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The Braves’ bullpen is walking batters at record pace

Free passes have been the bullpen’s Achilles heel, as shown in last night’s loss to Cincinnati.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There are few things more frustrating in baseball than seeing relief pitchers come in and walk everyone. One thing that is more frustrating, though, is a bases-loaded walk. Unfortunately, the Braves’ bullpen accomplished both last night in Cincinnati.

A turning point in the game came in the bottom of the sixth inning. The Braves had taken a 4-3 lead in the top half of the inning, but the Reds regained the lead 5-4 against starter Kevin Gausman. With a runner still on second base, Jesse Biddle entered the game and walked the next three batters (one intentionally). Biddle walked Phillip Ervin, who had just been called up from Triple-A before the game, with the bases loaded. Wes Parsons then came in and allowed a sacrifice fly that plated Joey Votto, whom Biddle had walked. The Braves’ relievers would ultimately walk seven batters in 2 23 innings, and the Braves would lose the game by one run.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Atlanta Braves
Jesse Biddle had a tough night, walking three batters without recording an out during a critical spot in the game last night.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to notice that the Braves’ bullpen seems to walk a lot of batters. The Braves’ bullpen is currently walking 14.8 percent of batters it faces. That seems high, but just how high is it? Consider this:

  • No other bullpen is walking more than 13 percent of batters this season.
  • The highest walk rate for a bullpen that has been recorded over a full season is the 2004 Diamondbacks at 12.5 percent.

To be fair, the Braves’ bullpen is not the only bullpen walking batters at a high rate this season. There are six bullpens with a walk rate of 12 percent or higher so far this season (up from three bullpens with 12 percent walk rate during the same time period in each of 2017 and 2018). This fact offers little solace to the Braves, though. In a time where relievers are walking batters at an unusually high rate, the Braves’ bullpen is out-walking everyone by nearly two percent this season.

Unfortunately, this is not a recent trend for the Braves. The Braves’ bullpen in 2018 had the highest walk rate in baseball by walking 11.3 percent of batters. To put that in context, since 2010 there have been only 3 bullpens that have walked batters at a higher rate than the Braves’ 2018 bullpen, the highest rate being by the 2010 Angels at 12.0 percent.

In case it provides any comfort, there is still plenty of time to lower that walk rate. Look no further than last season when the Braves’ bullpen started out walking even more batters than this year. The Braves’ bullpen to the same date in 2018 had a whopping 16.5 percent walk rate and ultimately ended the year at 11.3 percent. They were able to reduce that rate significantly over the course of the season… and still finish with the highest walk rate in baseball. Ok, maybe that wasn’t so comforting.

Why does the bullpen’s high walk rate matter? After all, a high walk rate would be much more bearable if pitchers are nibbling around and not throwing anything that hitters can hit hard. However, advanced statistics suggest that the Braves’ relievers are allowing both walks and hard contact. The Braves’ bullpen is allowing the second-highest hard contact rate at 41.8 percent and the ninth-highest HR/9 at 1.5. Atlanta relievers are also allowing the fourth-highest exit velocity to hitters, which contributes to the Braves’ bullpen allowing the sixth-highest xwOBA at .345. High walk rates and lots of hard contact are rarely a winning combination.

Another reason that walk rates matter is that it can increase pitch counts and wear pitchers down over the course of the season – something the Braves certainly experienced in 2018. This year, it has taken Braves relievers an average of 6.07 pitches to record an out, which is eighth-highest in baseball. (The high pitch counts can also be attributed to the bullpen holding the ninth-highest strikeout-rate.) The Braves’ bullpen is already battling injuries with Darren O’Day not slated to return until June at the earliest, Jonny Venters on the IL, and Arodys Vizcaino already out for the season. High pitch counts certainly won’t help relievers stay fresh over the course of 162-plus games.

The good news is that the season is still young, and bullpens typically walk more batters at the beginning of the season. Additionally, there is ample payroll to bring in relievers with lower walk rates at the Trade Deadline or earlier. The Braves, however, have a long way to go to get their bullpen’s walk rate to an acceptable level. And it may have cost them a win last night.

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