Can’t hang this one on the bullpen. The Braves already trailed by a run Thursday afternoon when the Diamondbacks scored three more against reliever Chad Sobotka. The Braves struck out 16 times and scored one run, which is so bad that it wouldn’t matter much even if the pitching is very good.
Still, it would have a boost for the Braves to see their bullpen keep the Diamondbacks off the board for at least one game in this series. The Braves got swept in three games as their relievers allowed nine earned runs and issued eight non-intentional walks over nine innings. The runs and the walks are closely related.
Sobotka gave up a two-run homer to Christian Walker in the seventh inning then walked Tim Locastro with two outs. Locastro scored on Nick Ahmed’s double. It wasn’t Sobotka’s fault that Johan Camargo booted a ball in between, but giving a free pass opens the door to that kind of bad luck.
The Braves are giving way too many of them. Before Thursday’s games, Braves pitchers had a walk rate of 12.1 percent, the worst in MLB by a significant margin. The problem is staff-wide: Braves relievers had the fourth-worst walk rate (13.8) and their starters had the third-worst (10.8 percent).
After this game, Braves manager Brian Snitker’s comments about Sobotka sounded the same as usual when one of his pitchers struggles: “The ‘stuff’ is there. Like with a lot of these young guys, it’s as much mental as it is anything.”
That’s sort of the standard answer when command issues infect an entire staff. These guys are in the big leagues because they have good stuff, so they should just throw strikes. No need to mess around when you’ve got the talent to throw pitches that are hard to handle.
That’s a reasonable approach if pitchers do in fact have good stuff. Maybe that’s true for Braves pitchers, but according to Statcast tracking data, the percentage of “hard hit” balls allowed by Braves pitchers (38.1) was fourth-highest in the NL entering Thursday. Perhaps they are reluctant to throw strikes because batters are beating up their pitches.
If Braves pitchers have good stuff, why are they walking so many batters?
“I don’t see them repeating their delivery and throwing the ball over enough,” Snitker said. “It’s a good arm. There are weapons there, (but) they are just not executing pitches right now. A lot of times your mental psyche (won’t) allow you not to do that.
“When you try too hard and try to force a ball in the strike zone and make the perfect pitch, it usually doesn’t work that way in this game. You’ve got to be free and easy and let her fly and attack and be on the attack.”
Braves pitchers do not look free and easy, especially the relievers. They look tight, and everything looks hard. Entering Thursday, Braves pitchers had a 4.53 ERA, ranked 19th-best among 30 MLB teams. Starters had a 4.08 ERA (15th) and relievers a 5.17 ERA (23rd).
The Braves have been a little lucky not to give up more runs considering how frequently they walk batters. It could be a lot worse. I think it will get worse without some outside help because walking a lot of batters has become the organizational standard for Braves pitchers.
Braves pitchers finished the 2018 season tied for the worst walk rate in MLB. In 2017 they were tied for fourth-worse. Chuck Hernandez was the pitching coach then. The Braves let him go after last season in large part because their pitchers issued too many walks.
Rick Kranitz succeeded Hernandez. The Braves’ walk rate is even higher now. There is no evidence that coaching has fixed the issue. You would think you’d see it if, as Snitker keeps saying, Braves pitchers have the talent to make good pitches.
Staff turnover might explain some of it. Seven of the top 10 Braves in innings pitched in 2018 are still on the roster. Two of the three who aren’t, Anibal Sanchez and Brandon McCarthy, had very low walk rates last season. Mike Foltynewicz, who is on the DL, was above-average.
Still, the holdovers are among the worst culprits with walks. The Braves already jettisoned two of them.
Reliever Shane Carle has the worst walk rate on the staff. The Braves sent him to Triple-A Gwinnett on Thursday to make room for rookie starter Mike Soroka. Starter Sean Newcomb had the worst walk rate among Braves pitchers to make multiple starts. The team demoted him to Gwinnett on Sunday.
There’s hope that Soroka can help. He made his season debut Thursday and had a strong outing. The best part was that he faced 24 batters and had just one non-intentional walk.
The Braves desperately need pitchers with good command. They haven’t had enough of them in a while.