Bridge to Kimbrel was bullpen’s failure

If the Braves’ bullpen was viewed as erratic or somewhat disappointing in 2014, it probably reflected as much about the lofty standards set by recent Atlanta bullpens as it did about the way this one performed. That said, this bullpen was indeed erratic and somewhat disappointing.

Braves relievers ranked sixth in the NL in ERA (3.31) in 2014, the first time the Braves had finished out of the top five since 2008. And this came just one season after the Braves led the majors with a 2.46 ERA that was a full run lower than the National League average and easily their best since the 2002 Braves posted a majors-leading 2.60 ERA that looked like it wouldn’t be matched for quite some time.

Craig Kimbrel in 2014 wasn’t quite as ridiculously good as he’d been in the previous two seasons, but baseball’s best closer posted a 1.61 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings and again led the National League in saves with 47 (he has led or tied for the NL saves lead in each of his first four full seasons). No, there wasn’t any disappointment in the work of Kimbrel.

The problematic area for this Braves bullpen was the bridge to Kimbrel. The setup men. David Carpenter and Luis Avilan weren’t as good as they’d been in 2013, and in Avilan’s case that’s putting it mildly — his struggles were so severe, he eventually was sent to Triple-A to get back on track.

Kimbrel, who last spring signed a four-year, $42 million extension with a fifth-year option, returns along with the other pieces to form the foundation for another potentially strong bullpen, but the Braves will look to improve their setup situation this winter by adding at least a proven left-hander and possibly more.

Carpenter had an awful midseason slump, and Avilan was a shell of the pitcher he’d been a year before. The performances of those two and Jordan Walden in 2013 led Braves decision-makers to believe they’d be OK in 2014 without another proven veteran reliever along the lines of an Eric O’Flaherty, the left-hander who missed much of the 2013 season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery and went to Oakland as a free agent last winter.

The regressions of Avilan and Carpenter were magnified because the Braves had intended to rely on them even more in crucial situations in 2014.

Atlanta’s best four pitchers in late-and-close situations in 2013 were Carpenter, Kimbrel, O’Flaherty and Avilan. But in 2014, Kimbrel was far and away the team’s best in late-and-close situations, and two of their other top three in that category were starters Julio Teheran and Alex Wood. (Walden was the other in the top four.)

The Braves didn’t have any relievers among the NL leaders in holds, a stat that’s a sort of measuring stick for setup relievers akin to saves for closers. Avilan tied for third in 2013 with 27 holds, trailing only the Nationals’ Tyler Clippard (33) and the Cardinals’ Trevor Rosenthal (29).

Walden was good but inconsistent, and again he couldn’t get through an entire season healthy and without a stint on the disabled list. His strikeouts/walks ratio went from 54/14 in 47 innings in 2013 to 62/27 in 50 innings in 2014 — nearly twice as many walks in only three more innings.

The Braves were forced to rely too often in the late innings of close games on David Hale. The Marietta native is a good pitcher, but one who pitches to contact and isn’t ideally suited to bring in when a shutout inning is needed, particularly not with runners already on base: Hale allowed 14.6 baserunners per nine innings as a reliever, second-most in the NL, and his strikeout rate of 3.64 per nine innings was the lowest among qualified major league relievers.

The Braves got good work from Walden, when healthy, and from Anthony Varvaro in an increased role after others got hurt or struggled. Hard-throwing, undersized rookie Shae Simmons was outstanding for more than a month before being sidelined by a strained shoulder, and rookie lefty Chasen Shreve showed promise after a midseason callup. Simmons has the talent to fill a setup role and fill it well, but he’s still developing and learning.

Half of the Braves’ eight arbitration-eligible players are relievers: Carpenter, Walden, Russell and Jonny Venters, whose health makes him a non-tender candidate.

Before 2014, the last time the Braves finished out of the league’s top five in bullpen ERA was 2008, when only two NL teams had bullpen ERAs as low as 3.80 and the Braves (4.24), Giants (4.45) and Padres (4.45) all were in the league’s bottom five ‘pens. Those three teams have consistently ranked among the majors’ best bullpens in recent years.

A final note on Kimbrel: He had a 4.70 ERA while blowing two of seven save opportunities during a two-week stretch June 7-20. In 23 appearances prior to that, Kimbrel had a 1.66 ERA with 38 strikeouts and nine walks in 21 2/3 innings, with 16 saves in 18 opportunities. And after that two-week stretch in June? Utter dominance, again. For the remainder of the season after June 20, Kimbrel had a 0.84 ERA and .131 opponents’ average while converting 26 consecutive save opportunities over his final 32 appearances, with 43 strikeouts and 12 walks in 32 1/3 innings.

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