Chopcast: Braves pitching leads to another successful road swing

With 24 strikeouts and just two runs allowed in his first three outings in a Braves uniform, veteran starter Ervin Santana is off to one of the fastest starts of the 2014 season.

Adam Hunger/Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

There’s not a manager in baseball relying more on his starting rotation than Fredi Gonzalez right now.

The Atlanta Braves’ starting rotation has accounted for 117 innings pitched this season, third-most among all MLB clubs. But the two teams ahead of them in terms of workload, the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, have both played an extra game due to the rainout in Philadelphia last week — meaning on an innings per start basis, no group of starters is going deeper into ballgames.

There are a few ways to look at this 18-game trend: (1) Complete anomaly that will even out over time; (2) Gonzalez simply riding the hot arms in his starting staff on a game-by-game basis, which has worked out marvelously well through the first part of the campaign; (3) More organizational trust in the starters than a bullpen that missed closer Craig Kimbrel for a week (sore shoulder) is still without left-hander Jonny Venters; (4) A complete shift in the franchise’s usage of its bullpen.

The fourth option is one of interest because it was just a few short years ago that Atlanta was putting more innings on its relievers than almost any team in baseball. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, for while bullpen usage will always show some correlation with rotation effectiveness, it’s been fairly clear that Gonzalez is letting guys like Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Aaron Harang go deep in ballgames and pitch counts. Here are the innings pitched by the bullpen over the past four seasons (MLB rank):

Only the Detroit Tigers and their dominant rotation taxed their bullpen less in 2013, and if it weren’t for Sunday’s 14-inning marathon in New York the Braves would rank even lower this season. It’s at least something to keep an eye on if and when the rotation — with its MLB-leading 1.54 ERA right now — regresses back to the mean a bit. Does Gonzalez continue to save his bullpen from heavy workloads or was this a cause-and-effect situation stemming from the starting staff’s contributions. Our writers discuss the staff’s fast start, Kimbrel’s most recent outing, Freddie Freeman’s MVP prospects and more: