Dan Winkler sees Braves’ confidence in him grow as he’s been dominant and (finally) healthy

Only two qualified National League relievers have a better FIP than Dan Winkler's 1.18.
Gregory Fisher

ATLANTA — Brian Snitker has said the Braves are expanding their options at closer, opening the door for Dan Winkler to continue to build upon his breakout season.

The numbers have been staggering for a reliever who has largely been known for his bizarre injury-riddled ride to fulfilling Rule 5 requirements, but has been among the National League’s best out of the bullpen.

“I feel like I’m just taking (it) pitch by pitch and just trying to attack the glove,” Winkler said before Friday’s series opener against the Marlins. “I feel like I can throw any pitch any count, whatever numbers are put down, I feel comfortable with it. I think that’s one big thing is I’m just feeling good about being on a mound and being comfortable there.”

So much so that after Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Cubs, Snitker has discussed adding the 28-year-old to the mix with Arodys Vizcaino — two blown saves on the year, including one in that defeat vs. Chicago, and a 4.50 ERA in May — and A.J. Minter — a 4.66 ERA since April 18 with more seven walks to go with nine strikeouts — as the Braves seek a lock-down option in the ninth.

Only two qualified NL arms have a better FIP than the right-hander’s 1.18 — the BrewersJosh Hader (0.90) and PiratesRichard Rodriguez (0.91) — and he’s eighth in ERA (0.98) and 10th in strikeouts per nine inning (13.25).

In all, he’s thrown 18 1/3 innings over 20 games — both of which are career highs at the MLB levels — and he’s built on a 16-game stint in 2017 when he was fanning 13.25 per nine in his 14 1/3 innings.

“You like the composure, he’s comfortable on the mound, the situations don’t bother him,” Snitker said. “The stuff’s good and it keeps kind of going a tick up every time he goes out. … Experience, confidence in what they’re doing and he has an arsenal. When you’re confident, you get experience and you have weapons, you’ve got a chance at being pretty good.”

Winkler, whom the Braves took in the 2014 Rule 5 draft, missed much of 2016-17 after suffering a broken elbow in a gruesome injury on April 10, 2016 and underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 while in the Rockies system. Atlanta finally met the Rule 5 criteria of keeping him on the MLB roster for a full year — without offering him back to the Rockies — in April.

He’s healthy, he’s the Braves’ … and he’s performing at a level he says he hasn’t experienced since before that procedure four years ago that started his long road back.

“I had a good run right before I tore my (ulnar collateral ligament),” he said. “It’s just one of those things were everything’s gone well. Right now it’s just being comfortable on a mound … and I’m having a lot of fun. You come (through) four years, three years of rehab, it’s awesome to be on a major league mound consistently.”

Winkler has also benefited from a cutter that’s become his most dangerous weapon. He’s throwing it a career-high 42.4 percent of the time and is at an MLB-best 5.8 wCT when measuring runs above average (by comparison, he was at 0.7 wCT last season) with a 33.8 usage rate. Overall, only the Indians’ reigning American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber has been better with the pitch (9.4 wCT) than Winkler.

He isn’t necessarily pressing for the closer job, noting that in the hierarchy of the bullpen, it’s still Vizcaino’s role. Instead, he sees it as an affirmation of the faith that he’s built up in his manager’s eyes.

“I know it means a lot that he has that kind of confidence in me if (Vizcaino) or (Minter)’s down that I can come in and close a game,” Winkler said. “But when the phone rings, I’ll be ready if it’s the first or the ninth.”

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.