Left-hander Outman aims for significant role in Braves bullpen
ATLANTA — The Outman family made four stops during the 2014 season. It’s hoping the 2015 season brings a little more stability — and fewer boxes.
Josh Outman, one of the Atlanta Braves’ newest bullpen additions, watched as his career transformed into that of a journeyman pitcher over the course of the previous year, being traded twice and seeing time in two minor-league systems. In December 2013, on the heels of a decent season with the Colorado Rockies, arguably his best since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2009, Outman was sent to Cleveland in exchange for outfielder Drew Stubbs. After opening the season with the Indians with so-so results, Outman cleared waivers and was sent to Triple-A Columbus. The Yankees traded for him back in August, let him pitch 3 2/3 innings before outrighting him to Triple-A Scranton.
The 30-year-old southpaw entered free agency looking for his fourth MLB team in an 11-month span.
When the Braves came calling in with a major-league deal, Outman did not hesitate.
"I actually was down to two different teams," said Outman, who opened his MLB career as a starter with the Oakland Athletics. "I fielded a number of different interests, but when it came down to it there was only a couple other teams and with some of the trades that the Braves had been making an opportunity opened up and I had to jump at it. It was definitely the best opportunity that came along — and not just for me professionally, but also for my family. It will hopefully provide a little bit of a stable atmosphere for them. During the season last year, it was pretty tough on my family, my kids in particular. Hopefully this year I can make good and stay in one place for at least one year."
Outman enters Atlanta’s bullpen mix as part of a massive offseason overhaul. The Braves, which featured one of the best bullpens in baseball a season ago, shipped off four of their top six relievers (in terms of wins above replacement) during president of baseball operations John Hart’s rebuilding process, trading David Carpenter, Chasen Shreve, Anthony Varvaro and Jordan Walden — mostly for starting pitching talent and depth.
To plug the holes, Atlanta turned to veterans.
The front office added Outman, former closers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson and physically gifted former Braves prospect Arodys Vizcaino in a trade with the Cubs. The team is banking on bounce-back seasons to fortify the back end of games as well as some young arms to step up and contribute.
Outman arrives with the designation as a lefty specialist — tabbed primarily with getting opposing left-handed batters out — for a team that could use one. With the departures of Shreve, Walden, Carpenter and Varvaro, the Braves lost four of their top eight relievers against left-handed batters, and two others (Juan Jaime and Ian Thomas) combined to face just 54 such batters last season. The Braves were effective against lefties in 2014, but that’s plenty of production to replace. Johnson and Grilli are conventional right-handers with better splits against same-side hitters, and while lefty James Russell is expected to return to the mix, he pitched better outside the "specialist" role after coming over from Chicago.
Enter Outman, whose career splits against lefties are impressive: 10.55 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.69 fielding-independent pitching and a .183 opponent batting average against 413 batters faced.
He wasn’t quite as effective last season, as his strikeouts went down and his walks increased, but he still held 68 lefty hitters to a combined .167 batting average, giving up just four extra-base hits in the process.
"Trade secret, I guess," Outman said of his success against left-handers. "I can’t really say, because I see guys that have better stuff than I have, but don’t do as well against same-side hitters. I think it’s just that I’ve been able to expose weaknesses in hitters. A lot of the times, especially left-handed hitters, they don’t get pitched in a lot by left-handed pitchers. I like to work on that side of the plate a lot. … I just think that I go right after people, especially left-handers. I try to go right after them."
With all of those cards on the table, though, Outman is aiming for an expanded role in Atlanta. The lefty specialist label is accepted because it helped land him another major-league job, but he’s hoping success leads to more opportunities.
"I think obviously there’s a level of comfort knowing there’s a consistent role that I’ve been able to succeed at. However, I still feel like I’m capable of doing more and being a larger part of a bullpen," Outman said. "I’ve had success pitching in late innings in ballgames against right- and left-handed hitters. Obviously If I come into spring training and I have a good spring and they say, ‘You’re gonna be our lefty specialist.’ I’m going to say, ‘OK, you just tell me when to pitch.’ I’ll embrace that role and do it to the best of my ability.
"But I think doing the role and succeeding at it is a little different than having aspirations (to be a specialist.) I think that I have the ability to do more and I aspire to do more."
However, early success will not guarantee the Outmans will remain in one place. If the Braves are in position to be sellers at any point in the season, most notably at the trade deadline — as they are widely projected to be; FanGraphs currently projects Atlanta to post the second-worst record in the majors — then their stock of experienced bullpen arms could be in play. Grilli and Johnson (and even All-Star Craig Kimbrel) stand out given their closing experience, but if a buyer needs a left-hander and Outman enjoys a resurgence under pitching coach Roger McDowell, as many have before him, his name could pop up. The direction of the season could play a big part in Josh Outman’s MLB future.
That talk is months away, though.
For now, Outman has a home and a presumed Opening Day spot on a major-league club. That’s a good start. He’s heading down to spring training with something to prove, wanting to carve out as large of a niche as he can for the Braves bullpen, but at least he’s doing so with the reassurance of a major-league deal.
"When I got a major-league offer, there was no point in mincing words. I was just like, ‘I’ll take it.’" he said, laughing. "All in all, I was able to be patient and a really great opportunity fell in my lap."