Last year, the Braves’ bullpen was an unmitigated disaster, so much so that they traded a great catching prospect named Max Ramirez to Cleveland for aging stopper Bob Wickman. This year, after several more trades that netted them Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, the Braves have been among the best. Here’s where we stand so far:
That list is sorted by the theoretical ideal usage pattern (tG/T), measured by the pitcher’s leverage-neutral contribution to the team thus far. In other words, it measures who should be used in the most crucial situations, and at what rate. I’ve gone through this before, and I’ll explain it a little more as I go down the list.
A tG/T of 1.66, in the case of Rafael Soriano, means that he should be used, on average, in situations that are 66% more crucial than the average game situation. His actual usage in situations of 1.52 times the team average (G/T) yields a usage rating (that’s what I’m calling it, at least) of +0.14, meaning that he’s been slightly under-utilized. I want to be careful to note that this doesn’t mean he’s been under-worked, because he certainly has not. He just hasn’t appeared in the most crucial situations.
Strictly looking at WPA, Soriano is the team’s leader by far at +2.465, making him worth almost five wins above average after just over a third of the season. Even after you take out the effects of leverage, his WPA/LI is +1.216, second on the staff to Tim Hudson and still leading the relievers by a large margin.
A look at the more traditional numbers also supports his success. His 2.25 ERA currently leads the staff, and he’s doing so by allowing very few hits (3.54 per 9 IP) and not many walks (1.93) while striking batters out at a decent rate (8.36). He’s been a tad lucky, though, because he has significant fly ball tendencies (54% of all batted balls) and only 5.4% of them have been home runs, about half the usual rate. Still, even an unlucky Soriano is probably a good reliever, and he’s been the best on the staff so far. The Braves can’t possibly regret dumping Horacio Ramirez for him.
Yates has been a pleasant surprise, this year, although his ERA+ of 112 a year ago showed that he might be a solid reliever in the future. His 3.45 ERA is only average on the Braves’ staff, but Yates is third on the active relief corps in WPA and second in WPA/LI. To his credit, Bobby Cox has seen Yates’ improvement and given him an increased role, as shown by his usage rating of +0.10 (very close to zero).
Yates has shown slight fly ball tendencies, and like Soriano, he’s been somewhat lucky that more of them haven’t left the ballpark. Only 3% of Yates’ flies have been home runs, and that will eventually cause him to regress a bit. Still, he’s striking out more than a batter an inning, with a K/BB ratio over 2 and a fairly low hit rate (6.59 per 9 IP), which all point toward future success.
I considered Gonzalez the Braves’ best reliever after he came over from the Pirates, and he didn’t disappoint me before he got hurt. Now, he’s out until at least June 2008. With a microscopic 1.06 ERA, he was simply dominating hitters. His WHIP was a bit high at 1.35, and his command (1.63 K/BB ratio) wasn’t good enough for him to continue that success over the course of the season, but he was still very good.
Wickman still closes games for the Braves, but he’s probably only the third-best reliever on the staff, not counting Gonzalez. That’s not necessarily bad, since a 3-run game in the ninth is technically a “save situation” but not close enough to really warrant bringing in your best reliever. That effect still isn’t enough, though, to keep Wickman’s usage patterns more in line with his ability, which at this point is probably best described as “erratic but still somehow able to usually shut the door.” His usage rating of -0.39 shows that his reputation is causing him to be used in more crucial situations than his talent warrants.
All but three of Wickman’s outings could be considered effective from the standpoint that he added to the team’s win probability, and he has only allowed runs in three appearances (not the same three, actually). Interestingly, he has a +.261 WPA and a +.269 WPA/LI, indicating an almost negligible clutch effect, which is strange for a team’s ace reliever. With a pLI of almost twice the average, the only good explanation is that Wickman has been generally good – great, really – except for two meltdowns in big situations.
Wickman has a great ERA of 2.53, but his WHIP of 1.36 shows that he’s been pitching in and out of trouble, just as Mike Gonzalez was doing. His strikeout rate of 5.91 per 9 IP is not up to reliever standards, and his command has been barely average at 1.27 K/BB. A decent hit rate, and (again) some fly ball luck (3.4% of flies are leaving the park) have contributed to his success. I’m not sure Wickman is on his last legs yet, but it’s clear he should no longer be the go-to guy.
Moylan looked overmatched during his time with the Braves last season, and I feared more of the same with his call-up this year. So far, he has taken his talent about as far as humanly possible, posting the second-highest WPA on the pitching staff (+.927) with an enormous +.770 clutch rating contributing to most of his success. His usage rate is off somewhat because of Bobby Cox’s rational decision not to use him in the most crucial situations. He has been used mostly in long relief, which has raised his pLI somewhat closer to the average than it might otherwise be. While his usage rate makes his high clutch rating thus far exceedingly impressive, it is likely not sustainable.
I’m still not high on Moylan because his command has actually declined this year. He’s striking out fewer batters than last year (4.86 per 9 IP, which is anemic for a reliever) with no real change in walks. Inexplicably, his hit rate has fallen dramatically, and his batted ball stats (very high ground ball rate and low line drive rate) make him look like the April version of Tim Hudson. Independent of his defense, both his FIP of 4.37 and xFIP of 4.16 suggest some regression over the course of the season. Either there’s something in his sidearm/submarine delivery that’s somehow only now baffling major league hitters, or there’s something these stats aren’t picking up, and I’m not sure what it could be. Let’s hope it’s the latter, because he’s a great value for the Braves the way he’s been performing.
Villarreal was effective but overworked as a rookie for the D-Backs in 2003, and then he missed most of the next two seasons due to related injuries. After coming to the Braves in 2006, he was again effective but overworked, albeit as a slightly different pitcher. Both his walk and strikeout rates had declined from his previous work in Arizona, but now in 2007, they are back to their previous levels. At this point, I honestly don’t know what to expect. It looks like he gets hit a little too hard to be a great pitcher, and his command is only decent, but he has gotten the job done for the most part.
This year, Villarreal has a scary 25% line drive rate while doing a decent job striking people out. His walk rate is back up, and I’m hoping that’s only because of increased confidence after a year removed from injuries. His 1.53 WHIP is pretty scary, and that’s probably the reason he’s sitting at -.398 in WPA right now (with a negligible clutch rating). Again, I don’t really know much, because Villarreal is kind of a confusing case. I doubt he’d be effective as a starting pitcher (no more so than Cormier, at least), and I doubt his stamina on top of that, but he’s been mostly effective as a long relief, mop-up type guy.
Cox seems to have Oscar pegged pretty well in his current role, as his +0.09 usage rating suggests. His role is very similar to Pete Moylan’s, even though Moylan has been more effective. Villarreal, on the other hand, is more of a proven pitcher, even though he’s still just 25. I think he’ll be fine to stay in this role for the near future.
After the departure of Kevin Gryboski, Paronto became Bobby Cox’s go-to guy for a tough double-play chance in the later innings of a game; never mind that he’s a mostly neutral pitcher in terms of batted balls. With that in mind, his clutch rating has been good this year (+.488), but from a neutral standpoint he’s been awful (-.559, for a WPA of -.071).
He has pretty much stopped striking guys out, which is often a sign that a pitcher has lost something. With no major change in his walk rate, that might be the case here. His usage hasn’t been far out of line, though, so I guess that’s a good thing if they’re not going to pull the plug on him.
McBride has been turned from a solid minor league starting prospect into a LOOGY in a fairly short period of time. He hasn’t been particularly successful in his relief role, as he has walked batters in droves while maintaining less-than-spectacular hit and strikeout rates. His ERA of 4.76 may actually be on the lucky side based on his performance thus far. Still, his WPA/LI basically has him treading water at -0.032, he has a positive clutch rating and WPA overall, and I think he has more upside than some of the Braves’ other relievers, though that is fading fast. His usage pattern is fairly consistent with what you would expect out of a LOOGY.
Boyer seems to have recovered from his injuries, and hopefully he’ll be another solid arm in the bullpen over time. I’m not really high on his long-term potential, but he had a good year in 2005 before getting hurt last year, and he’s been decent in four appearances so far this year.
Colyer is like a poor man’s McBride as far as LOOGYs (LOOGies?) go, with an exceptionally high walk rate keeping him from having much success. I don’t expect to see much of him this year, or in the future.
Kevin Barry made a couple of appearances earlier in the year, but he’s pretty much a non-prospect even though he’s been pitching decently in AAA Richmond.
Buddy Hernandez, Jeff Bennett, and Manny Acosta have kept up ERAs close to 2.00 in Richmond, but all are on the older side to be considered great prospects. They’re probably on the short list for a bullpen callup.
Will Startup has shown great command in basically two full seasons in the minors. The former closer at UGA has pretty good potential as a reliever, showing excellent command and an ability to keep people off the basepaths consistently. For what it’s worth, the Braves also took Josh Fields, his successor at Georgia, in the second round of this year’s draft.
Joey Devine has been impressive as the Mississippi closer, but I wish the Braves would take their time with him. He was clearly rushed to the big leagues in ’05 and has been recovering ever since.
Jose Ascanio has also been solid in Mississippi, sporting a 2.92 ERA. Michael Nix and Zach Schreiber have been good there as well, showing the Braves’ bullpen depth throughout the farm system.
Beau Jones was having a solid year in Rome before his call-up to Myrtle Beach, where he has been horrific. That ERA of 2.88 in low-A might be just a distant memory, but keep in mind he’s only 20.
Cory Gearrin was the Braves’ selection in the fourth round of this year’s draft out of Mercer. MLB.com profiles him as a setup guy or middle reliever down the line.