Bad luck isn’t only reason Braves short on pitching for October

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos discusses injuries to pitchers, following announcement Cole Hamels would be sidelines for remainder of season.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

If you need a big bat for a relative bargain, then Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos is your guy. He’s 2-for-2 with signing sluggers who showed signs of decline before surging with the Braves, first Josh Donaldson and now Marcell Ozuna. Anthopoulos also lengthened the lineup by adding Travis d’Arnaud and Adam Duvall.

The GM also knows how to build a bullpen. The excellent group of Braves relievers is headed by pitchers that Anthopoulos acquired. Will Smith and Chris Martin are under contract for 2021 so the 'pen already has two key pieces for 2021.

The Braves are riding a powerful lineup and quality corps of relievers to their third consecutive National League East title. But shaky starting pitching is why their odds to win the NL pennant (6-1) are much longer than the Dodgers (3-2) and Padres (11-2). All the good work Anthopoulos has done with building the Braves into a contender could be undone in October because the starting pitching isn’t good enough.

Signing Cole Hamels backfired. He’s finished for the season after pitching just 3-1/3 innings for the Braves. Hamels had been durable during his career until suffering an oblique injury last season. The risk of giving $18 million (since prorated) to a 36-year-old pitcher coming off a down year didn’t pay off for Anthopoulos.

The Braves are headed to the postseason with one very good pitcher, Max Fried, and a bunch of question marks. Ian Anderson is promising, but he’ll enter the playoffs with six career starts. The Braves are giving Kyle Wright another chance. He’s been effective in two starts since being called up, but that’s not enough to believe he’s reliable.

Earlier this month, I opined that it’s plausible that the Braves could make a postseason run by bashing home runs and patching together bullpen games. That was before MLB announced there would be no off-days in the three playoff rounds before the World Series. Then Hamels went on the shelf.

Now the Braves are short on quality starters for the postseason. Manager Brian Snitker can’t call on his top relievers for every game of the best-of-three wild-card round. If the Braves advance, those pitchers won’t get a day to recharge during the best-of-five NLDS or best-of-seven NLCS. At least there will be a minimum of one off-day between those rounds.

With days of rest during series, the Braves reasonably could have made do with two reliable starters. Without them, three seems to be the bare minimum. Fried and Anderson are the only two Braves starters who are better than league average in ERA and Fielding Independent Pitching (rates of walks, strikeouts, home runs and hit by pitches).

They lag every NL contender in that area. Before Tuesday’s games, the Dodgers and Padres each had five starters with ERAs better than league average. The Cubs and Reds had four. The Phillies and Cardinals had three. Five of those six teams had at least three starters with FIPs better than league average (the Cubs had two).

The Dodgers and Padres are the only team from that group that can match bats with the Braves. But pitching is key for a postseason run. Runs usually are harder to come by because strikeouts rise as hitters see more quality starters and relievers.

The last two World Series champions leveraged strong starting pitching. In 2019 the Nationals rode Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. In 2018 the Red Sox won it all with modest offensive production because starters Rick Porcello, David Price, Chris Sale and Nathan Eovaldi were good when it mattered most.

In last year’s Division Series against the Cardinals, the Braves hit OK and their relievers were fine. Their lack of starter depth ultimately led to the Game 5 loss. The rotation isn’t any better this October. There’s less certainty because young lefty Fried is at the top instead of old pro Dallas Keuchel, and Mike Soroka is out.

I don’t knock Anthopoulos for not going all-in for Mike Clevinger, who was the only front-line starter moved at the trade deadline. The Padres had to send three of their top prospects to Cleveland for Clevinger. If the Braves had sent a similar package it would have thinned a farm system that needs replenishment.

Taijuan Walker is one starter acquired for a modest trade haul who is working out. He has a 1.54 ERA over five starts for the Blue Jays, who got Walker from Seattle when they had three starters on the injured list. Things haven’t gone well for the other starters who switched teams at the deadline.

Mike Minor had a 6.61 ERA in his first four games (three starts) with the Athletics. Robbie Ray complied a 5.94 ERA in four games (three starts) for Toronto. The other starter the Blue Jays acquired, Ross Stripling, has been even worse: 7.36 ERA in three games (two starts).

The Braves are getting similar results from Wright (5.74 ERA). He’s young and talented, so it’s reasonable to believe he can improve. If he doesn’t, or if Fried or Anderson are off in the postseason, then the Braves will have to reproduce the bats-and-bullpen formula that’s got them on the cusp of winning the East again.

It was bad luck for the Braves to lose Soroka to a season-ending injury after three starts. It was a dubious plan to rely on veterans Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, and young arms that hadn’t shown much. Trade-deadline acquisition Tommy Milone is a bust. Felix Hernandez opted out of the season, but it would have been a surprise if he had been an average starter.

Anthopoulos' acquisition record is very good overall. He’s been right on batters and relief pitchers. He hasn’t had the same touch with starting pitchers. The big signings were Hamels and Keuchel, who was just OK in 2019 for $13 million.

Anibal Sanchez was a steal for $1 million in 2018. Kevin Gausman was good for the Braves that season after they traded for him at the deadline. Gausman wasn’t good in 2019, so the Braves waived him. He signed with the Giants in December for $8 million and has a 3.70 ERA and 3.21 FIP in nine starts.

The Braves were set to rely on their bullpen in October even before the rotation fell apart. That’s why they signed Smith and Martin. Now they’ll likely have to lean on their relievers even more. That’s because of bad luck and some bad moves by Anthopoulos.

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