While Jacob Webb was not expected to have a big role for the Braves in 2021 after showing promise in 2020, his performance was certainly relevant to the successes and struggles of the team. Overall, Webb provided serviceable bullpen depth and helped Atlanta navigate bullpen injuries and ineffectiveness over the course of a long season.
Webb was drafted in the 18th round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Braves out of Tabor College, a small school in Kasas. Though he was never considered an elite prospect, Webb made appearances among the Braves Top 30 prospects across many outlets in the past, mainly starting in 2018. He made his debut in 2019, posting a 1.39 ERA with much worse peripherals (31 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 116 xFIP-) in his first big league season.
After his surprising and encouraging debut in 2019, and ten innings in which he didn’t give up a run in 2020, Webb entered 2021 as one of the main depth options for the Braves’ relief corps. Much like Chad Sobotka in previous years, Webb was probably expected to ride the shuttle between Atlanta and Gwinnett, and in fact, he did not make the 2021 Opening Day roster. In general, Webb was not expected to play a major role for the 2021 Braves, but quickly rocketed up the depth chart as Huascar Ynoa slid into the rotation while Touki Toussaint and Mike Soroka hit the shelf.
2021 Season Results
Webb was one of many Braves whose 2021 season was not just one streamlined story, but one with multiple chapters. Due to injuries, Webb was called up in early April, and his early season performance was up-and-down. Overall, through his first 13 appearances, Webb had a 5.14 ERA and 4.46 FIP. While he allowed 18 hits and had two instances of allowing three runs, he also produced a 15/3 K/BB ratio. In a reversal of what he had done in 2019 and 2020, Webb was rocking a good xFIP (87 xFIP-) in this span, but was paying the price in terms of results and WPA, with two meltdowns to just one shutdown in the process.
Then, on May 17th, both unfortunately and unexpectedly, Webb accidentally hit Kevin Pillar in the face with a fastball. While it was clear it was simply an unfortunate incident, many wondered, including Pillar himself, how the errant throw would impact Webb. Webb struggled in two outings following this incident, and then returned to the minors. This is when the “shuttling” between the majors and minors began as between May 22nd and September 1, Webb only made four relief appearances in the Majors, but was optioned and recalled five times before rosters expanded.
When September arrived, Chris Martin went down with an arm injury and a few other relievers began to struggle with their effectiveness. The Braves turned to Webb in a more prominent role, and he took some advantage. Over 10 1⁄3 innings across his first 10 appearances in September, Webb allowed three hits, four walks, and only one unearned run while producing nine strikeouts. Yet, this was the same Webb story as in earlier seasons — 0.00 ERA, 2.59 FIP, 4.81 xFIP. Webb ended his season with three awful outings out of four. His final tally was a much more consistent set of results and peripherals, even though it consisted of a bunch of periods where the two didn’t line up: 98 ERA, 97 FIP-, 109 xFIP-, 0.1 fWAR in 34 1⁄3 innings, to go with a very negative WPA (-1.05) but nine shutdowns to seven meltdowns.
What Went Right? What Went Wrong?
Webb had a 33/14 K to BB ratio while allowing 22 hits on the season. In 26 of his 34 outings, Webb did not allow a run. Of the 16 runs he allowed, 12 were in four separate instances where he allowed three runs each time. He also substantially reduced the oomph of contact against him in terms of the rate of exit velocities over 95 mph he allowed, and yet, his xwOBACON went from “really good” in 2019-2020 to league-average in 2021. Jacob Webb continues to be a perplexing entity.
A fun fact is that Webb threw his changeup as his primary pitch in 2021, and throughout his career, both it and his rarely-used curveball have stymied opposing batters. The problem with him is more a fastball he can’t command, which seems to be okay but not great. Still, there’s potential in that changeup, which lost effectiveness as its usage increased, but remained a highly plus offering.
In the end, 2021 was probably what should have been expected from Webb all along, given that his results and peripherals ended in reasonable alignment. He may be somewhat above replacement level, and has a cool pitch to play with. He’s useful depth and may be relied upon when needed, but issues with his fastball lead to mediocre peripherals and increase the chance that a given outing might be a regrettable one.
Road to the Title
Though Webb certainly impressed for much of September, his struggles in late September carried over to the 2021 MLB postseason. His only two appearances came in the NLCS, and he allowed four earned runs in 1 2⁄3 innings. The main culprit was a four-run implosion allowed to the Dodgers in their Game 5 victory. Still, he finished the postseason with barely-positive WPA and cWPA, because he got two outs in the Braves’ Game 2 victory in a tie game. Webb started the sixth for Atlanta and issued a leadoff walk to Chris Taylor, who stole second and moved to third on a flyout by Cody Bellinger. Webb, however, held fast and struck out A.J. Pollock for the second out, which then set up a sequence in which the Dodgers pinch-hit Matt Beaty for the pitcher’s spot, the Braves inserted Tyler Matzek to pitch to Beaty, Beaty was replaced by Albert Pujols, and in the end, Matzek struck Pujols out.
Webb didn’t make the World Series roster, so his pretty meaningless implosion (the Braves were already down five when he allowed four more) was his final outing of 2021. But hey, positive playoff cWPA, that’s pretty cool!
Another cool thing about Webb: he’s one of the few (maybe the only?) 2021 Atlanta Brave who appeared in the postseason, whose highest cWPA game actually came during the regular season. On September 9, after Will Smith blew a one-run save in the ninth, Webb was asked to pitch the tenth and give the Braves another chance to walk it off. He did just that, with a blistering nine-pitch inning that went shallow fly, grounder to second, grounder to second, stranding the free runner. The Braves walked it off in the bottom of the 10th, and Webb helped make that possible.
Outlook for 2022
Webb will enter 2022 much as he did 2021, as organizational depth that will be among the first names called upon when injuries inevitably make their impact, as they do for every team each year. However, while Webb may not be knocking on the door of becoming the newest member of the “Night Shift,” it does seem he could grow into more of a standard option from the right side.
Behind Luke Jackson, there are multiple spots for right-handed relievers in the bullpen. While Toussaint, Ynoa and others could offer higher upside, they also have proven to be inconsistent, and Ynoa may be in the rotation for part or much of 2022. While the Braves will likely add a few more names to their roster to look at in Spring Training of 2022, it is certainly feasible that with an impressive Spring Training, Webb could earn a role on the Braves 2022 Opening Day roster.
Steamer currently sees Webb as the definitional fringy reliever, projecting 60 games with a 4.30 ERA with a 23.1 percent strikeout rate (higher than his career rate) and a 9.6 percent walk rate (basically his career rate). That suggests an unremarkable middle relief role. Though Webb may not have the most electric stuff or highest ceiling, he has shown some potential over the past three years, and his non-fastball offerings are pretty good. There’s a chance for him to grow into improved production and a more important role, but it’s far from a guarantee.