One of the best things about the Braves winning the World Series (still strange to say so!) is that we can look back at bad times and simply laugh - the burden has been lifted!
This has led me to think long and hard about something. Arguably, prior to 2021, the Braves' best bullpen was from 10 years prior: 2011. This was the famed "O'Ventbrel" bullpen and, overall, it was better than '21's with a 3.03 ERA. Man-for-man, in terms of stuff, I still consider O'Flaherty of '11 better than Minter and Venters, who was the last true stopper the Braves had before Matzek, better than the latter. However, the '11 bullpen also suffered from overuse, a discussion that was very prevalent in the wake of that epic September collapse.
Which brings me to my question: if the Braves won that September 28, 2011 game against the Phillies, how would the Braves relievers have fared in the postseason? The Braves relied a lot on their relievers during the regular season, so there's no doubt they would've continued to rely on them in the postseason. Before you answer, consider the following facts:
- Had the Braves won on 9/28, they would've faced the Cardinals in St. Louis the next night for a one-game play-off to decide the NL Wild Card winner;
- IIRC, had they won the play-off, they would've had only two nights of rest until Gm. 1 of the NLDS, which would've come against the Brewers, who had the NL's best record that season;
- Venters led the MLB w/85 appearances, Kimbrel had 79, and O'Flaherty 78. Of the three, O'Flaherty retained his effectiveness, while Kimbrel and Venters were losing effectiveness by season's end;
This is what I think would've happened.
Without dictating specifically where the Braves' season would've ended, I think the bullpen would've most certainly faltered during the postseason. Kimbrel and Venters were clearly gassed and there's just no way they could be called upon as frequently as they were during the regular season and pitched just as well. There's absolutely no way they could've been used the way Minter, Matzek, and Smith were.
This shines the spotlight on O'Flaherty. One would think Fredi Gonzalez would've upped his usage of O'Flaherty during the postseason, since he retained his effectiveness. This means maybe bringing him in earlier, stretching out his appearances (ex. enter in sixth, pitch through seventh, or start seventh, pitch into eighth, to limit Venters' pitch count). A bullpen can't live and die with one person, but, IMO, there's no question more would've and should've been asked of O'Flaherty had the Braves made the postseason.
Then there are the middle relievers. Linebrink and Sherrill were effective in '11, though they weren't high-leverage relievers. Would Gonzalez have asked more of them? Would they have appeared in more high-leverage situations in the postseason, or would Gonzalez have sworn and stuck by O'Ventbrel until the bitter end?
All this goes to show how well the stars really aligned for the Braves in '21. We entered the postseason with MMS at peak effectiveness and overuse wasn't an issue with any of them. That allowed Snitker to push them to their limits and beyond. I'm not a fan of the three-batter rule, but I think this helps somewhat in bullpen management, because it naturally limits the frequency with which a reliever can be used over multiple games during the regular season. A perfect example of this is Pedro Feliciano in 2010, when he made an insane 92 appearances during the regular season, but pitched only 62.2 innings. This means many of his appearances involved facing less than two batters, which also means he was used on a very frequent basis because he hadn't thrown too many pitches his last appearance. Still, over time, the pitches add up and there's far less recovery time between games.