Ozzie Albies homered to give the Braves a lead in the seventh inning Tuesday night, which you expect from the eighth batter in a deep lineup that hits late homers like no other. Then Braves reliever Anthony Swarzak cleaned up Sean Newcomb’s two-on, no-outs crisis in the eighth inning before Luke Jackson closed the victory over the Cubs with a no-stress ninth. You may not expect that if you recall all those headlines about the Braves’ bad bullpen, which grew tiresome even for those who write them.
Those days are over. After that victory at Chicago Tuesday night Braves relievers ranked third in the NL with a 3.78 ERA. They ranked sixth in Fielding Independent Pitching, which attempts to strip out the effects of luck. Back on May 21 the Braves ranked 12th in NL bullpen ERA and 13th in FIP.
It’s a remarkable, rapid turnaround that coincided with the addition of Swarzak in a trade. Swarzak was struggling with the Mariners but, as noted in this space at the time of his acquisition, it was worth it for GM Alex Anthopoulos to take a chance on him. It’s paid off so far: Swarzak has a 0.54 ERA, 2.64 FIP and 20 strikeouts against six walks over 16 2/3 innings with the Braves.
Obviously, Swarzak isn’t the only reason for the bullpen’s big turnaround. Others who have been good in major roles since Swarzak arrived: Josh Tomlin (2.21 ERA, 3.92 FIP, 20 2/3 IP), Luke Jackson (2.40 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 15 IP) and Sean Newcomb (1.54 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 11 2/3 IP). Swarzak’s effectiveness has made it so manager Brian Snitker doesn’t have to summon shaky guys in high-leverage situations so often.
Braves reliever Jacob Webb has a 0.69 ERA over 13 innings since May 22, but he’s been getting away with lots of walks (six) and hits (10) with few strikeouts (nine). Even if you discount Webb’s results as lucky, the Braves have fashioned a bullpen that’s legitimately four-deep with Jackson, Swarzak, Tomlin and Newcomb. That’s a big change from their days of relying on Jesse Biddle, Wes Parsons, Shane Carle, sore-armed Arodys Vizcaino and pre-demotion Minter.
Jackson had a stretch where he blew four of 11 save chances but the underlying numbers suggested his results would improve, which they have over the past two weeks. It could turn out the Braves need just one more reliable guy to go with Newcomb, Swarzak and Jackson on the bullpen’s back end.
I think that still could be A.J. Minter. He had a 9.82 ERA when he got sent down on May 10; he’s posted a 3.00 ERA in seven appearances since being called back up. Minter still is walking too many batters, but they are making weaker contact (82.5 MPH average exit velocity in June vs. 89.2 MPH during his previous stint). Minter’s stuff is good enough that there’s hope for him yet.
Maybe Kevin Gausman can help, too. The Braves may have gotten all they can out of him as a starter after acquiring him at last year’s trade deadline. It makes sense to try him in the bullpen when he returns from the injured list, especially because he now basically only throws two pitches.
It’s true that the Braves have been a bit fortunate with their bullpen results since May 22. The difference in their relivers’ ERA (2.67) and FIP (4.10) over that time is the biggest gap in the NL. It’s a major reason why the Braves relivers rank just fourth in NL WAR since May 22 behind the Brewers, Cardinals and Diamondbacks.
There are reasons to think the Braves’ bullpen isn’t as good as it’s looked over the past month. But there’s no question it’s much better than it was before that. Kudos to Anthopoulos for acquiring Swarzak to mitigate the mistake of bringing back Vizcaino. One more smart move in the bullpen should be enough to stabilize that group while the GM looks to fix the leaky rotation.