There is a great deal of panic after the Atlanta Braves were unceremoniously swept (in their own ballpark) by the Philadelphia Phillies this week. As usual, much of the panic is an overreaction to sample size issues and unfounded thought process concerning the team, but in one specific area, there is some reason for concern.
Luis Avilan isn’t very good.
If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Avilan’s work, the 24-year-old left-hander posted an incredibly impressive 1.52 ERA in 65 innings during the 2013 season, and with that effort, he cemented himself as the “go-to” left-hander for Fredi Gonzalez. However, the issue is that Avilan is currently the only left-hander in the bullpen, and that is an extremely flawed premise given that he is seemingly over-matched this season.
It is important to note context with things like “Luis Avilan had a 1.52 ERA last season!”, simply because it appeared to be an incredibly lucky campaign. For starters, the left-hander simply doesn’t have a strikeout arsenal, and his career strikeout rate of just 6.24 per 9 innings (with 5.87 K/9 this season) leaves a great deal to be desired. A “crafty” left-hander could get by with that type of minuscule strikeout rate if he has great control, but Avilan simply does not.
Avilan navigated the 2013 season with a 3.05 BB/9 walk rate, which still left him with less than a 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, but this season, his control has gone out the window. Granted, it is only a 23 inning (37 appearance) sample size, but Luis Avilan has walked 5.09 batters per 9 innings, and because his strikeout rate is only a shade better than that (yikes), the danger bells begin to go off.
Dipping back into the context of the 2013 season, Avilan’s infamous 1.52 ERA was accompanied by a 3.28 FIP and a 4.02 xFIP. For the enemies of advanced statistics, this may not mean much, but when an ERA is that far out of line with peripherals and the strikeout-to-walk ratio is less than stellar, a “lucky” campaign comes into view. Add to that an incredibly fortunate .204 BABIP allowed during the 2013 campaign, and it makes a lot of sense.
What happens now? Well, the Atlanta Braves are in a difficult spot. The cupboard is bare with left-handed relievers after Alex Wood was sent to the minors to be stretched out, and unless Jonny Venters arrives with his old, dominant arsenal (something I would consider to be unlikely), the team will be scraping the barrel. Ian Thomas is the only reliever currently in the minors from the left side with any semblance of experience, and if Fredi and company are reticent to recall him, the trade market would be an option.
To be honest and clear, I’m not worried about the bullpen at large. Much of the “struggles” of guys like David Carpenter and Jordan Walden have a lot to do with small sample size and injury concerns, but with Walden looking sharper, Craig Kimbrel dominating and Shae Simmons appearing to be the real thing, the late innings are in good hands. However, as long as Fredi Gonzalez continues to roll Luis Avilan out in high-leverage spots, there will be one significant flaw at the back end of games for the Atlanta Braves.