This bullpen isn’t blameless, but Braves’ lack of hitting hasn’t helped

Braves reliever Will Smith reacts after New York Mets catcher Tomas Nido hit a game-winning, solo home run in the ninth inning Tuesday, May 18, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. Mets won 4-3. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Braves reliever Will Smith reacts after New York Mets catcher Tomas Nido hit a game-winning, solo home run in the ninth inning Tuesday, May 18, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. Mets won 4-3. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Braves didn’t try hard to keep Mark Melancon, their closer since his acquisition at the 2019 trade deadline. In February, he signed with the Padres for $2 million. Come 2022, he’ll either be bought out for $1 million or re-upped for $3 mil. He turned 36 in March.

Melancon leads the majors in saves with 14. San Diego is 26-17, sitting 1 1/2 games ahead of the supposedly uncatchable Dodgers. His ERA is 0.92. Opponents are batting .174 against him. His WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched) is 0.86. Of the 18 games in which he has worked, the Padres have won 16, both losses in extra innings.

We mention this the day after Will Smith, who has become the Braves’ closer and who’s making $13 million this season, was touched for a go-ahead home run by the Mets’ Tomas Nido with two out in the ninth. The Braves lost 4-3. They’re again four games below .500. They’re four games out of first place, matching their biggest deficit since the final game of the 2017 season.

The previous paragraphs could be taken as a round of tut-tutting regarding the Braves’ choice of closers. That’s not the intent. There were reasons the Braves didn’t make Melancon a priority. His age, for one. Also: Of the 30 relievers with two or more saves in 2021, he’s tied for 29th in strikeouts per nine innings. The speed of his cutter, the pitch he throws most, averages 91.9 mph.

Braves stats

Since July 31, 2019 — the day Alex Anthopoulos acquired Shane Greene, Chris Martin and Melancon — the Braves have considered Martin their best reliever. (He’s about to return from the injured list.) Many teams now see the innings before the ninth as just as important, if not more so. Even with those three on board for 2020 – Martin was re-signed as a free agent — the Braves re-upped Darren O’Day, who’d barely pitched of late, and signed Will Smith, a certified closer, for $40 million over three seasons.

Anthopoulos sought to make last season’s bullpen impregnable. The general manager came darn close. Those Braves finished fourth in the majors in relief ERA, and that was with a rotation reduced to Max Fried and a cavalcade of rookies. Even so, the Braves came within wasted leads in Games 5 and 7 of the NLCS of reaching the World Series.

Liberty Media announced in February that the 2020 season, shortened to 60 games and played without fans in attendance, saw a $298 million loss in Braves revenue. Even with that, the club agreed to spend $65 million over four seasons to keep Marcell Ozuna, who’d led the NL in homers and RBIs. It invested $15 million in Charlie Morton, $11 mil in Drew Smyly. Keeping Ozuna, who’s 30, figured to keep the offense rolling. Hiring Morton and Smyly was a concerted attempt to keep the rotation from another collapse.

Adam Duvall was allowed to leave. He signed with the Marlins. He’s hitting .218 with an OPS of .699. O’Day signed with the Yankees; he has been on the injured list (rotator cuff) since May 1. Greene likewise became a free agent; he didn’t sign with any team until May 9, when the Braves landed him for a pro-rated $1.2 million.

Yes, you’re saying, but what of Melancon? The Braves’ bullpen ranks 24th in ERA; San Diego’s ranks second. Then again, the Braves’ starters are only 17th in ERA, though that number has improved over the past fortnight. As for the offense … part of it is great, but only part. This team leads the majors in home runs. It’s 25th in batting average.

Braves Freddie Freeman (left) and Ronald Acuna lead the NL with 12 home runs apiece.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Braves Freddie Freeman (left) and Ronald Acuna lead the NL with 12 home runs apiece. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

We live in a time where the home run is seen as everything. To the Braves, it pretty much has been. Of their 191 runs, 56.5 percent have come on homers. A year ago, the Braves scored the same number of runs off non-homers (174) as homers. Before we lay all blame at the feet of the bullpen, let’s hear the Tuesday testimony of manager Brian Snitker, who responded to a question about his relievers thusly:

“I think the biggest thing … we’re not scoring enough runs. We’re relying on the homer, usually solos, and we’re not stringing hits together to keep an inning going. I think that’s putting a lot of pressure on those guys (relievers), too … I don’t think one (leaky bullpen/hit-or-miss offense) outweighs the other, to be honest.”

Hitting — at least the hitting of non-home runs — is down across the sport. Blame the deadened baseball. But four of the Braves’ regulars are hitting between .201 and .230. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud was at .220 when he hurt his thumb. And the offense, let’s recall, was where Anthopoulos did the bulk of his winter spending.

The Braves have blown six saves. (The Dodgers have blown 13.) Smith has no blown saves. Still, the Braves are 0-8 in games tied headed into the ninth inning. They’re 1-4 in extra innings. That suggests bullpen issues – Martin is about to come off the injured list – but it also tells us the Braves haven’t hit when they’ve needed to hit.

Their batting average with runners in scoring position is .239, 17th-best among MLB teams. Last year it was .270, ninth-best. Not having a universal DH figured to have an effect, but nobody saw this coming. As is, the Braves aren’t very good at anything. Guess that’s why they’re a losing team.

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