How Should Atlanta Manage Its Pitchers?

Last night, the Astros got to Max Fried early, scoring five runs in the first two innings on their way to a 7-2 rout. It was a mirror of the first game of the series — and it was also a window into how Brian Snitker plans on managing his pitching staff for the series’ remaining games. With Charlie Morton out until next year, the Braves will be stitching together innings the rest of the way. That plan started last night.

The first part of the plan: Max Fried took one for the team Wednesday night. Yanking your struggling pitcher early is common in the playoffs — Dusty Baker did it to Framber Valdez two days ago — but Snitker let Fried work through his issues and eat innings at the same time. He threw 86 pitches and completed five innings, saving wear and tear on the bullpen even though Atlanta was unlikely to win the game in any case. That makes Fried less likely to come back on short rest — though he didn’t rule it out — but it gave key bullpen arms like A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek the night off. Matzek had appeared in 10 of the team’s first 11 playoff games; giving him a rest was a prudent decision.

The next step: use the middle and bottom of the bullpen when you can. Dylan Lee, Jesse Chavez, Drew Smyly, and Kyle Wright handled the rest of the game last night, and acquitted themselves fairly well (three innings, five strikeouts, one run). Those aren’t the top names in their relief corps, but they’ll be important during the three-game stretch in Atlanta starting this Friday.

By way of contrast, consider the relievers the Braves used in Game 1. After Morton departed, Minter threw a whopping 43 pitches — his highest total of the year by far. Matzek, Luke Jackson, and Will Smith, the team’s other best relievers, handled the last four innings of the game. Four relievers, 20 outs — it’s a daunting task, though one they handled with aplomb.

These two games weren’t independent of one another. Snitker could use the best parts of his bullpen in Game 1 because Fried was going the next day, capable of absorbing innings even if not at his best. Using a motley crew of relievers to back Fried was largely dictated by the score — I’m sure Smith, Matzek, and Jackson would have pitched if the Braves had the lead — but avoiding a super-quick hook on Fried was likely partially motivated by how hard the bullpen had worked the day before.

The real test begins tomorrow, when Ian Anderson is slated to start Game 3. So far, he hasn’t provided great length — he’s averaged four innings in his three playoff starts. Normally, that isn’t a problem — as we saw when Morton departed, the top names in Atlanta’s ‘pen are capable of getting length. In NLCS Game 2, Anderson completed only three innings, and a parade of seven relievers held the line. In Game 6, Snitker went with his best four — two innings from Matzek and Minter, a three-batters-no-outs debacle from Jackson, and the last inning from Smith — to close out the Dodgers.

This time, it would behoove Snitker to squeeze a few more outs out of Anderson. He faced 15 and 16 batters in those two NLCS starts. If the game state allows it, I think the Braves will try for more than that. The bottom of the Astros lineup goes from threatening to “who’s that?” pretty quickly — AL batting champion Yuli Gurriel bats seventh, and then Jose Siri and Martín Maldonado follow. If Anderson can get to that part of the order, the Braves shouldn’t spend valuable relief arms getting them out.

After that, I think Atlanta should run an interesting gambit. Anderson’s sterling changeup gives him muted platoon splits — he’s been better against lefties so far in his career, and regressing those numbers based on batters faced pegs him as roughly even against both sides. Given that, I’d let him brave the top of the Astros’ lineup a third time until he gets in trouble. That means bringing the go-ahead run to the plate if the Braves are ahead, or putting men on base if they’re behind.

Why do this? Because there’s no obvious spot to attack the Houston lineup with a reliever. That aforementioned righty/lefty stack means that any reliever you bring in will have two good matchups and one tough one. Could you bring in a lefty to deal with Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez, or Alvarez and Kyle Tucker? Sure! But you could also bring in a tough righty to handle Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, or Correa and Gurriel. Because Houston’s best hitters are so universally good and alternate right/left, I don’t mind letting Andreson go without a pre-planned hook, rather than scripting a batter to be the last he faces.

That changes if the Braves are getting blown out — at that point, Snitker will likely give him 90 pitches and let the bottom of the bullpen wear the rest of the game. That’s because the true challenge starts Saturday: two straight bullpen games, with Morton’s spot on the roster replaced by swingman Tucker Davidson, who has largely been a starter in the minors but who surely won’t be called upon in that role here.

That sounds hard, but if you take it sequentially, you can see a path for the Braves that affords them a good shot to win in each game. The Atlanta bullpen might have a clear separation between top relievers and other guys, but it also has an edge: a bevy of multi-inning arms, many starters by trade, ready to step into the breach.

Against the Dodgers, the Braves bullpenned a game, and they used the exact formula I’d favor here. They started with a capable one-inning reliever — Chavez in this case — who took on the teeth of the opposing lineup. From there, they went to Smyly for bulk before turning the game over to the big guns for the last four innings.

I like everything about that plan. Using Chavez (or Chris Martin) to start the game shields Smyly from facing some of the most dangerous Astros hitters more than once. Get three innings out of your bulk guy, and the rest of the game feels manageable.

Three things could change this plan. First, if the Braves used their top four arms extensively the night before backing Anderson, they might prefer to give them a light day, setting them up to put in hard work again in the third of the three-game set. That might mean more of Lee, Davidson, and Martin in late innings.

Second, if the game isn’t close (in either direction), I’d probably use the mop-up crew regardless of what happened the night before. If Atlanta is down 5-0 after two, why throw good money after bad by burning your best arms the day before another bullpen game? That’s particularly true if the previous night’s contest was close, but it’s true either way. Let’s say Atlanta is down 2-1 in the series and 5-0 in the game. Is using Matzek to keep it a five-run contest while hoping for some runs worth not having at his best the next day in a do-or-die contest? I don’t think Snitker can afford that tradeoff.

Similarly, if Atlanta jumps out to a large early lead, I’d let the bottom of the bullpen pitch until the game got close. That sounds like courting disaster, and it is, but here’s a sneaky secret about baseball: bad pitchers are good too. Davidson couldn’t even crack the World Series roster before Morton’s injury, and he had a forgettable four-game stint on the big league club this year. Also — he threw 20 innings, and 16 of them were scoreless. Middling pitchers shut out major league lineups all the time. I’m not saying that’s likely, but if a four-run lead turns into a two-run lead in short order, you can always bring in the heavy artillery and still feel good about winning the game.

A third possible complication: what if Smyly isn’t ready to provide bulk after throwing 22 pitches last night? Luckily, Wright is a perfectly good replacement. He threw only 12 pitches last night, and while he didn’t feature much in Atlanta’s major league plans this year, he threw 137 innings over 24 starts in Triple-A and was quite effective — 3.02 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 24% strikeout rate. Triple-A isn’t the Astros, but he’s certainly not chopped liver. I can think of worse arms to give me 60 pitches in a World Series game.

The second bullpen game — Game 5 of the World Series — will depend in large part on what happened before. Whichever bulk reliever didn’t go the previous night will be available. If the Minter/Matzek/Jackson/Smith group got the previous night off, they’ll all be available for big chunks of time. If they were used lightly and had Friday off (due to either an Anderson gem or a blowout one way or the other), they’re probably still available. If they pitched both Friday and Saturday? Davidson, Lee, Martin, and Chavez will have to be enough.

The worst situation for Atlanta is losing two close games in a row, using all of their best relievers in both. With elimination on the line and the good relievers all gassed, I wouldn’t like Atlanta’s chances. That’s not a particularly likely combination of events — plenty of times, the Braves will win at least one of the two games, or be blown out in one and save their high-leverage arms. Still, it could happen.

If it does, Fried’s openness to pitching on short rest would be a boon. If I’m Snitker, I’m hoping to run out Fried and Anderson on regular rest in the last two games of the series — but if it’s Fried on short rest or a banged-up bullpen, with the chance to be eliminated, give me Fried every time. That would mean a bullpen game in Game 6, but that’s after a travel day, so the high-leverage types will all be ready to go again.

Overall, I think that the situation is less dire than it sounds at first blush. The “rest” of bullpens? Those pitchers are good too! You can’t take 10 steps in the baseball analysis world without tripping over an article about the decline of hitting and the inexorable rise of strikeouts. That’s not happening because the Mortons and Frieds are suddenly pitching 300 innings a year; it’s happening because random filler relievers are perfectly capable of making great hitters look foolish. They might do it less often, but they still do it plenty. Here, for example, Davidson made NL MVP frontrunner Bryce Harper look bad:

Another way of thinking about it: if you think that Smyly and Wright have a true-talent 5.00 ERA and Morton checks in at 3.50, that’s 1.5 runs per nine innings, or less than a run in a single start. They’ve won only three of their 13 playoff games by a single run, and only 26 of their 161 regular-season games. That’s exaggerating it, too: Steamer thinks the ERA gap is closer to 0.9 than 1.5. Not only that, but pitchers aren’t metronomes; their performance ebbs and flows. Morton might be more likely to hold Houston scoreless than Wright, but both are capable of it. Big game pitchers are great, but regular Joes turn in big performances too.

So don’t panic, Atlanta. Losing five (or six or seven) innings of Charlie Morton in this three-game homestand definitely hurts. Everyone would prefer Morton to some amalgamation of Smyly, Wright, and friends. It will require Snitker to adapt to circumstances rather than lean on his ace. But as long as he sticks to three guiding principles — let your good starters pitch, save the big bullpen arms for close games, and use the rest of the bullpen for bulk or when the outcome of the game isn’t in doubt — they’ll have a solid chance to win the World Series.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Well said. You’re going to have to have some guys step up and get big outs, but that’s what it’s all about, right? This team has been doing that all season and if they’re going to win the World Series they’re going to have to do it again. And if every game from here on out is close don’t be surprised if Jackson, Matzek, Minter, and Smith work in every single one. The Braves sure act like their MO is living or dying with their horses on the mound.

1 year ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

Those last two sentences are kind of the opposite of what Ben was writing. Didn’t you notice?

1 year ago

I know and that’s why I said “don’t be surprised” for that section of my comment.

1 year ago

I don’t think it is. Right there in Ben’s last paragraph: “save the big bullpen arms for close games.” If you’ve got a chance to win a World Series game, you probably need to trust your top relievers if they tell you they’re good to go.