Braves Dispatch: Aaron Bummer and lessons learned in pounding strike zone

Atlanta Braves pitcher Aaron Bummer delivers to a Boston Red Sox batter during the sixth inning at Truist Park on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.
(Miguel Martinez/ AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta Braves pitcher Aaron Bummer delivers to a Boston Red Sox batter during the sixth inning at Truist Park on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. (Miguel Martinez/ AJC)

CHICAGO – Hey there,

In college at Nebraska, Aaron Bummer played for Darin Erstad, the former major leaguer. Erstad and his staff had a rule for Bummer when he pitched: They would put down sign zero, which was a fastball down the middle, until he got to two strikes, because they wanted to keep him in the strike zone.

They did this from the time he entered the program as a freshman until he departed after the MLB Draft following his junior season.

“It’s just that simple thing of trusting your stuff, back then,” Bummer told me of the lesson that came from sign zero.

It went like this, he said: “In the first couple of pitches, let them try to hit the ball on the ground. If they don’t hit it on the ground in the first couple pitches, okay, then go try and strike somebody out. It’s just something that’s always kind of been my mindset, is just sit there and trust the stuff over the plate and let the defense work.”

This – sign zero and what it taught – is rather fitting for Bummer, a left-handed reliever with the Braves. His career has had one general theme.

“A lot of my success throughout my career has just been trust in my stuff,” Bummer said. “And always comes down to me. I feel like so much of my success or failure, in reality, comes down to free passes on the bases. The less free passes I give out, the more successful I’m gonna be, because they’re gonna be having to chop the ball into the ground.”

In the offseason, the Braves acquired Bummer from the White Sox for Michael Soroka, Nicky Lopez, Braden Shewmake, Jared Shuster and Riley Gowens. Some fans thought Atlanta gave up too much for a reliever who’ll be a free agent after this season, but this is not exactly the case.

The Braves likely planned to non-tender Soroka and Lopez. They didn’t need Shewmake, who couldn’t crack their infield. Shuster could have potential but hadn’t shown much yet. Gowens is a minor-league righty who isn’t really a prospect.

So, if you go through it all, you get to this: The Braves added a piece to their bullpen for five expendable players.

And thus far, Bummer has performed well. He’s allowed six earned runs in 17 innings. But an important note to those: Three of them came in his first two appearances. He’s only been scored on in four of 17 outings this season.

“Honestly, just throwing more strikes,” Bummer said of the reason for his early success. “I don’t know if the strike percentage is higher, but the walks are down, and in reality, keeping free passes off bases. Honestly, that’s kind of been my bugaboo over the last handful of years is the walks, and I’ve really been able to limit those. Really being able to limit those and trust the defense and trust the contact, and do those types of things, has been refreshing.”

Bummer doesn’t throw hard. He can strike out guys, but this isn’t his game. He is among the best groundball pitchers in the sport. And this season, his strike percentage is, in fact, a bit higher, as he suspected.

And as he said, his success has often come down to limiting free passes. Look at these examples:

A season ago, he walked 13.5% of the batters he faced, and ended with a career-worst 6.79 ERA.

In 2019, he posted a career-best 2.13 ERA, and walked only 9.5% of the batters he saw.

In 2022, he logged a 2.36 ERA over 26-2/3 innings. His walk rate was only 8.5%.

In 2017, his debut season, he walked 16.5% of the batters he faced en route to a 4.50 ERA.

Of course, there are other factors in a pitcher’s ERA. And yes, this seems simple enough – of course limiting walks is important. But it’s especially crucial for a groundball pitcher who believes his stuff is good enough to get tons of outs.

Don Cooper, the White Sox’s former pitching coach, used to say this when Bummer played in Chicago: “Just throw the pitch with the best of your God-given ability, and then as soon as it leaves your hand, the rest of it’s out.”

“And I think that’s really important in kind of today’s day and age, where it’s just like, ‘Look, I’m gonna go out there and try and execute a pitch as best as I can, and if I miss, so be it, I got the next one,’” Bummer said. “And it’s just kind of being able to stay on the attack with that mindset of just trusting my stuff and trusting my stuff over the plate, and allowing the defense to make plays.”

Throwing strikes is easier said than done.

How did Bummer get to this place mentally where he’s only focused on pounding the zone?

“I think it’s a lot of trust in the purpose of the pitches,” he said. “It’s trusting the reason why we’re throwing certain pitches in the way that we’re using them, to the locations that we’re using them, and then just feeling comfortable executing that pitch, and whatever happens, happens after that.”

And relievers go through ebbs and flows. They can be volatile.

“Sometimes, you can go out there and hit a gnat in the (butt), and sometimes the strike zone looks like it’s about the size of a keyhole,” Bummer said. “But I think for me, being able to stay pitch by pitch and moment by moment, and not allowing the previous pitch to dictate the next pitch’s mindset, I think it’s allowed me to stay on attack more and control the strike zone in that way.”

His job is made easier by the catchers and coaching staff, Bummer said. Their pregame preparation puts pitchers at ease. They know the tendency. They analyze hitters. They read swings.

When they call for a pitch, Bummer knows it’s the correct one. The rest is up to Bummer, who is aware of the common thread in his success in the majors.

“It’s funny how everything success-wise for me, and those types of things, always comes back to trusting in your stuff and going out there and just go out there with the best of your God-given ability to throw the pitch, and as soon as you let go of it, whatever happens, happens,” he said.

Atlanta Braves' Jarred Kelenic runs the bases after hitting a home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Extra Innings

* After a hot start, Jarred Kelenic has cooled – which is why his homer on Thursday was an encouraging sign.

Since batting .462 over his first 10 games of the season, Kelenic had hit .177 over his last 79 at-bats before Thursday, with 29 strikeouts. He had two homers and four RBIs over that span.

Kelenic said he’s working on staying more upright at the plate. Sometimes, he said, he can get a bit too bent over at the plate and that hinders his ability to hit certain pitches.

“It’s just gonna take some time, and I just gotta be patient and not read into any of the results too much,” he said.

Perhaps Thursday is a step forward.

“I put the ball in play all four times, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Kelenic said. “Put the ball in play, good things will happen.”

* There’s been a common refrain among certain Braves fans when they discuss the Phillies: The Phillies haven’t played anybody!

After Thursday, the Phillies were 4-2 against teams with records above .500. And three of those six games came against the Braves, who took two of three in Philadelphia to open the season.

The Braves, on the other hand, have played 24 games versus teams with above .500 records. They are 12-12 in those games.

But come on now. Are we seriously going to diminish what the Phillies have done?

The Phillies on Wednesday improved to 36-14 – the best 50-game start to a season since the 2001 Mariners.

They are a talented team playing terrific baseball. They also haven’t had the toughest schedule.

Both can be true.

With a series win in Chicago, the Braves gained some momentum. They hope their best baseball is ahead.

“I think we have played good baseball lately – since Monday. Those two games, we should’ve won,” right-handed reliever Joe Jimenez said. “We’re playing good baseball and it’s a little early still, we’re still at the end of May. We got a lot of baseball to go this season. We just come here every day and just do the work.”

This next stretch could swing the National League East race.

Beginning in Pittsburgh Friday, the Braves play 10 straight games against teams with records below .500. They play three against the Pirates, four versus the Nationals and three against the Athletics. And 14 of their next 16 games are against below .500 teams, including two four-game sets with the Nationals.

The Phillies play in Colorado this weekend. After that, they’re in San Francisco for three before facing the Cardinals at home. Then it gets a bit tougher.

They host the Brewers, then go to London to play the Mets, then travel to Boston and Baltimore before returning home to play San Diego. And in July, they have the Cubs in Chicago, the Braves in Atlanta and the Dodgers at home – all consecutively.

Things will get tougher for the Phillies.

* After his complete game on Wednesday, Max Fried talked about how Travis d’Arnaud’s voice and brain have helped him throughout his career.

D’Arnaud has caught Fried more than any other catcher, and it isn’t close. D’Arnaud has caught four of Fried’s five complete games. (Sean Murphy caught Fried in his rain-shortened shutout in New York last year.)

“He knows when I’ve been good and bad,” Fried said. “He’s back there seeing what he’s actually doing. Video can tell you one thing, but feeling the pitches and being able to see what hitters are doing, his input is really big.”