Could the Braves’ stout bullpen carry them through October?

Braves pitcher Robbie Erlin (49) reacts after he allowed a two-run home run by Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper (background) during the first inning at Truist Park on Saturday, August 22, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Braves pitcher Robbie Erlin (49) reacts after he allowed a two-run home run by Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper (background) during the first inning at Truist Park on Saturday, August 22, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Maybe I have this backward, or upside-down, or some amalgam of both. Ahead of a Labor Day weekend that includes the Kentucky Derby plus the NBA and NHL playoffs but only a smattering of college football, it’s easy to get confused. It’s possible I’m most confused about the Braves.

My default position: Their lack of starting pitching will catch up to them in October, assuming there’s a baseball October. Even with Max Fried making like Sandy Koufax, their rotation – which hasn’t so much rotated as lurched – has the third-worst ERA among 30 MLB clubs. It’s fifth-worst in FIP. The only rotations worse in fielding independent pitching belong to Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, none of which was above .500 as of Friday morning.

The Braves, by way of contrast, awoke Friday with MLB’s fifth-best record. According to FanGraphs, they have a 99 percent chance of making the 16-team playoff. My assumption has long been – though not for all that long; the season didn’t begin until July 24 – that what they’re doing now won’t work in the postseason. But then I wonder: What if what we’re seeing now is the same as what we’ll see next month?

The hope surely would be for Fried to work Game 1 of every series. That’s not a bad way to start: Going by Baseball-Reference WAR, he has been the second-best pitcher in the majors in 2020. The feeling, however, has been that anything beyond Fried would hew to Louis XV’s boast: “Apres moi, le deluge.” (“After me, the flood.”) What if there is no flood? What if what has been working for the Braves works in October, too?

By many measures – ERA, FIP, FanGraphs WAR – the Braves’ bullpen has been the fifth-best in baseball. This has been achieved despite these relievers having to cover the ninth-most innings. But relievers for the teams with MLB’s best- and second-best records – the Dodgers and Rays – have worked more innings than this crew. This tells us something, does it not?

Over the past couple of years, teams have taken to “bullpenning” games – deploying a nominal reliever for the first two innings and then running out more relievers. (The Rays have taken the lead on this, but others have paid heed.) Bullpenning is a trickier way to go than having your starting pitcher get you through six innings, but if you have better relievers than starters, it makes sense. This irregular season, which started four months late and had two rounds of spring/summer training, hasn’t been tailored to suit starting pitchers. Almost nobody was “stretched out” when matters finally commenced.

With the opt-out of Felix Hernandez and the injury to Mike Soroka and the continuing woes of Cole Hamels and the latest misfires of Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint – there’s seven starting pitchers unavailable – the Braves have had to go MacGyver on us. They’re making do with whatever they have, and the results have more than sufficed. They had the sport’s fifth-best record as the holiday weekend got underway. They’ve done that with a lot of hitting, a slew of good relievers and Max Dorian Fried.

Does it seem far-fetched that the Braves could reach the World Series with ONE reliable starter? (We stipulate that Ian Anderson’s first two starts have been encouraging.) Yes. Teams have managed it with two good starters, but never one – and never has a baseball team had to win nine games over three series just to reach the Fall Classic. Does it seem utterly impossible? Not utterly, no. Baseball in 2020 looks different from any baseball that has come before it, and baseball is weird to begin with.

Remember the Epic Collapse of September 2011? Remember how a bullpen overtaxed by Fredi Gonzalez spit the bit in the final two weeks? That’s not apt to happen now. For one thing, rosters have expanded to 28, meaning more relievers are on hand. For another, Alex Anthopoulos built this team around its bullpen, moving over the offseason to sign Will Smith and keep Darren O’Day and Chris Martin, the latter being one of three relievers – Shane Greene and Mark Melancon were the other two – acquired at the 2019 trade deadline.

Did Anthopoulos have any idea that this would be a team he would take into a pandemic season? No. (He’s smart, but nobody’s that smart.) Sometimes, though, fortune favors the prepared. If the Braves can get something in October out of any starter beyond Fried – don’t forget that Foltynewicz was demoted last summer and still started two National League Division Series games – this bullpen is more than capable of holding even the skinniest lead. (There’s your Bradley Jinx for this year.)

Since MLB scheduled only 60 regular-season games after its long-delayed start, and since the postseason field has grown from 10 to 16, the notion of the Braves missing the playoffs has never registered. All they had to do was play .500 ball to have a chance, and they’ve played way better than .500 ball the past two seasons. It was only after the rotation fell to pieces that the glow came off this club, but – after further review – this October could be the one time in the sport’s long history when starting pitching proves overrated.

You’d still rather have a deep rotation than not. Pitching will forever be the biggest part of baseball. That said, the Braves have been forced to use Robbie Erlin, a 29-year-old claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh on Aug. 7, as a starter. He has taken four turns. Not once has he made it past the fourth inning. His ERA as a starter is 6.17. And yet: The Braves have won three of his four starts. Once you reach October, nothing matters except winning.

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