Player Profiles 2020: Atlanta Braves Bullpen

Justin Wick breaks down the Atlanta Braves bullpen for the 2020 season.

The 2019 trade deadline brought new, dominant faces into the right-field bullpen at SunTrust Park, and the ensuing offseason has furthered the Atlanta Braves reliever core as one ready for modern October baseball.

Atlanta relievers had a 4.19 regular season ERA last year, good enough for an MLB 10th best, but with so many key pieces added right at last year’s trade deadline, the season statistics paint an incomplete picture for what this entire cast of characters can do over a whole season. Four of their current relievers have closer experience, and two of their four highest-paid players come out of the bullpen.

Right-handers Mark Melancon and Shane Greene will be there from the get-go this upcoming year, after being picked up in late July of last year from San Francisco and Detroit, respectively. Left-hander Will Smith finished 2019 in San Francisco and will join former Giants teammate Melancon, this time on the east side of the National League. Luke Jackson spent time as the closer prior to the series of sizable acquisitions, a sign that much has changed for this relieving core in mere months. The loss of starter Dallas Keuchel could mean more work for this relief core, but the acquisition of Cole Hamels quiets that notion, too.

Trade deadline deals crafted a postseason-ready bullpen last year, but the Atlanta Braves relief team this year looks even more prepared, this time starting on Opening Day.

 

Braves Projected Bullpen

 

CloserMark Melancon

 

Melancon was a marquee addition to the Braves bullpen at the 2019 trade deadline, and has already solidified himself as the Atlanta closer after being called upon last season. He’s yet to match his peak save totals in San Francisco, but his inning total in 2019 rivaled that of his higher season workloads.

He only recorded 12 saves in 2019, but even at age 34, the right-hander is still called upon as a go-to arm, posting a 3.61 ERA over 67.1 innings last season. Despite a blown save in Game 1 of the NLDS last year, he went on to collect two saves in each of Atlanta’s postseason wins.

His pitches continue to feature impressive metrics, his average fastball velocity down just one mph from his career average of 93.5 since 2009. Some serious 12-6 drop on his go-to breaking ball has given hitters fits over the years, and 2019 was no different on many accounts.

One such facet that reasons Melancon a continued threat is his pitch selection, changing dramatically over his 11-year career. It’s safe to say he’s the same beast, but a different animal that has grown hard to predict, year after year. Fastball usage that started at 75% in 2011 has dropped to 12.6% last year. He threw a FanGraphs-defined cutter 53.7% of the time last season; that pitch was at 17.6% nine years ago.

The “bite” on his breaking pitches alone may not be as serious as it once was, as his Hard Hit percentage jumped 13 percent from 2016 to 2019. With this jump also came his lowest opposing launch angle average in five years too, which could at least reason how his 3.61 ERA in 2019 shares a 2.86 FIP when low angled hits are factored out. It could be the breaking ball bite that makes it so hard to put the ball in the air off him, and it can definitely limit offensive damage when he’s called upon late in games; he gave up around one home run every 18 innings last season.

 

SetupWill Smith

 

30-year-old Will Smith left San Francisco for Atlanta just a few months after Melancon did the same. Smith picked up 34 saves last season, and a dominant left-handed reliever like him is an option that manager Brian Snitker is likely thrilled about. Smith was an All-Star last year and is coming off consecutive seasons with his ERA in the twos. If Melancon is unavailable for the save for whatever reason, Atlanta basically has another closer waiting—so much so that if he were actually named the closer this year, many may be unsurprised.

Smith pitches out of a higher three-quarter lefty slot and manages to get lots of horizontal run on sliders. Left-handed hitters may be tempted to swing at sliders in the other batters box, and right-handed bats could presumably swing at pitches that might hit them. His low-to-mid-90s fastball doesn’t get a lot of swinging strikes, but his low-80s slider has an enormous chase rate and acts as his serious weapon. The fastball makes the slider look better, too, and both pitches were thrown almost equally last year. He mixes in an occasional curveball based on FanGraphs data as well, about 13% of the time.

Tommy John surgery was Smith’s fate at the end of 2017 Spring Training, missing the entire season. He still managed to throw over 50 innings the year after his rehab, and his ERA, FIP, and strikeouts to walks have been better post-surgery than they were for his career pre-surgery. An operation well done, Dr. Neil ElAttrache.

 

SetupShane Greene

 

31-year-old Shane Greene was an acquisition near the trade deadline last year like Melancon, as Atlanta looked to bolster their bullpen in the months leading up to the 2019 postseason. Greene donned a Detroit Tigers uniform from 2015 to 2019, with a career-high 32 saves in 2018 (Greene recorded a save in half the Tigers’ wins that year). A 1.18 season ERA in Detroit prior to his trade deadline deal reasoned Atlanta high-spirited on his 2019 use down the stretch.

Greene was also the closer in Atlanta after he was dealt from Detroit but quickly lost the job within the first ten days after allowing seven earned runs over his first 4.1 innings. 

He has two- and four-seamers, a slider, and a cutter. His slider often buckles lefties, and his cutter ties up many batters. His slider is about 12 mph slower than his two fastballs, and a low-to-mid-90s two-seam could be called a breaking ball in itself; the right-hander can get some serious arm side run that can turn a ball on the chalk into a ball over the plate.

It’s easy to see how save opportunities could be limited to Melancon and then Smith if needed, but if Greene is able to continue what he did in Detroit most of last year, he could quite possibly be one of the better setup guys in the league—and potentially an option for saves if needed.

 

Middle Luke Jackson

 

27-year-old Luke Jackson was also given save opportunities in 2019 prior to the addition of Melancon and Greene, collecting 18 saves over 72.2 innings pitched. His most used pitch is his slider, and 2019 was the first year he threw it more than his fastball.

2019 was Jackson’s fifth year in the big leagues, but his first in which he threw fastballs less than 40% of the time. His curveball usage diminished from 26.4% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2019; it comes with good reason to suggest the trend has been due to an improved and reshaped slider.

His 3.24 FIP and 2.52 xFIP last year reason him worthy of attention, even more than his 3.84 ERA in 2019 would suggest. Pair it with a fastball in the mid-to-high 90s and over 13 strikeouts per nine innings in 2019, and Jackson is hardly your average middle reliever. Hard-throwing, high-strikeout relievers continue their proven success in present-day baseball, and Jackson fits the bill. Last season was his first full professional season without spending any time in the minor leagues.

His career-high 18 saves in 2019 is far from the 40 and 50 per year of peak Melancon, but Jackson could be classified as the fourth reliever in the bullpen with closer experience.

 

Middle – Darren O’Day

 

A surplus of closer experience among his teammates and a new three-batter minimum could be what makes Darren O’Day a middle reliever, but his deceptive arm action makes him a versatile piece that could be managed about as unconventionally as his throwing style. You could put him in to pitch virtually anywhere: against a hot hitter that needs to see something different, for a whole inning to set up toward a lefty Smith and righty Melancon, or for situational matchups in the presumed final out in an inning, to work around the three-batter limit.

O’Day flicks frisbees up there. He sees glove-side run on his slider right around 80 mph, paired with four-seamers and sinkers right around 87. Sometimes his four-seamer takes off with arm-side run, sort of like his slider does to his glove side. Sometimes his sinker looks like this earthworm dropping out from the mound. No matter the pitch, his delivery is weird by conventional standards, and manager Brian Snitker must be licking his chops knowing he’s got a guy that can really mix things up. He threw only 5.1 innings in 2019 due to ongoing forearm issues but pitched an ERA in the mid-threes from 2016 to 2018. Add on top of that his 11-plus years of MLB service time, and he certainly earns the title of an established veteran like other recent acquisitions.

 

Middle Chris Martin

 

Chris Martin came to Atlanta by way of the Texas Rangers last season, another character in a series of July pickups. His right arm racked up 55.2 innings between the two teams last year, sporting a 3.40 ERA and 3.25 FIP while he was at it. About half his pitches are four-seamers, a pitch that can show some tail away from left-handed bats. A downward-action curveball, low-90s cutter, and a reasonably heavy changeup go to work for him, but no pitch other than his fastball was thrown over 20 percent of the time last year.

Luke Jackson made a big switch to a more frequently used slider, while Martin stays true to a fastball that he heavily establishes—it isn’t to say either approach is less advantageous, but it certainly makes the preference of each interesting, and it makes the two right-handers different in their own ways.

 

Middle Grant Dayton

 

Grant Dayton’s rotation looks Madison Bumgarner-esque. This left-hander throws from a three-quarter slot, and he generates torque through some specific rotation that, rotationally, looks more side-to-side than others.

Such deception can prove versatile, as Dayton kept hitters to a 3.00 ERA last season. His FIP showed some tremendous discrepancies at 6.21, however. Three home runs per nine innings can do that, but with only 12 big league innings last year, the sample size is limited. 

Left-handed relievers can sometimes be at a premium, but maybe not as much as people think after the Astros didn’t have one on their World Series roster last year. Necessity or not, a left-handed reliever with different rotation could prove advantageous. Dayton could complement the more over-the-top deliveries of certain Braves relievers, as well as even the sidearm slot O’Day pitches from.

Dayton underwent Tommy John Surgery in August of 2017 and missed all of 2018 because of it. He’s thrown 62 career MLB innings, only 12 of which have come after the incision. He won’t have the immediacy of elbow thoughts in his mind quite like last year (assuming all stays healthy), and Atlanta has reason to be optimistic because of it.

 

Watch List 

 

Touki Toussaint, Jeremy Walker

 

When your team signs an abundance of relievers at the trade deadline, the existing relievers see their opportunities grow limited from August onward. The Braves have still retained a couple of young arms despite extensive trades for pitching, and those young guys reason to be ones to watch in the upcoming year.

Touki Toussaint is a 23-year-old right-hander that posted 41.2 MLB innings last year. He didn’t appear in a big-league outing after July 18th, as room was made in the bullpen for Melancon, Greene, and Martin. His pitch sequences feature a four-seamer and sinker around 93, and a mid-70s curveball with drop and slight glove-side break to go with it.

24-year-old Jeremy Walker appeared in six games for Atlanta, throwing 9.1 innings. His MLB debut came on July 26, appearing in three games between then and July 29, and then appearing three times over the next two months. Walker throws from a very-much three-quarter arm slot from the right side, throwing what FanGraphs labels as sinkers and cutters over 95% of the time. He’s got a quick, rotational motion bearing vague resemblance to Grant Dayton’s rotation. Walker serves as a young option Atlanta could potentially turn to amidst a collection of other established relievers.

Photo by Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

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