At the 2019 trade deadline, the Atlanta Braves were clearly a playoff contender. However, that was mainly due to a consistent offense. As a whole, the pitching staff was a roller coaster for the first four months of 2019. With stretches of both dominance and despair, the consistency of both the starting rotation and the bullpen was hard to trust. As a result, general manager Alex Anthopoulos sought stability in multiple transactions.
The end result were the additions of Shane Greene, Chris Martin, and Mark Melancon. While it took of bit of time, this new trio of relief options made a needed positive impact for the Braves, as they became the new back end of the Braves’ bullpen and helped the unit quickly transform from one of the worst to among the best bullpens in baseball.
Though the 2019 season ended in disappointment, Anthopoulos had plenty of proof that the Braves truly were among the best teams in all of baseball with their bullpen as a strength. As a result, he heavily invested in quality and depth. Darren O’Day and Chris Martin were signed to deals that could keep them in Atlanta for multiple years. Despite some speculation that he could be non-tendered or traded, Shane Greene was retained through arbitration. Furthermore, the Braves made a significant commitment to free agent closer Will Smith (three years, $39M with a fourth year team option). It was clear Atlanta thought an elite bullpen was clearly needed to support its starting staff and advance in the postseason.
The significance of the depth and quality of the Braves relief options shined through even more than unexpected during the unprecedented circumstances in the 2020 season. In a shortened season, the Braves were able to feature their pen more frequently than it may have been able too over a full season. And that utilization was essential, as injuries and ineffectiveness caused the Braves starting rotation to be among the worst in baseball. Overall, the Braves bullpen logged 272 innings of work in 2020, the second most in the majors. However, though they were heavily used, they were also highly effective:
Total Bullpen fWAR- 2.1- 9th in majors
Bullpen ERA- 3.50- 4th in majors
Bullpen FIP- 3.91- 6th in majors
Overall, the Braves arguably had a top five bullpen in the majors this season. Furthermore, a few major reasons for that success came from unexpected sources in support of the main pieces that were expected to perform. However, there were also some struggles. In the end, there certainly were more positives than negatives this season from the group.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Though the amounts were obviously prorated, before the impact of COVID-19, through salaries and signing bonuses, the Braves owed Smith and Melancon $32M combined this season. Smith had a delayed start to the season due to a positive COVID-19 test, and did not make his debut until the 16th game of the season. Whether it was his new surroundings or his less than ideal start to the season, Smith (4.50 ERA/7.38 FIP/4.22 xFIP) certainly struggled in his first season in Atlanta.
A major reason was the seven home runs he allowed in 18 innings of work. Though that certainly was not a sustainable pace, it also made him far less effective than the Braves had hoped. Smith did settle into his role and find success as the regular season ended and the MLB Playoffs began, allowing only one earned run, and one home run, over a stretch of 12 appearances. However, in Games 4 and 5 of the NLCS, Smith’s struggles returned. In 2⁄3 of an inning, Smith allowed two hits, three walks, and three earned runs, including the go ahead home run in Game 5. Though he had stretches that proved why the Braves invested in him as a high leverage relief option, Smith’s overall campaign likely can be described as more of a disappointment than success.
It is hard to describe Melancon as a disappointment. He recorded 11 of 13 saves and produced a 2.78 ERA. However, a 4.42 xFIP and 5.56 K/P suggested his stuff was simply not as effective as it had been in the past, though that could simply be due to age. Besides Smith, the biggest disappointment was fan favorite Luke Jackson. After a successful 2019 season, Jackson’s effectiveness plummeted (6.84 ERA/ 4.37 FIP/ 4.70 xFIP) to the point that he was not included on any postseason rosters. Though some of that was due to a lack of luck, Jackson clearly struggled, especially as the season progressed. Though it would be surprising, Jackson’s future with the Braves may not be as guaranteed as it once was.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
While some higher profile names had their struggles, the depth of the Braves relief options was able to overcome that obstacle with many sources of success. Both Martin and Greene offered stability and consistency, with a 1.00 ERA and 2.60 ERA over 18 innings and 27 2⁄3 innings in 2020, respectively. Darren O’Day and Josh Tomlin (in various roles) provided another season of solid work. A few younger arms, Huascar Ynoa and Jacob Webb, showed flashes of brilliance and proof they could fill key roles in the bullpen moving forward.
However, the biggest surprise and storyline for the Braves bullpen in 2020 was the effectiveness provided by a trio of southpaws.
Over 27 1⁄3 innings, Grant Dayton produced 32 strikeouts and a 2.30 ERA, proving to be a reliable middle innings option from the left side. A.J. Minter allowed only two total runs (one earned) and nine walks over 21 2⁄3 innings and produced 24 strikeouts. He also continued his success into the postseason, including a heroic performance as the “opener” in Game 5 against the Dodgers. His return to form after a disastrous 2019 season was a wonderful development for the Braves.
In terms of both narrative and production, it is hard to top the comeback story of Tyler Matzek. Matzek was one of only eight relievers in the majors this season that completed 29 or more relief innings, and had the lowest xFIP (3.00) of that group. Making his first appearance in the majors since 2015, Matzek produced a 2.79 ERA and 43 strikeouts over 29 innings. He proved he could be effective against both right and left handed hitters, and showed his versatility, as he was used in both the middle and late innings and worked multiple innings in a few appearances. His success continued into the playoffs.
The fact that Matzek is under the Braves’ control through 2024 adds to the significance of his emergence. Though it is hard to truly trust the long term effectiveness of relievers, having Matzek’s versatility under control for the foreseeable future makes him a major asset for the future of the Braves bullpen.
OUTLOOK FOR THE 2021 SEASON
The Braves will experience some major changes to their bullpen this offseason. Melancon, Greene, and Tomlin all are free agents. The arbitration process with Luke Jackson is not a guarantee, but there is a good chance he returns for another season. The Braves hold a $3.5M team option on Darren O’Day, and after his successful bounceback season, it seems the team is very likely to exercise the option.
In terms of Melancon and Tomlin, the Braves may look to bring one or both of them back for 2021 if the price makes sense. It seems Melancon is highly regarded throughout the entire organization, and he would be a reliable right handed relief option at the back end of bullpen. Though Tomlin has been valuable over the past two years for the Braves, it seems that younger options could fill the role of “swingman” for Atlanta. Just like 2020, Tomlin may be a last minute addition if the need arises. Greene likely will prove to be too expensive and likely could find a more meaningful bullpen role elsewhere.
Martin, Matzek, Minter, and Smith will be viewed as the main high leverage options for the bullpen in 2021. If Melancon is not brought hack, it is logical that the Braves could pursue another reliable veteran right hander to add to their depth. Of course, Ynoa and Webb have both shown flashes of effectiveness that could allow both of them to become trustworthy options in time. Furthermore, after finding Matzek and getting Minter’s career back on track, if the Braves were to allow Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint to focus primarily on being relievers, they certainly have the talent for Atlanta to mold them into quality relief options as well.
Overall, while some notable names will leave, many of the same components that made the Braves bullpen a clear strength in 2020 will be back in 2021. Though it is hard to find any true faults with this group, one area they could improve upon is strikeout potential, as they were 17th in K/9 rate in the majors this season. Identifying a power arm that may have struggled in recent years but has encouraging strikeout rates could be a worthwhile addition. Regardless of what directions Anthopoulos may choose to go to add to the group for 2021, it simply needs a bit of minor tinkering instead of a major overhaul. For that reason, the Braves bullpen should remain a clear strength for Atlanta with the potential to once again be one of the best bullpens in baseball on 2021.