Wednesday’s game at Wrigley Field will mark the halfway point of the 2019 Braves season. As of Wednesday morning, those Braves ranked third in the National League and sixth in the majors in bullpen ERA. If you said you saw that coming, you’re lying.
We around here spent the first 2-1/2 months griping about how awful these relievers were. Anecdotal and statistical evidence supported such plaints. But the bullpen we figured would never go right has become the lesser of the Braves’ pitching worries. (As noted yesterday, the rotation is in dire need of Dallas Keuchel making good.) Heck, this bullpen is the major reason the Braves lead the NL East by 5-1/2 games. As noted a time or two, baseball is a funny game.
Where other Eastern relievers rank among the 15 NL clubs: The Nationals are last, the Mets next-to-last, the Marlins fourth-from-last and the Phillies sixth-from-last. The Braves once numbered themselves among the ranks of the inept, but no longer. And if we’re seeking the reliever who has done the most to shape these divisional standings, we wouldn’t ID the Mets’ Edwin Diaz or Washington’s Sean Doolittle or Philadelphia’s Hector Neris in Philadelphia. Instead we’d name a guy of whom nobody around here had heard five weeks ago. We’d name …
Seattle shipped Swarzak to the Braves on May 20 in exchange for Jesse Biddle, who has managed a 9.82 ERA as a Mariner, and Arodys Vizcaino, who underwent shoulder surgery in April and is lost for the season and will be a free agent come November. This was a junk-for-junk swap — Swarzak blew half of his six save chances with Seattle, where he compiled an ERA of 5.27 — that turned up trumps.
Swarzak’s ERA as a Brave is 0.54. He has yielded one earned run — a Howie Kendrick homer May 28 — in 16 appearances. He has 20 strikeouts against six walks, two of those intentional. Opponents are batting .127 with an OPS of .431 against him. Of 10 inherited runners, two have scored. He has induced 21 ground outs against 14 fly outs.
The longest of Swarzak’s 16 appearances here has spanned five outs. He has worked the ninth inning once. His one save was a fluke of nature. He was summoned at the start of the eighth inning to hold a 7-5 lead against Pittsburgh on June 11. He did. The ninth inning wasn’t played, the game being called after a rain delay of 108 minutes.
Alex Anthopoulos didn’t spring for Swarzak thinking this was the long-sought missing piece. Swarzak is 33, working for his eighth big-league club. He has 10 saves in 10 MLB seasons. He’s the definition of a journeyman. (He’s even right-handed, so no LOOGY — left-handed one-out guy — duty for him.) But with relievers, this is what general managers do: They see an available arm and think, “We stink already. Where’s the harm?”
Braves pitching stats
Sometimes the simple act of adding one arm can change a bullpen’s dynamics, and that arm doesn’t have to be a titular closer. Swarzak has entered three times in the sixth, six times in the seventh and six in the eighth. On Tuesday he was summoned after Sean Newcomb yielded consecutive singles to open the eighth, putting a 3-2 lead in immediate peril. Swarzak induced a double-play grounder from Kris Bryant and threw a called third strike past Anthony Rizzo. The lead stood.
Officially Swarzak didn’t get a save — Luke Jackson worked the ninth and did — but Tuesday’s eighth inning offered a case study in what the analytics set has long insisted: The ninth inning isn’t always, or even often, the time of highest leverage. Swarzak threw seven pitches and got the three outs that determined Tuesday’s outcome. Which was the tougher task — facing Bryant and Rizzo with two on and nobody out or starting the bottom of the ninth with the bases clear?
There’s no such thing as a one-man bullpen, but Swarzak is the rising tide that’s lifting most boats. Newcomb hasn’t yielded an earned run in a month. A.J. Minter has been better since his recall from Gwinnett. Jackson is still blowing saves — he leads the majors with six — but you get the feeling he’s merely keeping the closer’s seat warm for Newcomb. As for Swarzak, he has his niche. He’s the “hold” guy. He has nine “holds” in barely a month. Cause and effect: Since he arrived, the Braves’ bullpen ERA is the lowest in baseball by nearly a full run.
Anthony Swarzak, difference-maker. Anthony Swarzak, catalytic converter. Some might push for his “promotion” to closer duty, but he’s fine where he is. Besides, saves are overblown. If his improbable month does nothing else, it should convince you of that.