If the Braves' bullpen was viewed as erratic or somewhat disappointing in 2014, it probably reflected as much about the lofty standards set by recent Atlanta bullpens as it did about the way this one performed. That said, this bullpen was indeed erratic and somewhat disappointing.
Braves relievers ranked sixth in the NL in ERA (3.31) in 2014, the first time the Braves had finished out of the top five since 2008. And this came just one season after the Braves led the majors with a 2.46 ERA that was a full run lower than the National League average and easily their best since the 2002 Braves posted a majors-leading 2.60 ERA that looked like it wouldn’t be matched for quite some time.
Craig Kimbrel in 2014 wasn’t quite as ridiculously good as he’d been in the previous two seasons, but baseball’s best closer posted a 1.61 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings and again led the National League in saves with 47 (he has led or tied for the NL saves lead in each of his first four full seasons). No, there wasn’t any disappointment in the work of Kimbrel.
The problematic area for this Braves bullpen was the bridge to Kimbrel. The setup men. David Carpenter and Luis Avilan weren’t as good as they’d been in 2013, and in Avilan’s case that’s putting it mildly — his struggles were so severe, he eventually was sent to Triple-A to get back on track.
Kimbrel, who last spring signed a four-year, $42 million extension with a fifth-year option, returns along with the other pieces to form the foundation for another potentially strong bullpen, but the Braves will look to improve their setup situation this winter by adding at least a proven left-hander and possibly more.
Carpenter had an awful midseason slump, and Avilan was a shell of the pitcher he’d been a year before. The performances of those two and Jordan Walden in 2013 led Braves decision-makers to believe they’d be OK in 2014 without another proven veteran reliever along the lines of an Eric O’Flaherty, the left-hander who missed much of the 2013 season recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery and went to Oakland as a free agent last winter.
Avilan went from limiting opponents to a .175 average, .259 OBP and .219 slugging percentage in 2013, to getting lit up to the tune of .287/.374/.390 in 2014. The lefty allowed 47 hits and 21 walks with 25 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings, after giving up just 40 hits and 22 walks with 38 strikeouts in 65 innings in 2013. And after allowing a stingy .180 opponents’ average and .233 slugging percentage in 150 at-bats in the late innings of close games in 2013, Avilan allowed a .317 average and .500 slugging percentage in 60 at-bats in those situations in 2014.
Carpenter went from a .198 opponents’ average and 74 strikeouts in 56 appearances in 2013, to a .256 opponents’ average and 67 strikeouts in 65 appearances in 2014. He gave up 61 hits in 61 innings in 2014, after allowing 45 hits in 65 2/3 innings in 2013. And after limiting opponents’ to a microscopic .115 average (9-for-78) and .184 OBP in the late innings of close games in 2013 – even better than Kimbrel that year -- Carpenter surrendered a .259 average (38-for-147) and .299 OBP in those situations in 2014.
The regressions of those two pitchers were magnified because the Braves had intended to rely on them even more in crucial situations in 2014.
Atlanta’s best four pitchers in late-and-close situations in 2013 were Carpenter, Kimbrel, O’Flaherty and Avilan. But in 2014, Kimbrel was far and away the team’s best in late-and-close situations, and two of their other top three in that category were starters Julio Teheran and Alex Wood. (Walden was the other in the top four.)
The Braves didn’t have any relievers among the NL leaders in holds, a stat that’s a sort of measuring stick for setup relievers akin to saves for closers. Avilan tied for third in 2013 with 27 holds, trailing only the Nationals’ Tyler Clippard (.33) and the Cardinals’ Trevor Rosenthal (29).
Walden was good but inconsistent, and again he couldn’t get through an entire season healthy and without a stint on the disabled list. His strikeouts/walks ratio went from 54/14 in 47 innings in 2013 to 62/27 in 50 innings in 2014 — nearly twice as many walks in only three more innings.
The Braves were forced to rely too often in the late innings of close games on David Hale. The Marietta native is a good pitcher, but one who pitches to contact and isn’t ideally suited to bring in when a shutout inning is needed, particularly not with runners already on base: Hale allowed 14.6 baserunners per nine innings as a reliever, second-most in the NL, and his strikeout rate of 3.64 per nine innings was the lowest among qualified major league relievers.
The Braves got good work from Walden, when healthy, and from Anthony Varvaro in an increased role after others got hurt or struggled. Hard-throwing, undersized rookie Shae Simmons was outstanding for more than a month before being sidelined by a strained shoulder, and rookie lefty Chasen Shreve showed promise after a midseason callup. Simmons has the talent to fill a setup role and fill it well, but he’s still developing and learning.
Lefty James Russell was acquired from the Cubs in a trade-deadline deal, but didn’t make a big impact during the Braves’ failed stretch run. Russell did have some good outings late in the season and was particularly impressive in a spot start in the final game at Philadelphia. He was more effective against righties than against lefties in 2014, not the shutdown lefty the Braves were looking for at the trade deadline when they were aiming for Andrew Miller.
Russell had a 2.22 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings for the Braves, and a 2.97 ERA with 42 strikeouts and 20 walks in 57 2/3 innings for the entire season. He allowed 20 of 30 inherited runners to score in 2014, tied for fifth-highest percentage among major league relievers.
Half of the Braves’ eight arbitration-eligible players are relievers: Carpenter, Walden, Russell and Johnny Venters, whose health makes him a non-tender candidate.
The Braves hoped to have Venters back by midseason 2014, but he had multiple setbacks in his recovery from a second Tommy John surgery and never pitched in so much as a minor league rehab game before another ulnar collateral ligament tear was diagnosed in the elbow. Venters had a third TJ surgery in September in hopes of continuing his career, but his future is uncertain and he’s expected to miss the entire 2015 season.
Sidearmer Cory Gearrin also missed all of the 2014 season recovering from TJ surgery after blowing out his elbow in spring training. If the 28-year-old is back with the Braves, he would have to win a job in the spring after the shoulder and elbow issues that have cut short his past two seasons.
Before 2014, the last time the Braves finished out of the league’s top five in bullpen ERA was 2008, when only two NL teams had bullpen ERAs as low as 3.80 and the Braves (4.24), Giants (4.45) and Padres (4.45) all were in the league’s bottom five ‘pens. Those three teams have consistently ranked among the majors’ best bullpens in recent years.
The Braves ranked third in the NL in bullpen ERA in 2010 (3.07), then tied San Francisco for first in 2011 (3.02), ranked second in 2012 (2.76), and were first in 2013 with a 2.46 ERA in a season when the American League-leading Royals (2.56) were the only other major league team below 2.85.
Braves relievers’ 440 2/3 innings pitched in 2014 was the second-fewest in the NL and marked the first time that Braves relievers totaled fewer than 450 innings since 2005. Three years ago, Braves relievers pitched 522 1/3 innings, second-most in the NL.
Before we go, just one more thing about Kimbrel and the sort of elevated expectations that people have of the winner of this year's Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year award.
He had a 4.70 ERA while blowing two of seven save opportunities during a two-week stretch June 7-20. In 23 appearances prior to that, Kimbrel had a 1.66 ERA with 38 strikeouts and nine walks in 21 2/3 innings, with 16 saves in 18 opportunities. And after that two-week stretch in June? Utter dominance, again. For the remainder of the season after June 20, Kimbrel had a 0.84 ERA and .131 opponents’ average while converting 26 consecutive save opportunities over his final 32 appearances, with 43 strikeouts and 12 walks in 32 1/3 innings.
By the way, while Braves lefty starter Mike Minor had the majors’ highest batting average allowed by lefty batters this season at .357 (45-for-126), while Kimbrel had the NL’s lowest at .147 (17-for-116). Meanwhile, right-handed batters were 13-for-96 (.135) with 40 strikeouts and 13 walks against Kimbrel, and his .142 overall opponents’ average was second in the majors to Cincinnati flamethrower Aroldis Chapman’s .121.
• Let's close with this sensational Lucinda Williams cover of J.J. Cale's "Magnolia," from Lucinda's album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, one of the best 3-4 albums I've heard this year.
"MAGNOLIA" by J.J. Cale
Soft summer breeze
Makes me think of my baby
I left down in New Orleans
I left down in New Orleans
You're driving me mad
Got to get back to you, babe
You're the best I ever had
You're the best I ever hadYou whisper "Good morning"
So gently in my ear
I'm coming home to you, babe
I'll soon be there
I'll soon be there