Braves First Half Review: Bullpen


Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Eric:  The bullpen for the Braves in the first half of this season has been nothing short of a logistical nightmare.  But somehow, that nightmare has turned into sweet dreams for Braves fans as Frank Wren has really outdone himself this time.  Craig Kimbrel is of course the best closer in the game right now, so I am not even going to mention him.  We all know was unbelievable last season and he has continued that again this season.  Total beast.  Then, we move on to setup-man Jonny Venters… wait, he didn’t pitch at all and had his second Tommy John surgery this season?  Welp, good thing we have ole reliable, Eric O’Flaherty to take his place… wait, what? He had Tommy John surgery this year too?  Welp, this isn’t good.  At least we have a reliable long man who can jump in and start being used in more critical situations in Cristhian Martinez… wait, don’t tell me, injured? YEP.  Three of the main cogs in Atlanta’s pen have been lost for the season and all we have done is somehow still put together the best bullpen in baseball.  Jordan Walden has been a HUGE pickup off of the Tommy Hanson trade, but even he has seen time on the DL this year while racking up a 2.35 ERA and striking out 35 batters in 30.1 IP.  Luis Avilan has been brilliant sporting a 1.40 ERA and hold opposing hitters to a .153 batting average while only giving up 2 extra-base hits (both were doubles) in 150 PAs.  Cory Gearrin was great early in the year but fell off late, Anthony Varvaro has been a consistent presence, but David Carpenter has been the biggest surprise to me.  Besides looking like Craig Kimbrel’s doppelganger, he is sporting numbers that makes you look twice too. He has a 1.80 ERA and is striking out 10.2 per 9 and has only been scored on in 3 of his 22 appearances. Even Alex Wood has pitched great in an unfamiliar role out of the pen. I still think we will probably need some help for these guys in the second half, but I don’t know how they could have done any better than they have in the first half. Grade: A

Harris: If there is one thing Frank Wren cannot be criticized for, it is his bullpen construction. The Braves will spend $10.72 million on bullpen salary this year for a bullpen that ranks first in MLB with a 2.62 ERA. The bullpen as a whole has been worth 2.2 fWAR. Now, contrast this approach with the approach of say, the Phillies. Philadelphia’s closer, Jonathan Papelbon, will make $ 13 million this year alone and the Phillies bullpen has the second worst ERA in MLB. A cost-conscious team like the Braves can’t afford to spend money on the bullpen, and Wren has shown that huge monetary investments in relief pitchers usually don’t pay off anyway. Craig Kimbrel is the best closer in baseball and is barely making above the minimum. Wren’s trade of Tommy Hanson for cheap reliever Jordan Walden has paid off handsomely, and David Carpenter is the latest waiver wire claim of Wren’s to turn to gold. Overall, the bullpen has been exactly what was expected, cheap and dominant. In addition to being so good and so cheap, the Braves bullpen has done all this with barely any contribution from the two most expensive relief pitchers on the team Eric O’Flaherty and Johnny Venters. Both pitchers went down early in the season and the relief core hasn’t missed a beat. All things considered, the bullpen has been dominant at very little cost. The bullpen easily deserves an A as does bullpen master Frank Wren. Grade: A

Brad S:  If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it now. The Braves’ bullpen has been held together by duct tape and string and have done well enough to put the Braves in the position they are right now.  Losing Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Christian Martinez can be no easy task for any bullpen because those are guys you rely on night in and night out in order to bridge the gap to Craig Kimbrel or go in long relief (in the case of Martinez) when a starter hasn’t performed well.  But pitchers like Alex Wood, Luis Avilan, Luis Ayala to name a few have done a good enough job to earn the Braves the best bullpen in terms ERA, hits, runs, home runs in the major leagues.  The biggest concern going forward, like Eric said on the podcast last night, is how long can this last?  The Braves have been blessed with a bullpen that has shut down the opposing team, but how long will that continue before an implosion happens.  Going forward I think if things start to trend downward out of the gate in the second half, Frank Wren may have to push buttons and make the moves necessary in the next two weeks and possibly add an arm in bullpen to support the wear and tear that some guys aren’t necessarily used to.  Grade: A

Brad R: Any discussion of the bullpen has to start and end with Craig Kimbrel. In short, he’s the best closer in all of baseball, and he’s lived up to even that lofty level of expectation this season. After the best season that a closer has ever had (at least arguably), Kimbrel’s ERA (1.53) and strikeout (13.75 K/9) numbers have fallen off a bit, but that was to be expected, and they are both still outstanding. Done and done. The rest of the bullpen has been a mix-and-match on the heels of season-ending injuries to both Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. Those guys are obviously missed, but the remaining pieces have stepped up thus far. Jordan Walden has been banged up a bit also, but in his 30.2 innings, he has been outstanding with a 2.35 ERA and 10.27 K/9. There is no reason to expect much regression from Walden either, as he has high-end stuff and his peripherals are solid. The big worry with Walden is health, but if he can stay on the mound, he’s the #1 option in the set-up role. Before him, the Braves have cobbled together some really impressive middle relief from unlikely places. David Carpenter has been a revelation with a 1.80 ERA, Luis Avilan is defying all logic with a 1.40 ERA (!), and Anthony Varvaro has been very solid from the right side. Unfortunately for Atlanta, all 3 guys have serious regression issues on the horizon potentially, as Carpenter and Avilan have FIP’s over a run higher than their ERA, and Varvaro’s base line wasn’t fantastic in the first place. In addition, Alex Wood, who has been tremendous out of the ‘pen, has been demoted back to Triple-A as a roster move and could be stretched out. I seriously doubt that the Braves will perform this well out of the bullpen, but it also isn’t the dire weakness that we feared after the Venters/O’Flaherty injuries. Grade: A-

Carlos: The bullpen has probably been my favorite part of the team this year (maybe with the exception of Andrelton’s defense). Like Brad R. said, the discussion has to start with Craig Kimbrel a.k.a. the best closer in baseball. I don’t need to mention his numbers because others have already done so. What really makes the bullpen stand out this year in my eyes is how well they have done after three BIG injuries hit them early in the year. With Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Cristhian Martinez all out for the season, it would be reasonable to expect our bullpen to be mediocre at best, with Kimbrel being our only stand out arm. However, guys like Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan, Anthony Varvaro, and even David Carpenter have done exceedingly well. Throw in some great outings from Alex Wood and once again the Braves have had one of the best–if not the best–bullpen in baseball. Like last year, when we have a lead late in the game, I am extremely confident that the Braves will come away with a win and these guys are the reason why. Before the break the Braves pen is sitting pretty with the best ERA in baseball (2.62)as well as giving up the fewest homers per nine innings (.54). They are probably due for some regression in the second half of the season (3.32 FIP/3.75 xFIP) but like my grading with the bench players, it doesn’t change the fact that they have been spectacular. The bullpen has performed this well without three key guys for pretty much the entire season and so they get my highest marks of the entire team. Grade: A+

Mark:  The last couple years the Braves have been blessed with a shutdown bullpen. Once the 6th or 7th inning rolled around and the Braves had a lead, you could take it to the bank.  Before the regular season even began, the Brave lost a key piece of their back-end when Jonny Venters went down for the season. In mid may the Braves then lost Eric O’Flaherty, and two-thirds of the three-headed monster that is “O’Ventbrel” was gone for 2013.  You could feel the uneasiness sweep through Braves’ Nation. Although both losses were huge, needless to say, I felt the things would be okay.  So far, I’m very pleased to say I was right. Anthony Varvaro and Luis Avilan have both stepped up big time. They form a nice righty, lefty combination, and have excelled in the 6th, 7th, and even 8th innings when given the chance.  David Carpenter has been a pleasant surprise. He has a fantastic ERA, and has been used in about every situation imaginable.  Craig Kimbrel hasn’t been the utterly and completely untouchable pitcher we saw last year. That said, he still has been pretty darn fantastic. Kimbrel struggled at times to start the season, already blowing as many saves in the first 5 weeks than he did in all of 2013. He has righted the ship though, and has been his dominant self since.  There are two players in this bullpen I am absolutely in love with this season. First I will mention Alex Wood. He was called up when the Braves designated Juan Francisco for assignment. This kid is going to be good folks. He has the stuff to come in almost any situation, but he also can be used as a long man out of the pen and eat up some innings if need be.  Finally, there is Jordan Walden. I loved the trade the Braves made to acquire him. As the season has progressed, he has seen his role change as injuries to other players have occurred. I said when O’Flaherty went down, that Walden would play a huge role the rest of the way for the Braves. It now appears the 7th/8th inning belong to him, and along with Kimbrel and Avilan, the Braves are again set up very nicely for the final third of any ballgame.  In conclusion, there is no way around the fact that Venters and O’Flaherty will be missed. But the other guys have done an exceptional job of stepping up, and the Braves don’t find themselves scrambling to find bullpen help as many feared.  Grade: A-