The Braves bullpen ended the 2021 season as a strength for the club, but there was a time when there was a lot of uncertainty as to who would provide the depth there that the team desired. LHP Grant Dayton was supposed to be a part of that depth, as he had been marginally effective when healthy for the team, but unfortunately the injury bug bit him yet again, which left the Braves looking for other options in the second half.
Just a week after Alex Anthopoulos became the general manager of the Braves back in November of 2017, one of his first moves as general manager was to claim Grant Dayton off of waivers from the Dodgers. While Dayton was coming off of Tommy John surgery, Anthopoulos clearly saw some value in Dayton as a reliever and he ended up being a part of a package of moves just before the Rule 5 draft deadline that season. He did not make an appearance for the Braves until the 2019 season, and went on to make 32 appearances for the team over the next two seasons. In those two seasons, he outperformed his peripherals by a bunch (55 ERA-, 107 FIP-, 111 xFIP-) and was overall marginally successful leading up to the 2021 season (0.0 fWAR in 39 1⁄3 innings over two seasons).
While the Braves seemingly had the back end of the bullpen fairly well established for the 2021 season, the hope was that Dayton would be able to provide useful middle relief innings for the Braves. ZiPS projected Dayton to post a 4.40 ERA while making 36 appearances for the club and totaling 43 innings (0.2 WAR), while Steamer was similar at 0.1 WAR for the season. If you were the Braves, you would have happily taken that from one of your lower leverage relievers, especially since there was some upside with Dayton from the left side.
2021 Season Stats
Grant Dayton: 13 appearances, 13 IP, 6.32 ERA, 4.51 xERA, 4.40 FIP, 4.71 xFIP, 23.0% K%, 9.8% BB%, 0.0 fWAR
While we are talking about an exceedingly small sample with Dayton (more on that in a bit), the regression monster reared its ugly head with him as his results were significantly worse than some of his peripherals would have guessed. Consider it revenge for 2021 — his FIP- and xFIP- barely budged from where they were in 2019-2020, but his ERA- jumped from 55 to 145. Dayton saw jumps in his BABIP-against as well as his walk rate, which led to the rough parts of his peripherals getting punished more by worse bad luck on balls in play.
What went right? What went wrong?
Before we get to the injury stuff, there was at least one silver lining in that his average four seam fastball velocity was up significantly from the last couple of seasons to 91.4 mph... so that was good. The month of May was his best month if you are talking strictly stat lines, but he also only threw 3 1⁄3 innings that month...so there is that. Pitch-wise, Dayton has a pretty nice fastball-curve combo, so you can see why the Braves have stuck with him, but his fastball command’s generally been a mess, which is unfortunate when you’re a soft-tosser and tend to leave it in the middle of the zone when you miss.
As for the bad, significant regressions in Dayton’s strikeout rate, walk rate, BABIP against, strand rate, ERA, FIP... basically he was worse across the board. All of the usual small sample size warnings apply here and could have been indicative of a larger injury issue. In the past, Dayton was able to surprise hitters with a four-seamer that didn’t fall as much as batters expected it to despite how slowly it was thrown, getting a ton of pop-ups. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen in 2021, and the four-seamer got killed instead.
Speaking of injury, Dayton ultimately hit the shelf at the beginning of June with what was described as left shoulder inflammation. A month later, he was transferred to the 60-day IL and did not make another appearance in 2021 for the Braves after June 4th. It was later revealed that Dayton had undergone a procedure to clean up the AC joint in his left shoulder in September.
Road to the Title
You might be surprised to learn that Dayton finishes the 2021 season with positive WPA and cWPA for the Braves, despite an equal number of shutdowns (two) as meltdowns, and the fact that he actually cost them WPA in more games than he added some. The reason for that? An incredibly unexpected outing on May 6. In this game, the Braves held a 3-1 lead over the Nationals into the bottom of the eighth, and Edgar Santana got the call to start the inning (because A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek had worked each of the past two games, and Luke Jackson pitched the seventh). The Santana thing didn’t quite work out — he retired just one of the four batters he faced, with Yan Gomes chasing him with an RBI single that made it 3-2. So, Brian Snitker went to the bullpen and summoned Dayton, who hadn’t pitched in six days to face Kyle Schwarber.
And, with the tying run on third and one out, Dayton did the incredible.
He threw Schwarber three straight curveballs, all in the same place. Schwarber swung at the first one, and missed it. Schwarber swung at the second one, and missed it. Schwarber swung at the third one, and you guessed it: he missed it. Here’s a video of the last one, but it’s pretty much the same video as for the prior two pitches.
Up next was Victor Robles, and while Dayton didn’t have quite the same approach or success, but the same ultimate result. He got ahead with two fastballs down the pipe which were both taken, missed high with a fastball, missed low with a curveball, missed away with a fastball, got away with a fouled-off fastball, and then, with maybe an assist from Jeff Mathis and the umpire:
This was a wild outing. It was Dayton’s second-highest WPA (.024) in a game ever, and his highest since 2016. It was the highest-leverage outing of his career. And it happened in this really
Outlook for 2022
Grant Dayton was made a free agent at the end of the season and while a reunion with the Braves is theoretically possible, his injury issues make him a less-than-enticing option to fill out the bullpen. All of the reporting on Dayton since it was revealed that he had surgery on his shoulder is that he will be able to have a relatively normal offseason and should be able to play in 2022. That said, it seems likely that the Braves will look elsewhere. Dayton should at least get an Spring Training invite from another club as he looks to show that he is healthy and can be a useful bullpen option in 2022. His pitches are still interesting, if nothing else.