It can be difficult to evaluate how Brian Snitker (or any baseball manager) uses his pitchers. Criticisms usually come after the fact. It means guessing what would have happened if he’d pulled the starter earlier (or later) and used that reliever instead of this one.
But Snitker has never really had a deep and consistent bullpen in four years as Braves manager. Sometimes he’s had to choose from among the least bad options. Those days are over for him and the Braves.
The Braves added relievers Shane Greene, Chis Martin and Mark Melancon at the trade deadline. That’s three guys with lengthy track records of being effective in tight situations. That’s three pitchers to slot ahead of Luke Jackson, Anthony Swarzak, Sean Newcomb and Jacob Webb (once healthy) down the pecking order.
“Obviously, this club had some issues to fix,” Greene said Thursday before the Braves played the Reds at SunTrust Park. “We are here to help with that.”
Greene is the closer. Martin will set him up. Melancon can bridge the gap to those two or handle later innings when they aren’t available. The other four relievers can fill those roles only when necessary.
“It just makes our bullpen deeper,” Snitker said.
Now it’s no longer necessary to grade Snitker’s handling of his pitchers on a curve. He has some effective, experienced pitchers out there. It’s going to be up to him to choose the best option from among plenty of good ones at the right times.
Like so many other things in baseball, effectively managing pitchers is less about managerial decisions and more about that manager having good pitchers. The most Snitker can do is play the percentages and matchups. Take the ball from the starter at the “right” time and give it to the best available reliever in good situations.
Sometimes good decisions will lead to bad results. The difference now is that Snitker has more legitimate options than ever.
In 2016, Snitker’s first season as manager, the Braves had a pretty good ’pen with Jim Johnson and Arodys Vizcaino at the back end. It wasn’t a deep group, though. The Braves probably had the NL’s worst bullpen in 2017. It was OK in 2018 after adding Brad Brach and Jonny Venters in trades but faded because of a lack of depth.
There was a stretch this season when the Braves bullpen was effective, but some underlying numbers suggested it wouldn’t last. The ERA was good but not much else. Braves relievers still were issuing too many walks and homers without enough strikeouts. Greene, Martin and Melancon should help with all of that.
Greene has long produced low rates of home runs with very good strikeout-to-walk ratios. The same goes for Melancon. Martin’s home-run rate has been higher than average, but that’s more than mitigated by a good strikeout rate. All three relievers have been effective in high-leverage situations (think close score with less than two outs and runners on base, or worse).
Snitker can feel comfortable using those three pitchers when he needs important outs late in games. Really, the pitching staff is the only aspect of this Braves team that he needs to manage day-to-day. Snitker has a good, long lineup, and he’s always been good at nurturing his team’s spirit.
Snitker can’t do much about the thin pitching rotation. General manager Alex Anthopoulos said the club is relying on the “upside” of its starters. That’s pitching coach Rick Kranitz’s territory. But the three new relievers should help with that, too.
Short outings by starters is one reason the Braves’ bullpen has been stressed. Entering Thursday, the Braves were getting 5.3 innings per outing from them, third-worst in the NL. The average leverage when Braves relievers enter games was second-highest in the NL.
Now when the starters sputter, Snitker can go to his relievers earlier and feel good about covering four innings or more. Melancon can handle the bridge innings with no problem. Jackson remains a reasonable choice because he’s been good this season in high-leverage situations. And then Martin and Greene can finish games up.
Also, Snitker noted the three new pitchers have relatively fresh arms for this time of year. Greene and Martin both logged 38 innings with their old teams. Melancon pitched 46-1/3 innings and said he’s over the arm troubles that plagued him two seasons ago.
The new relievers gave the Braves a jolt. Their additions don’t close the gap with the Dodgers, who remain heavy favorites to win the pennant. But it makes the Braves a little better than the other challengers, and it might be enough to give them a puncher’s chance against Los Angeles, if it comes to that.
“We liked our club (before),” Snitker said. “We like it even more today. You’ve still got to play the games. That’s what makes this so much fun and so good.”
Snitker said when he left the ballpark in Washington on Wednesday after the trades he was feeling excited about the new additions. Can’t blame him. He finally has a bullpen filled with effective relievers.
Now Snitker just has to use them right.
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