Although I left a tiny bit of mystery as to what the Braves’ Achilles heel could be, I think if you’ve watched this team over this final month of the season then you know exactly what it is. It’s the walks. Good Lord, the walks. The free pass has been a bit of an issue all season for the Braves, but the problem has reared its head in an ugly way and at a very inopportune time.
Before we get into talking about who the worst culprits are, this would be a good time to take inventory as to how the entire pitching staff is faring when it comes to walks.
(Also, these were the stats going into Wednesday night’s game. It’s probably looking worse right now!)
As a unit, Braves starters are currently sporting a 3.69 BB/9 with a 9.7 percent walk rate. As expected, the bullpen is worse — they’re sitting on a 4.33 BB/9 with an 11.1 percent walk rate. So as a whole, the pitching staff has a 3.89 BB/9 with a 10.2 percent walk rate and that has the Braves in league with the likes of the White Sox, Marlins and Orioles when it comes to handing out walks.
As such, it’s truly miraculous to think about that even with those ugly walk numbers, the Braves pitching staff is still sitting on a collective ERA- of 92 and a FIP- of 100, which would make them a tad bit above average as a whole. Granted, the starting pitching is pulling most of the weight in keeping that number down, but it’s still amazing that they’ve managed to keep the ship above water when the iceberg nicknamed as “Mount Walkrest” is right in the middle of their path and threatening to sink the entire vessel.
It’s also amazing when you consider that the pitchers who were doing the most “damage” when it came to handing out walks were still getting plenty of innings! When it comes to Braves relievers who currently have 20 or more innings under their belt this season, the three relievers with the highest numbers in that qualified category are Sam Freeman (5.77 BB/9, 14.9 percent walk rate), Luke Jackson (4.76 BB/9, 11.7 percent walk rate) and Peter Moylan, who bowed out to the 60-day DL with a 5.72 BB/9 and a 14 percent walk rate.
Now, it’s not like the rest of the bullpen is just vastly superior in quality to the guys who I just mentioned when it comes to production this season. It’s just that you’d rather not see relievers who are extra prone to giving out walks getting more time on the mound to try to sort things out. There’s simply no room for that type of error during the postseason.
Should the Braves take care of business and clinch their spot in the playoffs, it’s absolutely imperative that neither Freeman or Jackson receive any type of work during high-leverage situations. Giving up walks at any point is bad, but handing out free passes when you’re in the midst of a high-pressure playoff series is tantamount to playing with fire while wearing a tracksuit that’s doused in gasoline. It’s not going to end well for anybody involved, except for the batters who will happily trot 90 feet just for simply knowing to lay off of junk balls.
That brings us to the starters and the two candidates who are up for analysis in this department are clear: Julio Teheran and Sean Newcomb. Mike Foltynewicz also joined in on the walk parade in his most recent start, but his performance over the season has more than earned him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to having confidence in him come playoff time. With Teheran and Newcomb, they’ve been struggling with walks all season.
I’m not going to dig into the stats with these guys. Instead, I will leave that to Stephen Tolbert of MLB Daily Dish and WalkOff Walk.
There are 67 qualified starting pitchers in MLB this year. Among them, Julio Teheran’s 11.7% walk rate ranks 67th. Dead last. Sean Newcomb ranks 65th.— Stephen (@b_outliers) September 17, 2018
It’s actually amazing that Teheran has managed to stay over the threshold of negative fWAR when he’s been pitching like that and it’s even more amazing to see that Sean Newcomb is close to a 2-fWAR season when he’s been dealing out walks at that rate. Still, that is no way to live during the postseason and it’s clear that in a four-man playoff rotation, one of these men would be on the outside looking in.
The only question now is how do you really fix it? Obviously there’s nothing you can really do to tweak the roster in a major way. Unless the reliable pitchers can just trade in their human arms for bionic limbs for the next month, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to carry the load on a nightly basis. Some of the aforementioned culprits of walks will have to get the ball at some point or another during the postseason.
At this point, it comes down to management. Are we going to see Brian Snitker get creative and find ways to work to the strengths of their bullpen — even if the bullpen isn’t exactly showing too much strength right now? Or will we continue to see Snitker lean on guys like Freeman and Jackson when all evidence points towards them being reserved for low-leverage situations, if anything?
We’ll have to wait and see as we cross the bridge from the regular season to the postseason but for now, it’s pretty evident what Atlanta’s Achilles heel is and it could end up being a fatal injury to what’s been a fantastic 2018 campaign for the Braves so far.