We previously covered the perils of the Atlanta Braves’ 2020 starting rotation. They were able to overcome those struggles largely on the back of a tremendous effort by their bullpen group. Atlanta’s bullpen logged 272 2/3 innings, which was the second most by any club in baseball, trailing only the Boston Red Sox. Additionally, Braves relievers ranked third in fWAR in the National League, behind only the Dodgers and the Brewers.
There were a number of good individual performances up and down the roster, but a lot of this unit’s value was tied to their depth. The expanded roster rules allowed the Braves to roll fresh arms from the pen on a nightly basis and they needed those arms and the innings they provided due to the shambles that was the starting rotation.
That depth will get put to the test this season thanks to the departure of three key contributors from 2020. The Braves elected to decline the $3.5 million option on Darren O’Day’s contract this offseason and he eventually signed with the Yankees. Mark Melancon saw the bulk of save opportunities for Atlanta since his arrival at the trade deadline in 2019. However, he elected to return to the West Coast, signing a free agent deal with the San Diego Padres. Shane Greene is also a free agent as of this writing. A reunion is still possible it would seem, but there doesn’t appear to be any traction as of yet.
That is a significant chunk of performance lost from Atlanta’s 2020 bullpen, but thanks to their depth, reasons to be optimistic remain.
Despite the losses, there is a solid core group of relievers returning. Will Smith was one of Atlatna’s big moves of the 2019 offseason, agreeing to a multi-year deal that was the biggest handed out by Anthopoulos until the re-signing of Marcell Ozuna a few weeks ago. He was also one of four players who tested positive for COVID-19 as camp resumed. That put him several weeks behind the rest of the bullpen and he never did seem to settle in once he rejoined the team. Smith appeared in 18 regular season games and produced a 29 percent strikeout rate to go along with a 6.5 percent walk rate. He allowed 11 hits over 16 innings, but seven of those left the yard. Smith made seven appearances during the postseason where he allowed two hits, three walks, three runs in six innings to go along with seven strikeouts. One of those hits was a decisive home run to the Dodgers’ Will Smith in Game 5 of the NLCS.
Chris Martin has been an unsung hero of Atlanta’s bullpen since his arrival at the deadline in 2019. Martin has appeared in 39 games in a Braves uniform logging 35 2/3 innings. He has allowed just 25 hits and 10 earned runs to go along with 42 strikeouts and a total of four walks. He had a sparkling 2020 season, marred only by the fact that he gave up a homer in the Braves’ first game of the year (they lost 1-0), and a game-winning homer in Game 7 of the NLCS. He gave up no other homers all season, just one other run in the regular season, and just one other run in the postseason. Martin will likely see more high leverage situations going forward with Greene and Melancon now gone.
After the 2018 season, A.J. Minter appeared to be the Braves’ closer in waiting. Then 2019 began with a shoulder injury suffered in a car accident during Spring Training and he never was able to get on track. Minter was far from a lock entering 2020 and his place in Atlanta’s bullpen wasn’t assured. He was able to go out and returned to form, allowing a total of two earned runs in 21 2/3 innings. Much of Minter’s success came with the return of his command as he was able to nearly cut his walk rate in half. He came up big for the Braves in the postseason when pressed into duty as an opener in Game 5 of the NLCS, tossing three shutout innings while allowing one hit and striking out seven.
There was no better story in 2020 than the comeback of Tyler Matzek, who went from out of baseball entirely to a key piece of Atlanta’s bullpen. Matzek emerged as a versatile piece, working as a multi-inning option as well as in high-leverage situations. He ended up logging a team-high 29 innings out of the bullpen while averaging more than 13.3 strikeouts per nine. A fun fact: if not for roster expansion associated with pandemic protocols, Matzek may not have even made the “Opening Day” roster. Yet, he ended up having nearly a top-10 reliever season in baseball. Go figure.
Three of the four pitchers above are left-handed. So are Grant Dayton, Sean Newcomb and Philip Pfeifer. Newcomb figures to return to a relief role after struggling as a starter in 2020, but the Braves have not made any official announcement.
Luke Jackson crashed back to earth after a strong 2019 season but will again be in the mix. Josh Tomlin is back and could slot back into a mop-up role. Others such as Jacob Webb, Patrick Weigel and Chad Sobotka are all on the 40-man and will be in camp trying to secure a spot. The Braves also claimed former Phillies reliever Victor Arano off of waivers during the offseason. Injuries have hampered Arano of late and he was limited to just three appearances and 4 2/3 innings in 2019 while failing to make the majors in 2020. He’s just 26 years old and could work his way into the picture with a good spring. The team also brought in former Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr. as a non-roster invitee. Edwards has bounced around between three teams over the last two seasons but had a 2.60 ERA and a 2.93 FIP in 58 games for Chicago in 2018. Throwing strikes has always been Edwards’ biggest problem but he is still just 29 years old and could be interesting. One-time dominant reliever Nate Jones was also brought in on a minor league deal; Jones throws hard but has struggled with injuries and reliance on a sinker that hitters have found easy to elevate in recent years.
When discussing relievers it always seems necessary to point out how volatile a commodity they are. Smith is a good example of just how fluky (11 hits, 7 homers) things can get. Luke Jackson going from a 33.7 strikeout percentage in 2019 to 15.2 percent in 2020 is another good example. While many will bemoan that the Braves let Mark Melancon get away, there were some warning signs there as well with his swinging strike rate. There is a good chance that a large part of what we listed above doesn’t pan out over a full 162 game season and that someone comes out of nowhere to log important innings.