Everyone knows the story by now. Back on August 10th, the Braves bullpen blew a four run lead in the ninth and lost to the Miami Marlins in extra innings, 7-6. It was the latest in a long line of recent bullpen blunders that the Braves had experienced with their new bullpen alignment since adding Chris Martin, Mark Melancon, and Shane Greene at the trade deadline. There was no denying this was the worst example of their struggles, a memorable meltdown that every team knows will happen, but no team wants to experience.
The Braves were still in an enviable position going into their series finale against the Marlins on Sunday, August 11th. They were still 6.5 games ahead of the Washington Nationals for first place in the NL East, with an offense that was among the best in the majors. However, with series against the New York Mets (the hottest team in the majors at the time) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (best record in NL) next on the schedule, many had a bit of uneasiness. This was especially true with how the Washington Nationals were playing, and with how much the Braves would see the Nationals, Phillies, and Mets for the remainder of their schedule.
As cliche as it may sound, the Braves were at a crossroads. The Braves certainly had one of the best rosters in all of baseball, and clearly were one of the true postseason contenders in the National League. However, it was mainly due to their offense, and the recent success of their starting pitching. It was as if the Atlanta roster could easily be compared to the legendary Achilles, one of the greatest heroes in history from Greek Mythology. Everyone was in awe of Achilles’ enviable talents, as he was one of the greatest soldiers ever. However, he also had arguably the most memorable fatal flaw of any hero, which ultimately led to his demise. Both the Braves and their fans were wondering if, like Achilles and his cursed heel, the Atlanta bullpen would ultimately turn a special season into a catastrophic campaign.
It has been four weeks since that meltdown, the event that made Sean Newcomb a legend, a random fire extinguisher the most famous inanimate object in Braves Country (recently overtaken by an umbrella), and the Braves realize that they were far from their best.
So, what has been the response?
Atlanta has gone 21-5, including separate eight-game and nine-game winning streaks during this stretch. The streaks are actually the second and third instances in which the Braves have won eight or more games in a row this year. The last time the Braves had a winning streak of eight or more games was 2014. Furthermore, the last time the Braves had multiple winning streaks of eight or more games at separate times in a single season was 1999 (the last time they made it to the World Series). In other words, the Braves are currently playing and winning at their highest level in the past two decades.
Yet, the best part of their success is not just that they are winning frequently, but how they are doing it. The Braves’ offense has been an above-average unit over the past four weeks compared to the rest of the major leagues. Atlanta ranks 13th in runs scored (125), tied for 14th in wRC+ (98), 12th in wOBA (.329) and 13th in OPS (.773) over that time frame. However, it has operated at a slightly lower level that it did in the first two-thirds of the season. Before August 11th, the Braves offense ranked sixth in runs (642), sixth in wOBA (.329), eighth in wRC+ (103), and sixth in OPS (.799). Obviously, a big reason for the small downgrade in production was the plethora of injuries that has kept players such as Dansby Swanson, Nick Markakis, and Brian McCann out for significant stretches. The struggles of Ronald Acuna Jr. has also played a significant role. Overall, while the Braves offense certainly has been good, it has not been the main the reason the Braves have been winning so frequently.
In fact, the offense has been Atlanta’s glaring weakness over the past four weeks, which is the reason why all the recent victories have been so gratifying. For nearly four and a half months, the Braves and their fans carried daily hope that the starters and relievers could be successful at the same time. Both parts of the staff have experienced stretches where they were among the worst and best in baseball in 2019. Fortunately, neither unit has experienced a long stretch where both were significantly struggling; however, they also have not had a long stretch of being successful at the same time.
Prior to August 11th, Atlanta’s starters were 14th in the majors in ERA (4.41), 12th in FIP (4.41), and 17th in xFIP (4.47) among the thirty starting staffs in the majors. The Braves’ bullpen ranked 13th in ERA (4.39), 25th in FIP (4.86), and 21st in xFIP (4.80). Overall, the high level of variance had produced a staff that was average to slightly below average for most of the season. However, as mentioned above, the bullpen went from unsettling to simply horrible after the All-Star Break. Between the start of the second half and August 10th, Atlanta’s bullpen was 29th in ERA (7.14), 29th in FIP (6.26), and last in the majors in xFIP (5.61). They arguably had the worst bullpen in the majors over that stretch.
It was not hard to find perhaps the biggest reason for the bullpen’s inability to be dependable. For the season up until August 10th, the Atlanta bullpen had produced a league worst 4.35 BB/9 rate. That number ballooned to a 5.59 BB/9 rate once the second half started up until the failure against the fish. Bad luck certainly was not helping their cause, especially after the three new relievers acquired at the deadline were utilized. Regardless, it was clear that the Braves pitching struggles, especially the bullpen, was a direct result of their own efforts.
At some point, it was clear that the Braves would experience positive regression, and that low percentage hits would become outs. But a significant change would only come if the Braves began to limit base runners. While it may be ironic, that change occurred at some point in the hours following “Sunday Foamy Sunday”. Since August 11th, Atlanta’s starters rank first in ERA (2.80), second in FIP (3.39), and third in xFIP (3.91). Atlanta’s relievers have ranked ninth in ERA (4.11), fifth in FIP (3.82), and first in xFIP (3.70). Since the letdown, the Braves staff as a whole, in terms of things they can control, arguably has been more effective than any other staff in baseball.
The biggest reason for the sudden yet successful transformation should come as no surprise.
This same Atlanta staff that at one point this season was potentially on pace to break records for walks allowed simply started throwing strikes consistently. While the starters are 17th in the majors with a 3.06 BB/9 mark since August 11th, the Braves bullpen is third among all bullpens in baseball, allowing a 2.44 BB/9 rate. The reason for the startling overnight change is quite simple. As the starters have become more successful, they have been able to go longer in games (ninth among starting rotations in total innings pitched since August 11th). As a result, the Braves have had to rely on their bullpen less (third fewest innings pitched among bullpens since August 11th, though winning 13 straight home games helps that.) Furthermore, with the additions of Martin, Melancon, and Greene, the Braves were able to use options with significantly better control (compared to past options) in many of those situations.
As can be seen, the big reason the Braves have been so successful over the past four weeks is because they finally are clicking on all cylinders. The beauty of the situation is that these results are the efforts of every part of the organization. The players are making adjustments that make them better and that they can sustain. The front office identified talents whose strengths could and have significantly improved the team’s main weaknesses. The coaching staff has been successful at utilizing the players and putting them in positions to succeed.
The Miami Meltdown certainly was not an experience any of us wanted, but it definitely was something this team needed. While still fresh in the minds of many, the Braves have played at a level that will make that struggle easy to forget once the calendar turns to October. While the events from that game have not had a lingering effect, the post game festivities should be highlighted as a turning point.
A turning point that is quickly extinguishing any lingering concerns one may have that this team is truly special, and a legitimate championship contender.