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Quick Hits: That pesky handedness usage thing

Braves’ relief situation is up to its old “tricks.”

Arizona Diamondbacks v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

It feels kind of odd to say this halfway through an April where the Red Sox are awful and the Mariners have apparently unlocked the mysteries of the universe, but things for the Atlanta Braves have mostly gone as expected, so far. The hitting has been excellent, the fielding has been excellent, the position players have been not only as expected, but even a little better. The rotation has been a kitchen sink affair, but as a whole, more or less as expected — good stuff and bad stuff, average-ish as a whole. Some forecasts had the bullpen as the weakest part of the enterprise, and so it has come to pass. (Whether the bullpen or the rotation was considered worse in large part depends on health and therefore playing time.)

After Tuesday night’s relief pitching horrorshow, the Atlanta bullpen still hasn’t been taxed too much — it ranks 18th in baseball in innings pitched and 15th in batters faced, and that includes Touki Toussaint’s “relief” stint which was really just a start that happened to begin in the second inning. Yet, the performance has been as hangdog as a unit running on fumes in September. In the teeny-tiny sample (where, again, weird stuff like Freddy Galvis having the same wRC+ as Rhys Hoskins is happening, April, man) of 2019 we’ve seen so far, the Braves’ bullpen is:

  • Fifth-worst in MLB by FIP-;
  • Fifth-worst in MLB, and below replacement level by fWAR;
  • Bottom ten in MLB, and below replacement level by RA9-WAR; and
  • Fifth-worst in MLB by WPA.

(As a side note, they probably won’t be this bad going forward, if only because the group’s xFIP is a fairly generic 15th in MLB, though still higher at a 107 xFIP- than you’d ever want to see.)

Among the specific relievers used so far, only Wes Parsons has a notably positive WPA on the year, aside from Toussaint’s “relief appearance.” Meanwhile, A.J. Minter, Jesse Biddle, and Jonny Venters all have bottom-50 reliever WPAs among all guys to have emerged from a bullpen this year. Again, this isn’t really a story that the relief corps will be bad going forward, because WPA isn’t predictive, nor are things amassed in these small samples. It’s just a story that the relief corps has been gloriously bad so far.

One interesting note about that WPA, though: it’s not that the Braves have really been agonizingly bad in terms of bleeding leads or anything. WPA is tracked as both its plus and minus components, i.e., WPA- tells you how much WPA a player or team lost, while WPA+ tells you how much they gained. By WPA-, the Braves’ relief corps is actually fairly average (17th in MLB). It’s WPA+ where they’ve really suffered (28th in MLB), which means that while they’ve been average at their rate of engendering disappointment, what they’ve consistently failed to do so far is actually “perform well in important situations.” These things are sort of two sides of the same coin, but also sort of not — it might be an interesting nuance, but is more likely just a weird small-sample artifact, like everything right now.

Anyway, all of that raises questions about usage. Personnel-wise, we may have known that this bullpen was the team’s weak link, but we didn’t necessarily expect below-replacement-level performance, nor so much shed WPA from some of the supposedly-decent arms in the ‘pen. (Hint: there is no “safe” or “supposedly-decent” reliever anything.) One basic usage concept is to play to the concept of handedness splits, i.e., let left-handed pitchers face lefty batters, and righty hurlers face right-handed hitters. Often times, this isn’t too important: leverage tells you when you actually want to set up an advantageous situation and when you can afford to be less proactive in making player substitutions. So, looking at adherence to handedness in high leverage gives a good sense of how teams are (and are not) deploying their relief personnel to try and gain maximum benefit.

The Braves haven’t been taxed in terms of high-leverage showdowns. They rank in the bottom 10 in frequency of those situations so far, which is a testament to their offense (as well as some hammering endured by some of their pitchers). But, when those situations have shown up, the Braves haven’t really adjusted accordingly. The “best” teams have yielded platoon advantage in high leverage less than a third of time so far this season. The Braves are nearly at two-thirds. They’ve failed to set up the platoon advantage in high leverage nearly half the time with their right-handed relievers, and nearly ninety percent of the time with their left-handed relievers. A.J. Minter has only faced righties in high leverage so far. Three of the four batters Jesse Biddle has faced in high leverage have been righties. Max Fried was 2-for-3 in facing righties in high leverage before moving to the rotation; Jonny Venters was 1-for-2 before hitting the Injured List. Chad Sobotka is 3-for-4 in facing lefties in high leverage. Shane Carle is 2-for-2.

The usage isn’t the only reason for the ghastly stats below, but it doesn’t help.

But hey, at least they’re not the Cubs. Yeesh. (Who have somehow let every runner they’ve allowed reach base in high leverage to score, which is actually kind of impressive across 22 batters.)

Anyway, all of this will probably get better. It has to. The good news is that even with the bullpen/handedness/usage woes, the Braves are still more or less exactly where they were expected to be at this point, if not a little better. The bullpen may be holding them back, but it’s a bit of adverse variation that cancels out positive variation elsewhere, as usually happens. The bad news is that the Braves might end up needing more of an edge to make the playoffs than this sort of status quo. Fixing the high leverage handedness usage thing could be that edge, or at least part of it. There’ll be opportunities to make the right calls, better calls, in the future. Will the Braves seize them?

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