Brandon Beachy 0-2 1-3 3 – 3 1 – 0  
Randall Delgado   3 – 2  1 – 0    
Tim Hudsom   1 – 0 1 – 4 5 – 2 2 – 0
Jair Jurrjens  1 – 1 2 – 2 1 – 0  
Tommy Hanson 0 – 1 0 – 1  2 – 1    
Mike Minor 0 – 1 5 – 1 1 – 1    
Totals 0 – 3 11 – 8 10 – 11 7 – 2 2 – 0

Faced with that history, uncertainty about Hanson, Jurrjens and Hudson due to their injury issues and a roster  that he was unable to make significant changes to because of lack of money, the GM was left with digging through the scrap barrel again in order to put a band aid on the problems.

Solutions and Surrender

After the September September the Braves hierarchy had stern looks on their faces and team president  John Schuerholz  promised in a a letter to the fans:

“. . . Our General Manager, Frank Wren, and his staff have already begun to evaluate our team and will be focusing throughout the off-season on building upon the strengths of this team and repairing our weaknesses to achieve our goal. (World Championship)

Frank Wren did move immediately to dump Derek Lowe. He also decided to let Alex Gonzalez carry his bat full of Ks to Milwaukee rather than over pay him on a two year deal. Both earned attaboys from the fans.  After that however he was stuck.  Aside from picking up Eric Hinske’s option and eventually  signing Jack Wilson, nothing happened except really wild rumors about players that didn’t seem to fit. The fans grew restless, eventually forcing Terry McGuirk out of his office to give an interview. He tried to explain that the GM’s hands were tied because Liberty Media had no interest in putting a winning team on the field without saying Liberty Media were just plain cheap. He explained it to Tim Tucker at the AJC like this.

. . (the).$94 million payroll is the maximum amount supported by the Braves’ projected revenue, contending the team will operate at that level with “no profitability, no free cash flow.”

I explained in a post following that interview that meant we were essentially broke.

Being broke meant no changes or improvements to the roster in spite of Schuerholz’ letter, not the right hand power bat for left field the GM said he wanted or a replacement for Derek Lowe; somebody like Mark Buehrle – my pick – who could swallow a couple hundred innings and provide solid starts and experience. Looking back we see that the Braves hoped that spring training would see someone emerge unexpectedly. No One did.  They hoped that the young starters in the minors would be ready to move up and fill the pitching gap. They didn’t.

Instead JJ looked bad (and continues to look lost) and the much vaunted battle between Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado turn out to be a race to see who was least bad. By the time they were ready to break camp Chipper Jones had both announced his plans to retire and injured his knee again further straining a lineup short of run producing hitting. The end of spring training is know for a flurry of  released players and considering the speed with which the Braves reacted, the GM was ready to pounce.

When the Astros released Livan Hernandez he was signd and in the Braves clubhouse an hour or so later.  The next evening Durbin exercised his opt out clause rather than got accept assignment to the Nationals minor league team he too was quickly signed.  Both men had a reputation for eating innings were available for just under $2M. money I believe Wren negotiated away from the Indians by sending Jairo Asencio to them for ‘cash considerations.’   Adding them to the returning Kris Medlen and Cristhian Martinez both proven dependable long men  our middle relief looked able to handle those extra innings he expected. Medlen could spot start if needed until Huddy returned and still leave three sort of long men in the pen and protect the power arms of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.

Protecting the power arms for the long haul – like the next 3 to 5 years – is a major consideration for the Braves. Look around the league at the broken or partially broke closers and you’ll understand why. I expect that Fredi Gonzalez got that memo loud and clear. Durbin and Hernandez are to be used alternating with Meds and CMart to bridge the gap between the 5th or earlier and the 8th.  That would be fine if it worked and unofficially okay if they blew a lead or a game now and then, it’s better than injury the future of the team  unnecessarily.  It hasn’t worked well so far as you know but they have to stick with the plan until Peter Moylan and Tim Hudson return at least, they have no money for any other option. That’s why when Gonzalez was asked about Durbin’s struggles he told Carroll Rogers:

“We need to get him in there a little more and get him that life on that fastball, that two-seamer.”

He’s really saying that he can’t win with the fans.  If he uses them and the Braves lose he’s an idiot. If he uses one of the big arms in a game we’re losing or like last night with O’Flaherty blowing out, he’s still an idiot. It almost the Scott Proctor situation all over again except Proctor is actually worse than either of these guys, he has to pitch someone and he has few good options.  I am not defending Gonzales use of the bullpen. I’ve made it clear Fredi needs to be a third base coach somewhere and my view hasn’t changed. I’m simply saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Besides, if someone has to blow out an arm I’d rather it be Durbin than Venters or O’Flaherty.  I don’t want anywhere to get hurt but if that’s the choice it is an easy choice for me. The next question is, are starter outings this short is such a high number something new? Actually no.

That Was Then This Is Now And They Look Alike

Remember the table at the top showing the teams record related to the starter’s innings? Here’s that table with the 2001 numbers in place.

Less than 6  6 innings 7 & 7+ < 8 8 & > 8
2011 11 – 11 10 – 11 7-2 2 – 0
2001 7 – 11 14 – 12 7-3 2 – 0

And here are the starting pitchers from that year in case you’ve forgotten them – go ahead tell me you remember Damian Moss that year. Uh-huh, sure you do.

> 5 5 & 5+ < 6  6 & 6+ < 7 7 & 7+ < 8 8 & > 8
Damian Moss 0 – 1        
Greg Maddux 0 – 1   3 – 3 1 – 3 4 – 1
Jason Marquis 0 – 2 1 – 0 1 – 3 1 – 1 1 – 1
John Burkett 0 – 1 2 – 2 2 – 3 3 – 2  
Kevin Millwood 2 – 0 0 – 2 4 – 1 3 – 0 0 – 2
Odalis Perez 1 – 1        
Tom Glavine 0 – 1 1 – 0 4 – 2 4 – 2 1 – 1
Totals 3 – 7 4 – 4 14 – 12 12 – 8 6 – 5*
         
* 8+ inning games consisted of 11 games of exactly 8 innings ( 3-5) and three complete
games including 2 shutouts (3-0)

You can see that when a teams starters don’t get to the seventh inning the team struggles to win no matter who’s pitching. The difference between 2001 Division Championship team and the 2011 September Surrender team was really the offense. In 2011 the Braves scored only 641 runs. In 2001 they scored 739. I bet an extra 98 runs last year would have put us in the post season and maybe taken a division title. The Phillies scored 713.

Wrap up.

To put this simply, when Braves leadership looked closely at the numbers and found they wouldn’t actually be able to keep their promise to rebuild so we never see another September. They changed their talking points to “this is a 90+ win team, we don’t need major changes” etc. and decided to shore up middle relief in order to protect the young guns arms and the bullpens future success. They accepted that 21 and 22 year old rookies will be erratic because they haven’t yet become pitchers so getting them to the seven inning will be a rarity rather than the rule.  They know that while Jurrjens will take the mound one day and throw eight strong, that might not happen again for three months if at all.  So the choice is to at least try to keep from using Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel every other night. Sure Hernandez and Durbin will blow some more games.  I suspect Durbin’s leash is already pretty short. It’s hard to say what Livan will do – aside from scare fans to death when he takes the mound – or how long he will stay. If I was guessing, I’d say he’ll still be there in September barring injury or complete collapse.

If the lineup can start producing more runs early pitchers will go deeper into games. If pitchers consistently go deeper we will win more games and Livan will be seen in high leverage situation rarely if at all.

 

Tags: Chad Durbin Craig Kimbrel Eric O'flaherty Favorite Frank Wren Jonny Venters Livan Hernandez

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