After the Braves traded for three quality relievers, I figured manager Brian Snitker no longer needed to choose from among the least bad options in his bullpen. Shane Greene, Chris Martin and Mark Melancon could handle the tight situations in late innings. Luke Jackson, Anthony Swarzak and Sean Newcomb were fine for earlier work.
Instead, Snitker’s theoretically good new options have provided actual bad results. The Braves spilt a four-game series at Miami over the weekend with their relievers protecting a four-run lead in the finale. It wasn’t easy, though, and the bullpen roles seem just as unsettled now as before the trade deadline.
Braves somehow added three relievers who are more accomplished than any they had previously, yet ended up with worse results. Before the new guys showed up, Braves relievers had a 4.00 ERA, third-best in the NL. In 33 innings since then Braves relievers have a 6.55 ERA, which after weekend games was 13th in the 15-team NL during that span.
Greene, Martin and Melancon have made five appearances each for the Braves. Melancon’s 9.82 ERA is best among them. Jackson, the guy the Braves decided they couldn’t trust in the late innings, has five outings (four innings) with no earned runs since then. Baseball can be funny that way.
Greene was an All-Star closer with the Tigers. He held the job for two outings with the Braves. Greene was going to be the closer on Friday but had to pitch earlier because Martin was unavailable. Melancon pitched a scoreless ninth inning in that victory, after which Snitker announced he was the new closer.
The next day Melancon gave back a four-run lead. The Braves lost that game when Newcomb gave up a run in the 10th. For Sunday’s game, Snitker went full circle and picked Jackson to close. He protected a one-run lead in the ninth inning but not before giving up three hits.
The Braves escaped Miami with the split and were off Monday before beginning a nine-game homestand on Tuesday. No doubt Snitker spent his idle time giving a lot of thought to his bullpen. It’s easy to say he should take the long view with Greene, Martin and Melancon. They have been good in high-leverage situations during their careers, so just keep giving them the ball for important outs.
But effectiveness in limited opportunities goes with the job description for relief pitchers. The Braves are trying to win the division and it’s tough for Snitker to stick with his supposed best options when they produce bad results. Snitker showed he was feeling that burden when he quickly switched from Greene to Melancon to be the closer.
Melancon wasn’t available Sunday after throwing 38 pitches over two days, but I’m guessing Snitker goes back to him when he next needs a closer. The Braves have tried everyone else in lead bullpen roles so might as well ride things out for a while with Melancon, Greene, and Martin. And there are indications that the recent poor bullpen results are not as dire as they seem.
As mentioned, the Braves’ bullpen ERA since the trade deadline ranked 13th the NL after the weekend. The Expected Fielding Independent Pitching has been a bit better. That metric strips out the effect of defense and luck while normalizing the rate of home runs to fly balls, which tend to fluctuate.
The Braves have a 5.10 xFIP since the deadline, compared to a 4.73 xFIP before. That’s still not good, but it’s better than the results suggest. The xFIP for Braves relievers since the deadline is ninth-best in the NL. They still are allowing a bit too many homers and walks but they’ve also had some bad luck.
Greene blew a save against the Reds when Jose Iglesias poked a good slider for a soft hit and Tucker Barnhart hit a flare that fell between two infielders and left fielder Adam Duvall. Martin was charged with three runs in the eighth inning on Friday at Miami but one of them scored when a potential inning-ending double play grounder hit Martin. Then Starlin Castro hit a weak RBI single on a sharp two-seam fastball that was just out of reach for shortstop Charlie Culberson.
Melancon finished that game with little trouble. The next day he gave up three straight singles with one out in the ninth to whittle a four-run lead down to three (all on low 90s mph fastballs with little movement). Greene replaced Melancon and gave up a run-scoring single to Isan Diaz, who made weak contact on a nasty two-seam fastball but that one also just barely rolled by Culberson.
Castro followed with two-run double that tied the game. That was a bad pitch by Greene, not bad luck. The same goes for Newcomb's offering on Martin Prado's game-ending sacrifice fly. Afterwards, Newcomb took out his frustrations on a garbage can in the clubhouse, puncturing a fire extinguisher and making a mess in the clubhouse.
The Braves have produced the same amount of smashed fire extinguishers as saves since the trade deadline. Snitker has guys in his bullpen with a history of putting out fires. No one expected him to still be trying to figure out which guys to deploy for the job.
Maybe Braves relievers haven’t been as bad lately as their results indicate. They’ll need to be significantly better for this team to go further than last season.
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