There's a long, long discussion to be had about keeping relief pitchers healthy, and in fact Steven Goldman just had it. Still, it could be even longer! Today I'd like to focus on just one tiny piece of the conversation: the Atlanta Braves.
In 2010, Billy Wagner racked up 37 saves and posted the lowest ERA of his brilliant career.
After which he quit. And it wasn't an Andy Pettitte sort of quitting. It was a Tom Henke quitting, as in "I'm going to have a great season and then you're never going to see me again."
This might have been a problem for the Braves, except it wasn't because at the exact moment Billy Wagner was leaving, Craig Kimbrel was arriving. That summer, Kimbrel made 21 relief appearances with the Braves and posted a 0.44 ERA with 40 strikeouts in 20⅓ innings. Kimbrel set and still owns the all-time record for strikeouts per nine innings, with at least 10 innings pitched.
Kimbrel was still just a baby that season, only 22. The Braves already had 25-year-old lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, both of whom posted sub-2.50 ERA's that season. One can just imagine a bullpen that included, for a whole season, all three of those young fellows plus Billy Wagner, still brilliant in his dotage.
Of course that didn't happen. But Kimbrel slid right into Wagner's role in 2011, and it was good. It was real good. The ERA's for that trio in '11:
Those three also combined for 239 innings, Kimbrel seemed tired at the end of the season, and the manager got blamed for the Braves' devastating collapse down the stretch. So in 2012, the workloads were lightened. First, the ERA's:
... and this time they totaled only 179 innings; Kimbrel led the way with only 62⅔ innings. Problem solved!
Well, except Jonny Venters hasn't pitched this season, and won't; instead he'll spend 2013 recovering from his second Tommy John Surgery. O'Flaherty's pitched well in his 18 innings ... but that's where the ledger will be frozen forever, because he's got a torn elbow ligament and is probably heading for surgery, too.
All of the above is just another way to say that pitching is a risky endeavor, and it's best to avoid getting too attached to your favorite relief pitcher, or relief corps. Because they probably won't be around for long. It's also a way of approaching, however obliquely, today's thesis: The first-place Atlanta Braves are on shaky ground.
Let's start with that bullpen, which has been such an important part of the Braves' three-year run of really good teams. You might look at the basic statistics and figure the bullpen's still in good shape, even without Venters and O'Flaherty. After all, they've still got Cory Gearrin (0.92 ERA) and Luis Avilan (2.12) and Anthony Varvaro (2.35). Alas, each of those sterling ERA's are mirages. Avilan, the only remaining left-hander in the bullpen, has more walks than strikeouts. Varvaro's probably always going to walk too many guys. And Gearrin ... well, okay, I'll give you Gearrin. He might actually be pretty good. Doesn't throw hard (at all!), but controls the strike zone and hasn't given up a home run in his last 105 Triple-A innings.
* By the way, kudos to Frank Wren, who despite all these injuries is sticking with a six-man bullpen. Over the weekend he said, "Historically, teams went with 11 pitchers, that was the norm. It's just in recent years, with the use of bullpens, we've seen 12-man staffs be the norm. So, until you have that real extended, whether it's an extra-inning game or your long man has to fill in and do a four- or five-inning stint, you really don't need that 12th guy. That 12th guy is almost always a safety valve." Exactly. Well said, sir.
So what was, just a few months ago, a huge positive for the Braves has become a huge, or at least medium, concern. And there are others. It sure doesn't look Dan Uggla's ever going to be a good hitter again, Jason Heyward's batting .132 just a few days off the Disabled List, and B.J. Upton ... well, B.J. Upton's probably the single most disappointing player in the National League, hitting so poorly (.145/.237/.239) that it's become difficult to write his name on the lineup card, especially with Evan Gattis and Jordan Schafer both pressing hard for playing time.
Too many guys to play ... That's not the worst problem in the world, except just giving up on the elder Upton. You know, considering he's still got almost $75 million coming.
Nobody's perfect, and the Braves are still a fine bet for postseason action. Especially when you consider they've outscored their opponents by 34 runs ... and are the only team in the National League East with a positive run differential. That's right, folks: the Washington Nationals, everybody's favorites, have actually been outscored this season. Still, the Braves seem to have more fundamental problems than the Nationals, so nobody should be surprised if the standings in two months look like what we expected two months ago. Especially if the Braves' top reliefers keep dropping like red-shirts.
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