Atlanta Braves Bullpen Off to Surprising Start

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DENVER, CO - APRIL 08: Pitcher Sam Freeman #39 of the Atlanta Braves throws in the eighth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on April 8, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

With a win over the Colorado Rockies Sunday, the Atlanta Braves have begun the 2018 season with three straight series victories. That streak is in jeopardy after dropping the opener of a three-game series against the Washington Nationals, but there’s no denying Atlanta is off to a surprising start.

While the offense has received a lot of attention (and rightfully so), one of the key pieces of the team to this point has been the bullpen. Plagued by a 4.58 bullpen ERA in 2017, the Braves appear to have righted the ship with a solid core of relievers. The Braves bullpen currently boasts a 1.33 ERA, good for third in all of MLB. This group has been especially important as Atlanta’s starters look to find consistency. This article will look at some of the top contributors and whether or not they can continue this strong run.

Atlanta Braves Bullpen Off to Surprising Start

Shane Carle

Carle has been possibly the biggest surprise for Atlanta, other than INF Ryan Flaherty‘s scorching start at the plate. He has been called on consistently to begin the season and currently leads Braves relievers in innings pitched with 7.2. Carle has been mostly fantastic in his outings, with just one earned run, five hits, and a lone walk while recording five strikeouts. Additionally, Carle has notched more than an inning of work in three of his four appearances.

The big question for Carle is determining whether or not he can sustain some success over the course of the season. Tommy Poe over at Walk-Off Walk did a fantastic job breaking down Carle’s multi-inning performance against the Nationals, and Statcast offered some promising signs from that appearance. Carle’s mid-90s fastball should earn him more calls out of the pen for the foreseeable future, as long as he maintains his accuracy.

Dan Winkler

Few people outside of Atlanta have likely heard of Winkler, but he could be on the brink of a huge breakout season. Winkler debuted with two games in 2015 for Atlanta with lackluster results. He gave up two home runs that hurt his numbers, but he started off strong in 2016. With three scoreless outings and four strikeouts, along with many bewildered swings from opposing batters, Winkler looked like a key member of the bullpen. Unfortunately, an elbow injury derailed his season and forced him out until late 2017.

Winkler once again showed promising results at the end of last season, and his start to 2018 has many fans excited about what he can accomplish. Through five appearances, Winkler has yielded only one unearned run while being mostly unhittable. He has surrendered three hits and just one walk while striking out eight in 5.1 innings pitched. For his short career, Winkler has a 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings ratio and is living up to that this season. The key for Winkler will be staying healthy and keeping his walk rate low, but he is definitely a key factor in Atlanta’s bullpen plans.

Sam Freeman

Freeman is a 30-year old journeyman reliever who found a home with the Braves in 2017. He posted career-high marks in appearances (58) and innings pitched (60.0) last season while striking out 59 batters and proving to be effective. So far his 2018 has been more of the same.

Freeman currently leads all Braves pitchers in appearances with seven. He is also tied with Winkler for the second-most innings by a reliever with 5.1. Freeman does not have the same sort of gaudy strikeout numbers that other relievers possess, but he has nonetheless been effective. He is also one of the more versatile members of Atlanta’s bullpen. Freeman has four strikeouts and has yielded just two hits, all while serving as a lefty specialist and multi-inning reliever. He has three appearances already this season that lasted one batter, but Freeman also has two outings lasting more than an inning. Regardless of his usage, Freeman is a solid reliever who can be used in a variety of ways for the Braves.

Other Notables

Arodys Vizcaino, Atlanta’s closer, is 1-1 with a 1.93 ERA and eight strikeouts to his credit. Peter Moylan has yet to be charged with an earned run while recording six strikeouts over six appearances. Youngster A.J. Minter has made it through four scoreless innings, despite not recording a strikeout to date. This will likely change quickly as Minter has maintained above average strikeout numbers at nearly every level. He did have 26 strikeouts over 15 innings pitched with Atlanta in 2017.

Outlook

One area of concern that could doom the Braves bullpen if left unchecked is walks. Despite the sparkling ERA, the Braves bullpen currently has the worst walk rate in all of MLB (6.64 walks per nine innings). Vizcaino, Moylan, Minter, and Jose Ramirez have already accumulated 18 walks combined over the short season. Walking batters, especially out of the bullpen and late in games, can doom a team in a hurry. In fact, it was late walks by Vizcaino that doomed the Braves in Saturday’s loss to Colorado. The Braves bullpen definitely has strong, core pieces that are performing well, but it will be tough for the group to maintain this strong run if the walks are not controlled.

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