Atlanta Braves staking claim as the best bullpen in MLB
By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
The Atlanta Braves are starting to roll.
All championship hangover clichés aside, the Braves legitimately played a groggy and lackluster brand of baseball for the first two months of this season; heading into games June 1, the club was 23-27. Since then, they’ve won six straight leading into an incredibly soft portion of their schedule, with series against the Pirates, Nationals and Cubs. Atlanta still has a ton of work to do to catch the division-leading Mets, but the upcoming cupcakes will certainly help.
Despite the club’s underwhelming start, there have been a few bright spots. Ronald Acuña Jr. came back from injury and looks like his old, swagnacious self. William Contreras has blossomed into one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. And the team’s bullpen, which was an Achilles' heel for Atlanta in the first half of last season, before the team's postseason run, has been stupendous.
In fact, through June 6, the Braves' relievers had combined for a 3.17 ERA, sixth in baseball. The pen is also first in the league in WAR, strikeouts per nine and FIP.
And while this bullpen dominated in October to help the club win its first title in 25 years, there has been a surprising amount of turnover. Luke Jackson, whose devastating curveball locked down the seventh inning for Atlanta last year, tore his UCL in spring training and underwent Tommy John surgery before the season. The magnificent comeback story of Tyler Matzek is on hold after the lefty struggled early before landing on the injured list. And Will Smith, the steady and dependable closer from last season, has been subpar in his new role as a setup man.
So how has this unit been so good? There are three main reasons.
1. Everyone is old
Well, not exactly everyone. Spencer Strider is only 23, and Jackson Stephens and A.J. Minter are 28, but every other reliever is over 30. Kenley Jansen is 34, Collin McHugh is 35, Jesse Chavez is 38, and Darren O’Day is 39. If that feels notable, well, it is! The average age of the entire bullpen (if you include pitchers with more than 10 innings) is 32, the oldest in MLB.
Now, age doesn’t necessarily mean quality, but in terms of reliever dependability, it usually does. Relievers who are consistent enough to pitch into their mid-to-late 30s are more of a sure thing than the random Jimbo called up from Triple-A. Jansen is one of the most reliable relievers in baseball history. McHugh, O’Day and Chavez have been dependable big-leaguers for more than a decade. That matters over the long run.
2. This bullpen is expensive
Every offseason, a few teams choose to spend a bunch of money to bolster or rejuvenate their bullpens. This year, Atlanta was one of those teams. Perhaps this whole article comes down to just this paragraph — or even this sentence: Right now, the Braves are spending more money on their bullpen than any other team in the National League.
Roster construction isn’t always rocket science. If you want good relievers, you can mix together a magic potion of no-name dudes like the Rays do, or you can go out and spend real money on real relievers. This past winter, GM Alex Anthopolous opened the checkbook for Jansen (one year, $16 million), McHugh (two years, $10 million), the rehabbing Kirby Yates (two years, $8.25 million) and O’Day (one year, $1 million), and Will Smith is in the final year of a three-year, $40 million contract.
When you add the arbitration contracts of Jackson, Minter and Matzek, it’s around $35 million budgeted for the Atlanta bullpen. The only team in the same neighborhood is the Chicago White Sox, who, with Liam Hendriks, Kendall Graveman and Joe Kelly, are spending around $36 million on their pen. For comparison, the Oakland A’s have a $50 million payroll for their entire team.
That level of investment is crucial. Developing youngsters is important, yes, but it’s clear that Anthopolous has made it an organizational priority to target and sign reliable and experienced relievers to secure the back of the bullpen. And so far, it has worked.
3. A.J. Minter
Minter’s full-season numbers last year were good, not great, but if you look at his splits, a different picture comes into focus. Down the stretch, Minter was phenomenal, and he carried that into the postseason. This year, he has taken yet another step forward, increasing his strikeout rate from 25% to 37.8% — one of the largest jumps in baseball.
The left-hander has three plus pitches (fastball, cutter, curve), and he can throw them all for strikes, a rarity for a bullpen arm. His fastball sits just a tick under 97 mph and features elite spin. The only lefty relievers throwing harder than Minter are Detroit’s Gregory Soto and Milwaukee’s Josh Hader.
Now, nobody can maintain a 1.13 ERA over a full season, so expect Minter to come back to earth a bit, but if he can keep his outrageous 12.8 K/9 going, he’ll stay dominant for Atlanta all year.
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.