Atlanta Braves fans are, confused about manager Brian Snitker’s bullpen use. Snitker didn’t change; the game changed and forced him to change too.
Tuesday night in Boston, the Atlanta Braves got seven innings from starter Charlie Morton and held a one-run lead over the Red Sox potent lineup. Fans expected Chris Martin in the eighth and Will Smith in the ninth; they were half right.
Early this morning, Mark Bowman shed some light on Martin’s absence; apparently, Martin has days when he’s not ready to pitch and tells Snitker early that he’s unavailable. The Braves were aware of this when they acquired him from Texas.
No further explanation was offered, which led to the idea that it may be a non-injury medical condition. Late this afternoon, David O’Brien reported that Martin was feeling run-down after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination. Martin is a fierce competitor: if he says he’s not available, he’s not available.
With Will Smith set to close, Snitker likely wanted a RHP to face Balbec (Gonzalez PH for him), Hernandez, and Verdugo. If not Santana, his choices were Jackson or Tomlin; I understand choosing Santana there, but that doesn’t explain why we’ve seen similarly odd choices in recent weeks with everyone available.
As it turns out, this is a pattern across both leagues.
Braves Bullpen management – 2021
The Atlanta Braves aren’t alone in choosing relievers lower on the pecking order for high leverage situations. Two days ago, Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) published a piece on ways to get more action in the game that opened by citing a situation where the Dodgers went to Scott Alexander and Dennis Santana instead of Blake Treinen or Victor Gonzalez.
"Why these two? Alexander and Santana had each received at least one day off before entering this game, while higher leverage relievers . . .had pitched the night prior."
Admittedly Alexander isn’t chopped liver, but the use of Dennis Santana (the Santana’s appear ubiquitous this year) and his 7.71 ERA at that time looks like things Braves fans see a lot this year.
Relieving more now and enjoying it less
BP used the Dodger example because it’s a high-profile team deep in pitching, and even though the plucky Giants lead the division, games with the Padres are important to LA. However, it’s clear teams are using lesser relievers and trying to squeeze the extra out from starters more often.
BP offers a nifty little chart, showing how teams increased back-to-back bullpen outings beginning in 2010 and kept them at near 17.5% through 2018, peaking just under 20% in 2016.
Since 2018, back-to-back usage fell sharply everywhere.
"Bullpen usage appears to have undergone a dramatic change, despite the excess of arms increasingly available . . . We’re using the bullpen more but using individual relievers less."
The “why” is pretty simple; with starting pitcher innings sinking like a rock – currently, 4 1/3 innings a game – bullpens have to pick up the slack. The relievers featured in these “OMG why him now” situations are fringe-arms at best, and relief pitchers at that end of the scale are inexpensive and expendable.
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On the other side of the coin, dependable high leverage arms are expensive and rare. If a team has these unicorns, they want to protect their investment.
A word about Luke
The change in the way relievers are used also explains why Luke Jackson remains on the roster. Say what you will about Luke — and I’ve said plenty — if you look in the dictionary next to rubber-arm, you’ll see his picture.
In his three full seasons since coming to the Atlanta Braves in 2017, Jackson’s 51.8% GB is 24th of 144 relievers with 120 innings pitched.
Snitker can pencil him in for 50+ innings a year. He rarely has a clean inning and always causes angst, but in today’s game, he is more valuable than we realize.
That’s a wrap
Snitker’s much-maligned bullpen management now is different from his much-maligned bullpen use in 2016 and 2017. Back then, he rode his horses every chance he got, and people screamed he was going to ruin their arms.
This season the cry is that we aren’t seeing them often enough, and when he does use one to get work — as he did with Martin on Sunday — fans scream about that. Martin needed to work on Sunday and would have pitched Tuesday had the vaccination not brought on fatigue.
[ed note: I can personally confirm that!]
Relief pitchers are still baseball’s most disposable player, but this statistics-driven change of tactics is a move designed to keep all pitchers healthy for 162 games, and keeping your employees healthy is always a good idea.