Braves’ bullpen has remained brilliant despite injuries

Atlanta Braves closer Kenley Jansen has a 3.25 ERA while converting 18 of 21 save opportunities. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Atlanta Braves closer Kenley Jansen has a 3.25 ERA while converting 18 of 21 save opportunities. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The Braves are down two vital relievers from October’s glorious run – Luke Jackson and Tyler Matzek – yet one wouldn’t know it. Even when the team scuffled, the bullpen was a clear strength. Now, as its win streak surges on, the bullpen remains a pillar for success.

Jackson, out for the season (Tommy John surgery), and Matzek, who hasn’t pitched since May 10 because of shoulder inflammation, are two of the better relievers in the majors. The Braves’ bullpen depth and keen eye for talent has resulted in essentially no drop-off despite losing both pitchers.

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The bullpen owns a collective 2.91 ERA, lowest in the majors. Its 266 strikeouts rank third in the majors (the 10.41 strikeouts per nine innings rank first). It’s allowed 16 homers, third fewest in MLB, while surrendering 182 hits, sixth-lowest total in MLB. Its 1.12 WHIP is tied for second best. The unit’s fWAR is 4.3, comfortably higher than the next-highest total (Yankees, 3.5). By every metric, the bullpen is dominant. If it isn’t best in baseball, it’s within the top three.

“It’s kind of a foregone conclusion now that those guys are going to come in and do great,” starter Charlie Morton said last week.

It’s been quite an encore thus far for “The Night Shift,” the group’s self-designated nickname with which America was familiarized during the 2021 postseason.

“If anything, (last postseason) helped us raise the bar a little bit,” left-hander A.J. Minter said. “Going through the postseason last year, it was stressful. At the same time, that’s what you play for. It doesn’t make the regular season any easier, but it makes you go out there and think, ‘Hey, I pitched at the highest level, the highest platform, so I can come in here and pitch to the best of my ability.’”

This isn’t entirely the same crew from a year ago. Every new season introduces fresh characters. The most renowned newcomer here is Kenley Jansen, who’s mostly lived up to his billing. “He’s a Hall of Famer,” manager Brian Snitker has said on multiple occasions. A Curacaoan closer in his age 34 campaign, Jansen has a 3.25 ERA while converting 18 of 21 save opportunities.

Jansen has struck out 38, walked eight and held opponents to a .172 average. The Braves seemingly did well in snagging him from the Dodgers, with whom he spent his first 12 seasons. He’s been worth his one-year, $16 million deal.

Minter, another integral part of the team’s title run, has sustained his success into the 2022 campaign. He has a 0.98 ERA with 34 strikeouts against four walks over 27 ⅔ innings (29 appearances). He’s unquestionably been the Braves’ best reliever.

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Minter’s strikeout percentage has leaped from 25.8% last year to 36.7% this year, which places him in the top 1% of MLB, per Baseball Savant. Opponents are hitting .181 against Minter, with a .170 expected batting average. His fastball-cutter combination has once again stifled hitters, and Minter’s third pitch, a change-up, has produced a 46% whiff rate.

“If A.J. Minter isn’t an All-Star, it’s a popularity contest,” Matzek proclaimed in the clubhouse June 10. Minter has a legitimate case if he maintains any semblance of his current pace for another month.

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Then there’s Will Smith, who’s spent his Braves tenure deflecting criticism like Captain America’s shield diverts attacks. He’s again assembling a solid-yet-unspectacular regular season with a 3.65 ERA and 1.176 WHIP. Smith perhaps was the most criticized Brave a year ago – and rightfully so in some respects – but he responded with a near-flawless postseason, allowing five hits and no runs across 11 appearances. The Braves will continue trusting him.

Also aiding the team is the emergence of up-and-comers. Clemson product Spencer Strider is a flamethrower whose signature mustache only adds to the allure. Strider was successful in the bullpen, posting a 2.22 ERA with a 37:11 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 11 appearances, which earned him a trial run in the rotation, where he’s found further success.

“You have to be able to win these one-run, two-run ballgames. We have all the confidence in the world because we have guys who've done it, especially in the postseason. I don't think the moment gets too big for them because they've been there."

- Adam Duvall, on the Braves' bullpen

Strider could rejoin the bullpen down the line; he might be a weapon there come October, perhaps similarly to how Max Fried thrived as a reliever in the 2019 National League Division Series.

Right-hander Jackson Stephens, 28, is an even greater surprise who has improved the team’s numbers. Stephens last pitched in 2018 for the Reds. He worked his way back to the majors and earned an extended stay with a promising start to 2022.

Stephens holds a 2.42 ERA across 15 appearances, showcasing a devastating breaking ball that’s helped him warrant some higher-leverage opportunities. Stephens owns a 21:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“It’s pretty crazy, man,” Stephens said. “Did I believe I could do it (make it back)? Yes. But that quick? Ooof, that’s a different story. It’s been awesome, been a ride. Everyone has welcomed me in here. I didn’t really know anybody, and they’ve welcomed me to their family. That’s what we are here.

“(Each reliever) wants to do their job at a high level. We lift each other up. Some days won’t be that good; sometimes, we’ll have great days. We try to keep it the same way all the time. We’re family down there. We hang out a lot, do our thing and get people out.”

Southpaw Dylan Lee has been near flawless, earning a bigger role. The player few knew before the 2021 postseason has surrendered one run across eight appearances. Snitker said Lee could be a “big, big piece in this” last week.

“I’m just putting my head down and working,” Lee said. “Trusting what (the catcher) is throwing down and let the defense work behind me. I’m trusting my pitches, trusting my grip and throwing with confidence.”

Newcomer Collin McHugh has been on the COVID-19 injury list, but he returned Thursday to bolster the unit. McHugh had a 3.21 ERA with 25 strikeouts against five walks over 23-2/3 innings. He was one of three higher-profile reliever additions made during the winter, joining Jansen and Kirby Yates, a former All-Star who’s expected to be a reinforcement later this summer. Yates apparently has impressed in bullpen sessions.

“This group was awesome last year, and we’ve added some pieces to make it better,” Lee said. “Once those guys come back, like Kirby, Matzek, it’s going to be even better.”

The Braves also acquired three old friends in Darren O’Day, Jesse Chavez and Jacob Webb. O’Day, 39, made the club out of spring training. The Braves reacquired Chavez from the Cubs in April. Webb was designated for assignment upon McHugh’s return, but could remain in the organization as familiar depth.

O’Day is an invaluable resource for younger players and a leader in the bullpen (plus a source of comic relief). He’s been solid on the field, too, producing a 3.60 ERA over 19 games. Chavez, a favorite of Snitker, was an innings eater for the Braves a year ago. He struggled in three outings with the Cubs, leading them to trade him to the Braves for underwhelming southpaw Sean Newcomb, who’s since been designated for assignment.

The 38-year-old Chavez has a 2.49 ERA in 18 appearances during his third stint with the Braves. They’ve even trusted him in important spots such as June 11 when they had Chavez cover two late innings as the team tried to overcome a 4-2 deficit to Pittsburgh.

Chavez didn’t allow a run in the seventh or eighth frame. The Braves exploded for eight runs in the seventh for a 10-4 win. Players like Chavez, the unheralded, end-of-the-roster contributors, can matter a great deal.

“Jesse comes and pitches better than (he did with) the team we got him from (Chicago),” Snitker said. “He’s been so aggressive, efficient and on the attack.”

The bullpen helps the rotation, as well. “I feel like as a starter, it’s a lot easier to (ask out) knowing the guy coming in behind me is going to be just as good, if not better, and take the game from there,” starter Kyle Wright said. The benefits of a strong bullpen seem endless. The Braves’ recent hot streak has put the relief group under a microscope. It’s answered each challenge.

Through 64 games, this bullpen has proven to be the team’s backbone. The Braves still aren’t where they want to be, they trail the Mets by four games in the division, but their bullpen was an instrumental part of keeping them afloat – and then in spearheading their revival.

And the relief corps will be essential to the Braves having any chance to repeat their postseason success this fall.

“(You have to have a good bullpen), especially down the stretch and in the postseason,” outfielder Adam Duvall said. “You have to be able to win these one-run, two-run ballgames. We have all the confidence in the world because we have guys who’ve done it, especially in the postseason. I don’t think the moment gets too big for them because they’ve been there.”