*** Editor’s Note: I’d like to welcome Anuj to our staff. He will provide a great local view of the Braves for our team.***
One of the Braves’s greatest strengths last year was its bullpen. The much-vaunted trio of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and Eric O’Flaherty were nearly un-hittable for three quarters of the year. Amongst the most used relief pitchers in the league, all three began to lose effectiveness toward the end of the season. Nevertheless, their season numbers were still remarkable.
Once again in 2012, the Braves’s bullpen has been a major part of the team’s success. In fact, the bullpen has quietly become just as good, if not better, than it was last year. The numbers are remarkably similar:
The numbers are very close (keep in mind that the 2012 stats include the the contributions of long-gone “innings-eater” Livan Hernandez). But what distinguishes this year’s relief corp from last years is depth. Unfortunately, O’Ventibrel couldn’t pitch every inning of every game, so Gonzalez would often turn to Scott Proctor and Scott Linebrink. They were atrocious. Proctor had a 6.35 ERA, 5.37 FIP before getting dropped in the middle of the season. Linebrink struggled down the stretch, posting a 4.34 ERA in the second half. Simply cutting both of them made our bullpen much better this year.
But the case goes beyond that. For one, Kimbrel, Venters, and O’Flaherty have been used much less. All will have plenty of juice in the tank through September, and we are unlikely to see a dropoff in their production like we did last year. As good as Kimbrel was last year, he’s been ungodly this year. Everyone know his velocity is up and he’s striking out 7000 per 9, so I won’t delve much deeper here. Venters has returned to form, posting a perfect 0.00 ERA since returning to the roster on July 22nd. He seems to have found his sinker again. Its velocity is up a tick from earlier in the year, and he is finally able to keep it low on a consistent basis. This is especially useful with inherited runners on base or runners in scoring position – he hasn’t allowed a hit in these situations since coming back. O’Flaherty has been great all year, but he’s been downright outstanding against lefties. Against O’Flaherty, lefties sport a slashline of .105/.190/.105 and hit into groundballs 80.5% of the time.
Like I said, it doesn’t stop there. Chad Durbin has been nasty. After horrid beginning, he has shown us some tremendously dominant stretches. Since the start of June, Durbin has a 1.76 ERA and a .194/.275/.343 slashline against. Yes, he does have a 5.08 FIP this year, but a career-low line drive rate (13.2%) and career-high ground ball rate (48.6%) suggest that he is inducing weak contact and that his ERA can sustainably outperform his defense-independent stats.
Luis Avilan has provided a great boost. With a 2.61 ERA and 2.47 FIP, he has been able to keep the ball in the park, giving up zero home runs this year in 20.2 IP. His curveball has been gold for him. Hitters still have not put a single one into play for a hit or even make good enough contact off one to hit a line drive (according to Pitch F/X). With these guys carrying much of the load, the bullpen’s numbers in the 2nd half have been out of control:
|2012 Second Half||1.88||24.9||8.1||1.171|
To supplement the 5 core pitchers, Christhian Martinez has been a solid, if underperforming, long reliever. He’s been a better pitcher than his 4.12 ERA indicates, with a 2.85 FIP and a brilliant 5.18 K/BB ratio. Cory Gearrin has been excellent in his short stint in the bigs this year. With the rosters expanding soon and someone getting the boot from the starting rotation, our bullpen depth will only increase. Nevertheless, the question remains whether the extra options will cause Fredi Gonzalez to further misuse our relievers. I hope not, even though his past track record says otherwise. Harnessing our strongest weapon may make all the difference in the Wild Card or Division race through September.