Appearances to the contrary, the intent isn’t to write about the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen every day from here to eternity. But when a team blows eight of 21 saves — the eighth coming Tuesday in San Francisco — it’s impossible not to think where it would be if its conversion rate was 71.4 percent, as opposed to 61.9. This team would be a half-game out of first place in the National League East.
Last year, a mediocre Braves bullpen blew 20 saves, eighth-most in the 15-team NL. This year’s edition is on pace to blow 26. One reason the 2018 Braves were division champs was because the East produced no real challenger. The Mets wilted early. The Phillies collapsed late. The Nationals never got going. Two of the three are still below .500, but Philadelphia isn’t. Even with its own ninth-inning wobble Tuesday, Philly has only five blown saves and a bullpen ERA of 3.84. The Braves’ is 4.59.
Arodys Vizcaino, Jesse Biddle and Jonny Venters are gone. A.J. Minter, Shane Carle and Wes Parsons are in Triple-A. Craig Kimbrel isn’t walking through that door anytime soon. Jerry Blevins is a LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy), and not an especially good one. Jacob Webb has yielded 13 hits/walks over the past 10-1/3 innings, which means he’s not suited to the ninth inning. Dan Winkler has been trusted to face four batters in 10 days. Josh Tomlin is the long man; his ERA is 5.16.
Anthony Swarzak just arrived from Seattle, where he blew three saves in six chances. Luke Jackson looked great for a while, but he has blown four saves in 10 chances, Tuesday night’s whiff, a 4-3 Braves loss, being his second in four days. Among active Braves relievers, that leave only two names. Both are familiar. Both have big arms. Both are doing well. Both should be asked to do more.
The names: Sean Newcomb and Touki Toussaint.
These Round 1 draftees — Newcomb went 15th overall to the Angels in 2014; Toussaint was taken by Arizona with the next pick — weren’t groomed as relievers. Newcomb never pitched in relief as a minor-leaguer. Of Toussaint’s 109 minor-league appearances, 104 were starts. Both have had some big-league success as starters, Newcomb coming within one out of a no-hitter last July. But this rotation is full, and they’re needed elsewhere. Here’s how they’ve done in relief:
Newcomb has faced 33 batters, yielding seven hits, all singles. He has struck out eight. He has walked — and this is huge — nobody. Opponents are batting .212 against him, with an OPS of .424. His ERA is 0.00.
Toussaint has faced 49 batters, yielding 10 hits and five walks. He has struck out 18. Opponents are batting .204 against him, with an OPS of .563. His ERA is 1.26.
On Sunday against Milwaukee, Toussaint was the only Braves reliever — four were deployed — not to yield a hit. He extinguished a fire Blevins started and then worked a clean eighth inning, striking out two. On Tuesday in San Francisco, Toussaint was again the only Braves reliever — four were again deployed — not to yield a hit.
On Saturday, Newcomb worked 1-2/3 innings. No Brewer reached base. Two struck out. On Monday in San Fran, Newcomb was handed a three-run ninth-inning lead. He faced down Joe Panik — who one night later would deliver the game-winning hit off Jackson — over a 12-pitch at-bat. Panik fouled off six two-strike pitches before lining out to center on a 95-mph fastball. Newcomb then struck out Steven Duggar looking for his first save.
Yes, we’re dealing in smallish sample sizes, and we’re speaking of young guys — Newcomb is 25, Toussaint 21 — new to relieving. Newcomb is left-handed, and the list of successful lefty closers isn’t long. (Billy Wagner, Aroldis Chapman, Sparky Lyle, John Franco, Jesse Orosco.) Pitchers accustomed to starting can’t be asked to work consecutive days without a period of acclimatization, especially when those former starters are gifted enough that they could be starting again soon. A team can’t break a prized arm out of desperation.
Still, the Braves have always known their stockpiled young pitching could never fit into one rotation. Until Mike Foltynewicz grew into an All-Star last year, some thought that he’d be better suited to closing. (He’s right-handed, for one thing.) Some of those guys were destined to land in the bullpen. Lo and behold, here two are.
Newcomb and Toussaint are among the most talented pitchers in an organization loaded with pitchers. There’s nothing else they can prove in the minors. There being no room in the rotation, they can only be used in relief. Unless you’re a huge Swarzak fan, which I doubt anyone is, Newcomb and Toussaint are the best available options for high-leverage duty — maybe not long-term, but surely for now.
Adam Wainwright, the Braves’ prospect infamously traded to St. Louis for one year of J.D. Drew, hadn’t worked as a reliever above rookie ball until he got to the majors. In September 2006, he was thrust into ninth-inning duty after Jason Isringhausen was hurt. Come October, the cobbled-together Cardinals were champs. Thirteen years later, Wainwright is still in the majors, having since worked only seven times in relief. His last save was Game 5 of the 2006 World Series.
In baseball as in life, sometimes needs must. The Braves have one crying need. In Newcomb and Toussaint, they might have the means to address it. Worth a try, wouldn’t you say?
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