- Tuesday night’s disaster: six relievers used, five of whom had negative WPA. Chad Sobotka finished with -.211, Jesse Biddle with -.291, and A.J. Minter with -.333.
- Wednesday night’s disaster: Jesse Biddle stole the show with a -.350 WPA. Every other Braves pitcher had positive WPA.
- Thursday afternoon’s disaster: Chad Sobotka stole the show with a -.249 WPA. Every other Braves pitcher had positive WPA.
So, that’s kind of a weird thing, right? Three games, three instances where at least one of the team’s relievers put an extreme hurting on win expectancy. Remember that a team starts at 0.500 win expectancy, and only needs another 0.500 to complete the victory. So, a player giving away just about 0.25, as Sobotka did on Thursday afternoon, is giving away about half of the needed success to grab a “W.”
Fangraphs publishes a “meltdown” stat that is defined as a case where a reliever posts -0.06 WPA in a game. -0.25 is about four times that, so we can think of it as a quad-meltdown, or something. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I wanted to see what the last time was that the Atlanta bullpen managed to have a quad-meltdown or worse in three consecutive games. Note that this isn’t the same as having three quad-meltdowns in short succession, because many games actually feature multiple relievers being awful (e.g., Tuesday night) — I mostly just wanted to see how far back I had to go to find a case where three consecutive perfectly fine games were ruined by relievers relievering.
Turns out, not too far! I feel like I should add a trigger warning for the below — we talkin’ ‘bout relievers here, lads.
Our sad story begins during the pathetic 2016 Atlanta Braves season. Weirdly enough, though, this one is not to be confused with 2015 or 2017, when the Braves had some epically dreadful bullpens. Instead, the bullpen was probably the bright spot of the team in 2016, and yet, the below happened anyway.
On September 6, 2016, the Braves were looking for their 55th (not a typo, sigh) win against the Nationals, who had already been assured of at least a .500 season and had a massive lead in the standings. But, despite the vast differential in talent level of these two teams, they had fought to a 6-6 standstill into the eighth. Jose Ramirez (not the good one), who had gotten the last two outs of the seventh, remained in the game to start the bottom of the eighth. He walked the first guy he faced. He walked the second guy he faced. He then faced Ben “Downward Swing!” Revere, who bunted back to the pitcher. Ramirez picked it up and threw it away, because time is a flat circle. That scored the go-ahead run. Ramirez remained in the game to allow a two-run single before getting two outs (and issuing an intentional walk) and being lifted from the game. (Chaz Roe ended the inning.) His final line? Three walks and a hit while retiring four batters, while yielding three runs. For our purposes here, what we care about is the -.276 WPA. The Braves lost 9-7 after getting a lone run in the ninth.
The next day, these two teams tangled again, and this time finished regulation play in a 3-3 tie. They then finished 10 innings in a 4-4 tie, as the Braves took a one-run lead on a two-out Jace Peterson single, but gave it right back when Jim Johnson allowed three singles in a row. That wasn’t the bad part, though. The bad part was the eventual walkoff in the 11th. Jed Bradley issued a leadoff walk, pushed the winning run to third by giving up a double, issued an intentional walk to load the bases with none out, and then was pulled from the game. Boom, -.298 WPA, just like that. The Braves actually had the decency to pull Bradley and insert Brandon Cunniff into the contest, who allowed a fly ball to center off the bat of Wilson Ramos to end the game.
Oh, but we’re not done yet. After an off-day, the Braves returned home to face the also-bad-but-not-quite-as-bad Mets in Atlanta. They held a 4-2 lead going into the eighth, when the day turned sinister. Mauricio Cabrera started the inning and issued a leadoff walk. You should be sensing a theme right about now. An error put the tying runs on base; another walk loaded the bases with the go-ahead run on first. Yoenis Cespedes hit a sacrifice fly. A bloop single from Curtis Granderson tied the game. Cabrera then allowed a pinch-hit double to old friend Kelly Johnson, which made it 5-4. He was made to issue an intentional walk before leaving the game. For good measure, Jose Ramirez came on and hit the next batter with a pitch to make it 6-4, the final score of the game. Cabrera allowed three walks and two hits while getting just one out, collecting a whopping -.710 WPA. I’m pretty sure most relievers don’t have an outing that bad in their careers, WPA-wise.
So, now you know — this three-game stretch the Braves just endured wasn’t unique in terms of utter bullpen ineptitude, and we only had to go back a few years to find another just like it.
But wait! That’s no fun. After all, the real gut punch of the past three days wasn’t that the bullpen imploded three times in a row, but that all three games of the same series featured this. So, what was the last time the Braves had a quad-meltdown or worse in all three games of a series? Well, you didn’t ask, and if you read below, you’re not going to be glad I asked, either.
For this, we have to go all the way back to 2003. This is not a common occurrence! The Braves were in San Francisco, facing the Giants. These three games don’t require that much summarization, because what happened in each was pretty simple.
- August 19, 2003: In a 4-4 tie headed to the bottom of the ninth, the Braves summon Ray King from the bullpen to face Barry Bonds, leading off the inning. King falls behind Bonds 2-1, and then gives up a walkoff homer. Four pitches, -.360 WPA.
- August 20, 2003: In a 1-1 tie headed to the bottom of the ninth, the Braves summon Kevin Gryboski from the bullpen. Gryboski allows a one-out bunt single, and the walkoff run reaches third on a fly ball single. That makes giving an intentional free pass to Bonds a no-brainer, but the next batter, Edgardo Alfonzo, hits a grounder that’s just too straightaway up the middle, even for a defense at double play depth. The walkoff run scores. Four batters, -.360 WPA.
- August 21, 2003: The Braves actually came back with a three-run rally in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 3-3. But, in the bottom of the 10th, Trey Hodges came on. He struck out the first man of the inning, but threw only one pitch to Bonds, who put it in the stands for a walkoff homer. Four pitches, -.360 WPA.
Insert “cool cool cool cool cool” gif here.
The good news for the Braves is that three consecutive super-bullpen meltdowns are rare enough that they didn’t even happen during the awfully lean relief years of 2015 and 2017. The 2018 bullpen had its problems, and it also managed to avoid this. So, we can feel pretty safe in the fact that this exact circumstance of ineptitude won’t happen again, at least not for a few years. And something as dreadful as having it all come in the same series? Well, hopefully we have another 16 years before that happens again.