3 Reasons Why the Braves Bullpen Has Disappointed

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves
Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves / Matthew Grimes Jr./Atlanta Braves/GettyImages
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Coming into the 2023 season, the Atlanta Braves bullpen was projected to be among the best in baseball. In fact, the major league squad was supposed to be so good, that by ZiPS projections, the AAA Gwinnett Stripers were projected to have the 20th-best bullpen in the major leagues.

But a third of the way through the season, the Braves pen has been far from the best. From injuries to unexpected disappointments, there have been three things that have contributed to the team's struggles in relief.

1. Offseason trades haven't contributed

During the offseason, Alex Anthopoulos added three relievers via trade. Dennis Santana didn't make it through Spring Training before being claimed by the Minnesota Twins, and Joe Jiménez and Lucas Luetge have been disappointed.

Jiménez was acquired from the Tigers in exchange for Justyn-Henry Malloy and Jake Higginbotham and was seen as a middle-late inning reliever. With Detroit, Jiménez had a 3.49 ERA in 56.2 innings, but a 2.00 FIP, indicating the righty had gotten unlucky.

This year, Jiménez has a 4.42 ERA and a 4.65 FIP. While his strikeout rate has only decreased by four percentage points, his homer rate has almost tripled. Batters have hit the ball over five miles an hour harder as well while hitting it into the air more. Eric Cole covered the righty's first month with the club, as well as whether the trade was a mistake, last month.

But Jiménez has had more success than the final trade acquisition of the offseason, as Lucas Luetge was DFA'd prior to Tuesday's game against the Athletics.

The lefty was coming off two successful seasons with the Yankees and was a surprise DFA in New York. Anthopoulos swooped in and acquired the 34-year-old for two minor leaguers.

Across 129.2 innings in his two seasons with the Yankees, Luetge had a 2.71 ERA and a 2.92 FIP. In his 9.2 innings with the Braves, the lefty had a 10.24 ERA and a 6.08 FIP. Luetge, like Jiménez, got hit harder, but unlike Jiménez, saw a huge increase in walks, with his BB% nearly doubling to 11.8%.

2. Late-inning struggles

Blown saves are a flawed stat. This isn't a new revelation, as ESPN was writing about this back in 2011. Any time a late-inning lead is given up, the pitcher is hit with a blown save, and they aren't really indicative of losing.

However, just because the stat is flawed doesn't mean it's not frustrating to watch your favorite team lose a lead in the late innings. The 2023 Braves have been very good (or very bad?) at giving up leads, as they are tied for first (in a six-way tie!) in blown saves with 12. Three of those blown saves belong to A.J. Minter.

A.J. Minter had a 2.1 fWAR in 2022, his best season in the majors. Not only did he cut his walk rate from 9.0% to 5.5%, he also increased his strikeout rate from 25.8% to 34.7%.

This season, Minter has been able to maintain a relatively high strikeout rate and walk rate, but his 6.66 ERA is triple what it was in 2022.

So what's going on?

The lefty has only only stranded 50.3% of batters this season. Last season, he stranded 76.7%. Obviously, this is an indication he's getting unlucky in the BABIP department. Unfortunately, it's not all bad luck.

Minter is allowing far more line drives this year, with batters hitting liners 47.2% more often this year. In 2022, he only allowed liners 22% of the time, but this year, he's allowing liners 32.4% of the time.

Line drives will drop for hits more often than ground balls or flyballs, no matter how hard the ball is hit. It's why someone like Luis Arraez can bat .382 even though his hard hit rate is in the second percentile.

Unfortunately for the 29-year-old reliever, Minter is also allowing harder contact as well. Despite having a decent 3.01 FIP, the quality of contact he's allowed puts his xERA at 4.21.

Raisel Iglesias has also had his struggles in his 9.2 innings, as evidenced by his three-walk night against the Oakland Athletics, but he hasn't had nearly the sample size Minter has had.

3. Injuries

Of course, the reason the Braves closer hasn't pitched much is because he started the season on the IL. Iglesias's shoulder kept him away from the big league club until May 6, and unfortunately, he isn't the only reliever who's struggled with injury.

Including Iglesias, the Braves have sent Michael Tonkin, Dylan Lee, Collin McHugh, and Lucas Luetge to the IL. Luetge and Iglesias both missed over a month, while McHugh missed nearly 20 days. Both Lee and Tonkin are still currently on the IL.

These injuries have forced pitchers like Jesse Chavez (who's still a magician) and Kirby Yates into later-inning roles, and increased workloads. The Braves have thankfully had the depth to manage these injuries, with Danny Young and Dereck Rodríguez being the only relievers outside the preseason ZiPS top-10 relievers on the team to make appearances.

The bullpen actually hasn't been as bad as you think

The Braves don't have the best bullpen in baseball, but they certainly don't have the worst. In fact, by fWAR, the Braves have the 8th best bullpen in the major leagues, contributing 2.0 fWAR in 200.2 innings. Three teams ahead of the Braves by fWAR, the Rockies, Yankees, and Reds, have pitched at least two full games more than than Atlanta.

If you aren't a fan of fWAR, the Braves have a middle-of-the-pack bullpen ERA, coming in at 15th with a 4.04 ERA. Not good, of course, but it's better than several other teams with playoff aspirations, including the Diamondbacks, Brewers, Mets, Rays, Rangers, and Dodgers.

As agonizing and disappointing as it may be some nights, the Braves have had several relievers step up, like Jesse Chavez, when other pitchers were struggling.

Additionally, when you weigh the team's ERA against the team's FIP, it's likely that the team has been slightly unlucky. The team actually has the sixth-best FIP among major league bullpens.

Minter, the reliever who has struggled the most, looks to be turning a corner as well, as the lefty hasn't allowed a base runner in his last three appearances coming into Friday's game against the Diamondbacks.

Additionally, the Braves won six of the 12 games where there was a blown save, meaning that if the Braves blew a late lead this season, there was a 50% chance the team would come back and win.

While this bullpen has certainly fallen far short of the sky-high expectations before the season began, it is nowhere as bad as the 2019 Braves, who, at this point in the season, had a -0.2 fWAR and had guys like Jesse Biddle, Chad Sobotka, and Dan Winkler getting significant innings.

There's still a chance Anthopoulos improves the bullpen this trade deadline (he usually does), but the pen is likely to be better than it has been to start the season.