Before the season, it was generally understood that the Braves 2013 bullpen probably wasn’t going to be as good as the 2012 version, but I don’t think anyone expected this much of a difference. We came into the season with four quality late-inning relievers: Craig Kimbrel, Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Jordan Walden. Currently, the Braves have one.
While Walden’s injury isn’t as severe as the season-ending injuries that Venters and O’Flaherty experienced, he is still going to be on the disabled list until at least May 27th with shoulder inflammation. Hopefully, Walden and the team caught the injury early enough to prevent any serious damage to his shoulder. So, with three of those guys out, let’s look at the men in the pen (not named Kimbrel) that are going to have to step up their game.
The first two guys we are going to have to talk about are Cory Gearrin and Luis Avilan. These two guys are likely going to be splitting set-up duties depending on the situation at hand. Either that, or Fredi will label one guy as the “seventh inning man” and the other as the “eighth inning man”.
Gearrin has been in the Braves organization for a while now, and the past two years he has been shuffled between the big leagues and the minors to plug holes in the bullpen when needed. At first, he was just a groundball pitcher (remember Peter Moylan?) and as a righty, struggled to get left-handed hitters out. Because of this, many viewed him as a sort of righty specialist/guy to get a double play/mop-up reliever.
This season, however, he has been excellent against pretty much everyone. In fact, his success against lefties so far this year has been much better than righties. Against lefties, he has given up a line of .083/.185/.125, and against righties he has allowed .250/.333/.372.
However, this isn’t likely to last. Gearrin has simply been luckier with the balls that left-handers have put in play versus the right-handers. His BABIP allowed against lefties is .095 while righties have a .313 BABIP. He also strikes out right-handed batters at a much higher rate with 8.03 Ks per nine against them, compared to just 3.52 Ks per nine against left-handed hitters.
Hopefully Gearrin’s lucky streak can last a bit longer, because if he comes back down to his career averages, then he’s really not a good option to have in high leverage situations. He’s a solid MLB relief pitcher, but he’s more of a mid-inning/low-leverage guy.
Whereas Gearrin has been fairly lucky against lefties this year, Avilan has had good success against them in both of the years where we have major league data of him. In his career, lefties have hit .185/.273/.253 against him, and so far in 2013 they are hitting .207/.281/.241.
The interesting thing with Avilan however, is that righties don’t fare that much better. For his career, they have put up a triple slash of .228/.293/.274 and in 2013 it is just .229/.325/.257. There is also no obvious reason to worry if Avilan has been getting extremely lucky like Gearrin, as his BABIP is in line with his career mark of .261.
With both of these pitchers, we don’t have a TON of data so we shouldn’t expect them to fall right into their career marks, but between the two, Avilan has a much better chance to be a good late-inning reliever. Avilan was looking great before injuring his hamstring earlier during the season, and if he can avoid getting banged up again, the bullpen should be in fine shape.
This could work out pretty well for Atlanta if Gearrin can maintain this for about another week. Once Walden returns from his injury, he can be pushed back into a better-fitting role, and the Braves can rely on a combination of Avilan/Walden/Kimbrel to close out games. It’s certainly not as good as a healthy O’Flaherty/Venters combination, but Braves fans should still feel good securing leads at the end of games.