There is no sugar coating it, the Atlanta Braves bullpen has been subpar.
With Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, and Darren O’Day no longer part of the Atlanta Braves organization, some regression in 2021 was to be expected. Young guys were going to have to step up, and veterans that were performing would have to continue to pull their weight.
The Braves pitching as a whole has been poor with an earned run average adjusted (ERA+) of 96, which translates to approximately 4% below average at preventing runs. A large part of the poor performance has been the bullpen not being able to keep runs off the board. Currently, the bullpen has an ERA of 4.71.
Needless to say, from a high level view, the guys that the Atlanta Braves front office were hoping to lean on have not met their expectations. The Nate Jones experiment is over, and Chris Martin will be coming back, so there may be some progression in the coming games. However, even with these improvements, there is reason for concern.
There has been a bright spot for the Atlanta Braves bullpen, and it may not be who you think.
There have been many negatives in the Braves bullpen, which that seems should be obvious. Of the 12 pitchers that were exclusively bullpen (not spot relief work from a slotted starter), only 5 have an ERA+ above league average. One of those 5 was Nate Jones, who happened to be one of the luckiest pitchers this year with a fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 8.71.
This is in no way a knock on Will Smith, but he was supposed to perform well. Smith was given a 3 year and 40 million dollar guaranteed contract, so his good performance has most likely not come as a surprise.
There has been one pleasant surprise in the midst of all the poor performances thus far, and this player is none other than A.J. Minter.
Atlanta Braves’ A.J. Minter has low key been excellent
There was reason for excitement for A.J. Minter since 2015 when he was drafted in 2015 with the 75th overall pick. He was also ranked as the Atlanta Braves’ 20th best prospect by MLB Pipeline back in 2017 even with being a ranked as a reliever.
Atlanta Braves probably won’t soon forget Minter’s epic 3 innings as an opener against the Dodgers in the NLCS last year, but the reason that was so surprising was that in 2019 his numbers were simply not good.
In 2019, Minter had a year to forget as far as run prevention goes with 7.07 ERA. Sure, he was a bit unlucky, but if we look at Statcast, his expected ERA (xERA) was still terrible at 5.52. A season like that is tough to forget.
This is probably why it may come as a surprise that if you dig into the numbers, Minter has been nothing short of excellent in every year but 2019. In 2017, 2020, and 2021 his xERA have all been under 3.00, suggesting that his low ERA was not luck. His other peripherals have been excellent as well:
· His career expected slugging percentage against (xSLG) has been 61 better than league average at .342
· His career expected batting average against (xBA) has been 26 points better than league average at .227
· His expected weighted on base average against (xwOBA) has been 26 points better than league average at .287
Minter has been on fire in 2021
A.J. Minter has been great so far in his career, but in 2021 he has taken it to another level. His xwOBA, xERA, xBA, and xSLG have all been in the top 10% or better in the entire league. Check out these numbers:
· His xwOBA is .254, which is top 10% (better than 90% of other pitchers)
· His xSLG is .248, which is top 5%
· His xBA is only .179, which is top 9%
· His xERA is 2.37, which is top 10%
Simply put, hitters are having a tough time against Minter. The only downfall to his game, which one could argue is not even that bad, is that his walk rate is at the bottom 20% of the league. The crazy part about this is that xwOBA factors in walks, and he still is in the top 10% of that category.
Like mentioned earlier, luck can always play a factor, as evident with Nate Jones having an ERA of 3.48 despite having an xERA of 5.51 and a FIP of 8.71, but A.J. Minter has not been lucky. In fact, his ERA is higher than his xERA, suggesting he has actually been unlucky.
Long story short, A.J Minter has been dominating his competition, and somehow he is being overlooked at large by the Atlanta fanbase. There have been many negatives this season for the Atlanta Braves bullpen, but A.J. Minter has been quietly continuing to be the dominating reliever he was drafted to be.