Atlanta Braves Blog

The Atlanta Braves blog by David O'Brien, baseball writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Braves 'pen not the late-innings lock of recent years

  The Braves got another late-innings scare Friday against the Angels, though this time they survived the two-run Angels eighth inning and held on for a 4-3 win. But these late-innings cross-your-fingers-and-hope-they-hang-on incidents have become almost the norm lately for a Braves pitching staff that in recent years avoided them better than almost any major league team.

That situation, coupled with the other obvious issue with this team – its poor situational hitting and complete lack of offensive consistency – have been the chief contributors to the Braves’ 18-24 record since their 17-7 start, when the pitching staff was so good that a few runs from the hitters were enough to win most nights. That wasn’t realistically going to continue, and hasn’t.

In those past 42 games the Braves have had losing streaks of three, four and seven games, but no winning streaks of more than three games.

They are 18-24 with a 4.01 ERA since April 29, including 7-10 with a 4.70 ERA  in their past 17 games. This from a team that started out 17-7 with a 2.04 ERA through April 28.

We wondered how long the pitching staff could keep up anything close to that heady pace they maintained through late April, and how long it would be before the pressure of pitching with so little margin for error began to wear on those pitchers.

We got our answer.

The Braves rotation has remained one of the better performing units in the majors, but Ervin Santana hasn’t been the ace that he appeared to be in his first month or so in the rotation, and Aaron Harang continues to surpass expectations but not at the ridiculously good rate he pitched at for most of the first six weeks of the season.

Still, it’s not the rotation that’s been problematic.

And remember, Alex Wood is getting stretched out to start again, and should be a fine addition once the Braves bring him back. Of course, to do that they’ll have to clear a spot, which I believe they’ll do in the coming weeks by trading a starter to fill one of their bigger needs, the bullpen.

(Yes, getting more offensive consistency is just as big or bigger need than the bullpen, but also a lot harder need to fill considering the Braves are locked into so much contracts including center field, where B.J. Upton continues to underperform.)

We also wondered this winter and spring if Braves relievers could again overcome the loss of key contributors and maintain its lofty position at or near the top of the major league bullpen rankings. We’re getting our answer.

We’re starting to see that you can’t just keep replacing the likes of Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters with reclamation projects and homegrown talent and not expect to have at least some slippage and some cracks in the armor in those high-leverage situations, notwithstanding the recent work of just such a drafted-and-developed stud, Shae Simmons.

The Braves bullpen has slipped to seventh in the NL with a 3.52 ERA and its opponents’ batting average has climbed to .247, which was tied with the Diamondbacks for third-highest allowed in the NL before Saturday. Only the Rockies and Marlins relievers had allowed a higher opponents’ batting average. And think about their situations, with high altitude contributing to the former and a shoestring budget to the latter.

Even more troubling, given how tough the Braves had been in these situations in recent years, is the fact that Atlanta pitchers have the third-highest opponents’ average (.262) in the late innings of close games, better than only the Rockies and Diamondbacks in those situations.

For some context, consider that four NL teams – the Giants, Nats, Reds and Padres – had allowed a .218 or lower opponents’ average in the late innings of close games, and the league average was .238 before Saturday.


The fact that Simmons has been thrust into so many pressurized situations in the late innings of close games during his first two weeks in the majors – after being brought up from Double-A -- says something about the current state of the ‘pen.

There is nothing resembling the “O’Ventbrel” trio, nor should anyone have reasonably expected there to be, given that that trio was one of the best late-innings units we’ve seen in the majors in the past decade.

But the Braves did expect a lot more from the likes of David Carpenter and Jordan Walden, and also from Luis Avilan, who is only now starting to pitch like he did most of the past two years when the lefty sinkerballer seemed a worthy successor to O’Flaherty after learning so much from the veteran lefty.

Walden can’t seem to stay healthy and/or consistent for more than a couple of months at a time, and that’s a problem when you expected him to be a primary setup guy.

Carpenter? He has a 9.64 ERA and .435 opponents’ average in his past 13 appearances, allowing 20 hits (two homers), 10 runs, three walks and two hit batters in 9 1/3 innings over that alarming stretch. He’s out of minor-league options, too, which means he can’t be sent down without first clearing waivers, and even though he’s struggled it’s likely a team would claim him because he throws hard and he’s durable. And for most of last season, he was outstanding for the Braves.

• Heyward OK, Braves thankful: The Braves breathed a sigh of relief when X-rays came back negative on Jason Heyward’s hand after he was struck by a pitch in the first inning Friday, and again when he was in the lineup Saturday after reporting no stiffness and very little swelling in the hand.

The last thing the Braves offense needs right now is to be without the resurgent Heyward for any significant period. He’s having one of his best offensive stretches in a few years, while several other key hitters in the top half of the lineup have been struggling.

In his past 30 games (since May 11), Heyward has hit .308 (37-for-120) with five homers, 15 RBIs, 18 runs, 12 walks, 18 strikeouts, a .381 OBP and .467 slugging percentage.

In his first 34 games through May 10, he hit .206 (28-for-136) with two homers, eight RBIs, 17 walks, 32 strikeouts, a .297 OBP and .301 slugging percentage.

He’s heated up at the plate while others in the top half of the order have recently gone cold, or in the case of Freddie Freeman been in one of the longest slumps of his career. In Freeman’s past 23 games before Saturday he hit .188 (16-for-85) with two homers, seven RBIs, 24 strikeouts and a .324 OBP.

In 48 games since April 21, the Braves first baseman and No. 3 hitter was batting just .227 (41-for-181) with six homers, 21 RBI, 25 walks, 44 strikeouts, a .324 OBP and .387 slugging percentage. This after Freeman hit .397 (27-for-68) in his first 18 games through April 20 with five homers, 14 RBIs, 10 walks, nine strikeouts, a .481 OBP and .721 slugging percentage.

Justin Upton was 9-for-44 (.205) in his past 12 games before Saturday, with one extra-base hit, three RBIs, four walks and 14 strikeouts. And after having another terrific April, Upton since then had a .263 average (35-for-133) in 37 games with six homers, 18 RBIs, 16 walks, 43 strikeouts, and a .344 OBP and .466 slugging percentage.

If we write anything negative about B.J. Upton, for some reason a segment of our audience seems to think it’s “driving a narrative” that misleading, whatever is that narrative they’ve referring to in what to me seems a complete straw-man argument.

Fact of the matter is, in his past 35 games B.J. has hit .197 (25-for-127) with 11 extra-base hits, four homers, 13 RBIs, 12 walks, 45 strikeouts, a .262 OBP and a .354 slugging percentage, with four stolen bases and three errors.

Besides Heyward, three Braves regulars have been hot lately -- catcher Evan Gattis for quite some time, rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella since arriving in the big leagues 2 1/2 weeks ago, and Chris Johnson in the past five days after a long slump.

In Gattis' past 14 games, including a current 13-game hitting streak before Saturday, he hit .392 (20-for-51) with six home runs, 16 RBIs, a .446 OBP, and .804 slugging percentage. In the catcher’s past 44 games he hit .295 (45-for-152) with 20 extra-base hits (13 homers), 32 RBIs, 11 BB, a  .353 OBP and .605 slugging percentage.

La  Stella has hit .367 (18-f0r-49) with four walks, four RBIs and five strikeouts in his first 14 games, including multi-hit games in half of those. He had only three strikeouts in his first 13 games before striking out twice Friday night.

In Johnson’s past five games he was 10-for-20 with a homer, three RBIs, one walk, three strikeouts. His previous 21 games: .193 (16-for-83) with two doubles, one homer, five RBIs, no walks, 24 strikeouts.

Here's one by the the late, great Otis Redding, a Georgia native and one of the greatest singers who ever lived.

“FA-FA-FA-FA-FA (SAD SONG)” by Otis Redding


I keep singing them sad, sad songs, y'all

Sad songs is all I know

I keep singing them sad, sad songs, y'all

Sad songs is all I know

It has a sweet melody tonight

Anybody can sing it any old time

It touches your heart

Puts you in a groove

And when you sing this song

It'll make your whole body move

It goes, Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa

Your turn

My turn


Your turn now

All my life I've been singin' sad songs

Tryin' to get my message to you, honey

But that's the only song, y'all, I can sing

And when you get through singin'

My message will be to you

It goes, Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa

Your turn now

It's a lovely song, y'all

Sweet music, honey

It's just a line, oh but

It tells a story, baby

You got to get the message

A stone message, honey

A lovely line, baby

I'm worried in mind, watch me


Your turn

Everybody's turn, everybody


One more time


Worried in mind, y'all




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About the Author

David O'Brien has covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2002.