Late-inning decisions have enhanced the difficulty of managing Atlanta’s bullpen
Managing the current Braves’ bullpen seems to equate to attempting to consistently win Blacjack hands that consist of nothing but 7s and 8s. You might occasionally prove fortunate when holding at 16. But far too often, you’ll find yourself gambling on whether to hit on 14 or 15.
With this being said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has recently made some late-inning decisions that have simply enhanced the difficulty of managing this weak bullpen. The degree of difficulty has been enhance by some sub-par outings from starting pitchers. But the Braves also managed to lose Julio Teheran’s two most recent starts, arguably his two most impressive of the season.
We won’t delve into the decision to bring Donnie Veal into a Major League game, let alone a high-leverage situation, because the Braves ended up winning after he squandered a lead in San Francisco on May 31. But here’s look at some other recent late-inning decisions.
June 2: Instead of allowing Shelby Miller a chance to record the fifth inning’s final two outs with his pitch count at 100, Gonzalez called upon Cody Martin, who promptly retired the only two batters he faced. Then after the Braves produced a five-run sixth to claim a 6-4 lead, Gonzalez pinch hit for Martin with runners at second and third and two outs.
It’s understandable that you want to take advantage of the scoring opportunity and you don’t necessarily have a lot of faith in Martin, who had just been recalled from Gwinnett the previous day. But when working with a thin bullpen, do you really want to begin thinning it even further in the sixth inning?
Maybe Martin would have created the same damage that was incurred by Nick Masset and Brandon Cunniff, who combined to allow three runs before the conclusion of the seventh inning of that night’s loss. But given what exists in Atlanta’s pen, I’m not sure it is wise to begin eliminating options in the sixth inning.
June 3: Having already seen their four-run, fourth-inning lead shrink to two runs, the Braves removed Mike Foltynewicz with two outs in the sixth and then watched southpaw Luis Avilan retire left-handed hitter Ender Inciarte to end the inning. Left-handers have slashed .318/.348/.386 and right-handers have slashed .152/.235/.283 against Avilan.
But despite the fact that Avilan’s spot didn’t come up in the top of the seventh, he did not go back to the mound in the bottom half of the inning, when Arizona was due to send three right-handed sluggers — A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt and Yasmany Tomas — to the plate. Instead, Martin drew the assignment and promptly allowed two hits before handing the ball to Jim Johnson, who extended his recent woes in that day’s loss.
June 5 After Williams Perez lasted just five innings against the Pirates, Cunniff retired the first two batters he faced in the sixth and then handed the ball to Avilan because well you know despite what the stats say, you have to create lefty-on-lefty matchups. After once again thinning his bullpen in the sixth inning of a tied game, the Braves then watched Avilan walk left-handed hitter Gregory Polanco before allowing Starling Marte’s two-run homer.
Left-handed hitters have slashed .357/.419/.500 against Cunniff. But with two outs and none on in the sixth, it might have been wise to at least give him a chance to retire Polanco. If for no other reason, this might have allowed the Braves to avoid a two-inning appearance from Trevor Cahill, who allowed five hits and three runs in the eighth inning of that 10-8 loss to Pittsburgh.
June 6 and 11 Julio Teheran’s past two starts have been more impressive than any others he has completed this season. Yet, he has two no-decisions to show for his effort because of his inability to get through the eighth inning in a clean manner. Teheran allowed two straight one-out singles in the eighth inning of Saturday’s win over the Pirates and then watched Jim Johnson allow the two runners he inherited to score on a game-tying, two-run single.
Then on Thursday, Teheran limited the Padres to one run through seven innings before surrendering two hits and issuing a walk before exiting the eighth inning with the bases loaded.
The Braves then proceeded to go through four relievers to complete San Diego’s game-tying, three-run eighth inning, which was marred by a couple defensive blunders committed by Christian Bethancourt. This parade of relievers began with the entrance of left-hander Dana Eveland, who had been called up earlier in the day and had not pitched in the Majors since last season.
As soon as Eveland entered the game, the Padres popped Justin Upton off the bench. The Braves obviously knew Upton was available to pinch hit and would be used in this situation. But they stuck with Eveland, who threw one pitch that eluded Bethancourt and three others that missed the strike zone in the process of walking Upton.
Complicating matters on Thursday was the fact that Jim Johnson was unavailable because he had pitched each of the previous three days. So, maybe this was an instance where you were going to get burned any way you turned after giving this Atlanta bullpen the challenge of protecting a three-run lead with the bases loaded and none out in the eighth.
Gonzalez does not deserve to be blamed for all that has transpired as his bullpen has recently made a habit of squandering late-inning leads. He did not leave J.R. Graham unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft and he didn’t decide to deal David Hale for two catchers, who at this point have to be deemed disappointments. Nor did he give Arodys Vizcaino or Andrew McKirahan the performance-enhancing substances that led to their respective 80-game suspensions.
Gonzalez certainly wasn’t dealt a good hand with this year’s bullpen. But as things have gone bust far too often recently, you have to question the timing of when he has opted to hit on 16.