Braves bullpen: Strange days have found us

Twenty games into the season, Braves relievers have one of the strangest set of statistics that a bullpen could produce. They are a dichotomy of numbers that demonstrates why this unit can seem close to outstanding one moment and maddeningly frustrating the next.

Begin with the fact that Braves relievers entered Sunday with a .197 opponents’ batting average that was the best in the majors, but a ghastly total of 57 walks issued in 77 innings, which was not just the highest total in the majors but was 42 percent higher than the next-most.

The Orioles, Reds and Marlins were tied for the next-highest walks total with 40 apiece before Sunday, and the Orioles and Marlins had more relief innings pitched than did the Braves. (The Marlins had a lot more: 91.)

“I think everyone recognizes that the walks are up, but situations always dictate how you pitch different guys,” Braves reliever Dan Winkler said. “Sometimes a walk isn’t a bad thing, sometimes it is. But leadoff walks – to be able to strand guys after leadoff walks, you’re not always going to be able to do as well as we have. So I think we do know that we need to throw less walks. But I think it just goes to show how good this pen is. Like, we can strand runners when we need to.”

He smiled and said, “But it is interesting. We talk about it too. Don’t think you guys are the only ones.”

Then there is the puny two homers allowed by Braves relievers, the fewest among major league bullpens. Impressive indeed. Eighteen teams had at least four times as many homers allowed by relievers as the Braves did before Sunday and nine teams had 10 or more homers served up by relievers.

That low homer total and low opponents’ batting average have been saving grace for Braves relievers, given the number of runners they’ve put on base via walks and hit-by-pitches (six, tied for third-most). Atlanta relievers were also tied for second-most wild pitches,

This is effectively wild on a wide scale. They’ve located pitches well enough to avoid giving up hits, but not well enough to avoid walks in some of the worst possible times, including leadoff walks – some of them on four pitches -- and the most painful walks of all, the ones with bases loaded that force in a run. Oh, there have been more than a year’s worth of those already, including three in the one freezing-cold debacle of an inning at Chicago last week.

Walks are the main reason that a Braves bullpen with the lowest opponents’ batting average is conversely tied for the sixth-highest opponents’ on-base percentage (.345). Among the six teams with the same or higher opponents’ OBPs against their bullpens are teams with five of the six worst records in baseball: the Marlins, Reds, Rays, White Sox and Royals.

The only team with a winning record and a higher opponents’ OBP against relievers is the Cardinals, whose .349 opponents’ OBP against their bullpen is mitigated somewhat by the fact that St. Louis starters are 10-5 with a 3.24 ERA – the seventh-lowest ERA among major league starting rotations.

Also, the Braves and Marlins are tied for fewest saves with one apiece, while the Mets and Rockies led the majors with nine saves before Sunday and 12 teams had at least six saves.

“That’s kind of crazy,” Winkler said. “How many opportunities have we had?”

Braves have had just three save chances, second-fewest in the majors behind the Reds, who’ve had two (and converted both). But the Reds had a 3-17 record before Sunday. The Braves are 12-8.

Weird.

“But you’ve got to admit, this whole team is weird,” said Winkler, who meant that in a good way. “I mean, you’ve got (Ryan) Flaherty and Dansby (Swanson) is coming back -- after the year that he had last year nobody saw him hitting as well as he is now. And Ozzie (Albies). ... I mean, I think it’s just kind of a weird team.

“I think it’s been fun. I’ve told a lot of people, the clubhouse, even in spring training and now, it’s totally different than what it was in the past. It’s a lot of fun. Winning ballgames is fun.”

He added, “But I can’t explain the numbers in the bullpen, man.”