The Two Rookies Who Drive the Braves’ Bullpen

This past Saturday, the Braves defeated the Phillies by a score of 5-3, earning their 87th win on the season and clinching the National League East title. Needless to say, this was unexpected back in March, when the Braves entered the year with a 3.2% chance of reaching the playoffs. Then again, there were a lot of unexpected developments in Atlanta this year. It was clear entering the season, for example, that Ronald Acuna possessed considerable talent; it was less obvious, however, that he’d become one of baseball’s best so soon. It was perhaps even more unlikely that a 34-year-old Nick Markakis would earn his first All-Star selection, although that happened as well. The list of surprises goes on. Johan Camargo, Mike Foltynewicz, and Anibal Sanchez: each of these actors played an important role in the Braves’ early arrival on the national stage.

Now the minds of both fans and the players themselves turn to October baseball. While there are some legitimate reasons to regard the Braves as a long shot — the Astros, the Dodgers, the Indians, the Red Sox, you get the idea — they do still have a 2.9% chance of winning the World Series. Throw in the fact that playoff baseball can be especially random, and we could be sitting here in a month lauding World Series MVP Kevin Gausman.

The Braves do enter October with questions beyond their youth. Most of these questions relate to their pitching, especially their bullpen. In terms of both run prevention (19th in adjusted ERA) and peripherals (18th in adjusted FIP), the relief corps has been middling. The midseason acquisitions of Brad Brach and Jonny Venters for international bonus money have yielded some returns, as the two veterans have put up a combined 0.8 WAR. However, if the Braves hope to slow down baseball’s best offenses in the late innings, they’ll be relying on two rookies with very similar arsenals.

Neither A.J. Minter nor Dan Winkler showed up in a Braves top-10 prospect list in the 2018 preseason. That’s not particularly strange: how often does an established relief pitcher show up as a top prospect? That’s not to say they were completely overlooked, especially Minter. Jonathan Sickels at Minor League Ball ranked Minter 13th in the system, admitting that he was unsure how to rank relievers, and Scott Delp over at Baseball Prospectus took an in-depth look at Minter in March. Baseball America said Minter had the best slider of Braves farmhands, while Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel here at FanGraphs placed Minter 16th with a Future value of 45 while including Winkler among the “Other Prospects of Note.” Both pitchers were noted for their four-seam fastballs and hard-breaking sliders/cutters.

Minter and Winkler have both taken advantage of their opportunities. The pair were the Braves’ leading relievers on the year, putting up 1.4 (24th in baseball) and 1.2 WAR (36th), respectively. Their ERAs and xFIPs don’t keep up with their FIPs, but there is no denying their stuff and strikeout ability.

Braves Top Relievers
Name IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
A.J. Minter 60.1 10.14 3.28 3.28 2.74 3.64 1.4
Dan Winkler 60.0 10.35 2.85 3.45 2.71 3.63 1.2
Shane Carle 63.0 6.14 3.86 2.86 3.54 4.39 0.6
Arodys Vizcaino 37.2 9.56 3.11 1.91 3.26 3.94 0.5
Brad Brach 22.0 8.18 3.68 1.23 2.70 4.13 0.5

The two have gotten there in different ways. Minter tore his UCL early in his junior season at Texas A&M, but the Braves saw enough in him to draft him 75th overall in 2015. After his recovery, the Braves development staff brought him along slowly, with Minter recording 34.2 innings in 2016 and 39.1 innings in 2017. He rolled through all levels of the minors, and his 2017 debut was equally impressive, as he struck out 43.3% of batters in 15 innings to put up a 0.96 FIP and 0.6 WAR.

Winkler took a slightly more circuitous route to the majors. He started at Parkland College in 2009 before being drafted by the Rockies in the 20th round out of Central Florida in 2011. He mostly floundered in the Rockies system for four seasons until the Braves picked him in the 2014 Rule 5 draft. He proceeded to pitch a combined four innings over the next two years, suffering a torn UCL in 2015 and a gruesome fractured elbow in 2016. Last year saw a return to effectiveness, and Winkler’s 60 innings in 2018 represent his most in a season since he was a starter at Double-A Tulsa.

Both pitchers feature a similar arsenal, throwing over 90% fastballs and hard cutters. Those offerings — Minter’s is more of a cutter/slider — have been among the top cutters by run value in 2018. Winkler’s (8.4 runs) ranks seventh among relievers while Minter’s (6.2 runs) would rank eighth if it were classified as a cutter proper.

Minter, who detailed his cutter-slider to David Laurila back in June, uses the four-seam/cutter pair to great effectiveness, especially when ahead in the count. His low slot allows him to back-foot his 91.8-mph cutter/slider to right-handed batters while keeping it sufficiently away from lefties. Meanwhile, Minter is able to effectively place his 97.1 mph up in the zone, making it incredibly difficult for batters to make contact (25% whiffs per swing.)

Winkler’s arsenal isn’t quite as power-oriented, starting with his fastball. It also comes out of a low three-quarter slot, but it comes in at 93.8 mph. Kiley and Eric note that, despite a lack of elite velocity, the pitch does have good deception and life, allowing it to play up. His slider — possibly closer to a curveball — comes in at 82.8 mph with more horizontal movement (5.1 inches) than vertical (-1.6 inches). While he uses both of these pitches effectively, the main pitch in Winkler’s arsenal is his cutter, thrown over 50% of the time. Featuring 90.7 mph and nearly two inches of cut, the pitch is used by Winkler mostly up in the zone, but he can drive it low and in to lefties.

While both rookies have been excellent this year and seem to have good futures going forward, they both have experienced a downturn in the past month. In 12.2 innings combined in September, the two have put up an 8.52 ERA, a 5.05 FIP, and have seen their control deteriorate as both their walk rates spiked. Winkler especially has struggled, walking five batters, allowing 17 batters to reach base and eight earned runs in only 4.1 innings this month. Minter has dealt with back issues since August and admitted that he is struggling to find his release point since the injury. Despite their great seasons, both rookies picked the worst time to begin to struggle and will have to find their form in very short order.

Maybe they’ll get some help in next week’s Division Series — likely against the National League West winner. The shortening playoff rotations may let Max Fried work out of the pen and allow his fastball and curveball to play up. Arodys Vizcaino’s recent return certainly helps, as does the presence of the veterans Brach and Venters. But when they’re on, Minter and Winkler give the Braves their best options late in the game. While the Braves’ impressive offense led by Acuna, Ozzie Albies, and Freddie Freeman will be driving the team forward, the effectiveness of A.J. Minter and Dan Winkler will go a long way to determining how far the team will foray into October.

We hoped you liked reading The Two Rookies Who Drive the Braves’ Bullpen by Stephen Loftus!

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Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

can someone explain how a team with a ~.560 win percent has a 2% chance among a field of teams with mostly a <.600 %

ThomServo
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ThomServo

The odds are today updated to 3.5%, which seems about right.

Boston and Houston are simply historically great teams this year. Combined, they have around a 40% chance of winning the WS, by most public odds and systems. They both roughly have a 20% chance to win it all, leaving only 60% for the rest of the 8 playoff teams to divide.

Among the 8 other playoff teams, the Braves are in the lower half of the pack. The Yankees, Indians, and Dodgers have nearly twice the run differential, and therefore have odds around 10% (even with the Yankees facing a wild card). The Cubs also have a better record and run differential than the Braves. So Atlanta is not in the top 4 of the ‘other playoff contenders.’ The Yankees, Indians, Dodgers & Cubs combine to take up another 40% of the chance to win the WS.

That leaves the Braves to split up the remaining ~20% with the 3 other playoff teams with similar profiles: Oakland, Milwaukee & Colorado. Atlanta enjoys the advantage of certainly avoiding the WC over these other teams, but the As have a far superior run difference and record; the Brewers have a better record; and the Rockies have the same record.

So just from those rough public odds – or just off of w/l and run difference- you’d expect the Braves odds to be around 5%. Considering home field advantage, the AL superiority, and some underlying peripherals, and putting the Braves around 3 or 4% seems reasonable.

Ivan_Grushenko
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Ivan_Grushenko

Boston with Sale at less than 95% isn’t a historically great team.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

right, but ATL would only play one of HOU/BOS. BOS’s win % vs teams over .500 is like .540, HOUs is ~ .520. saying BOS/HOU make up 40% seems off. only 1 can even get to the world series, so a 40% chance one of those 2 wins it all would mean like an 80% chance one of them gets to the world series. point is, the AL teams are better, but they also play each other.

maybe Im just not getting it, I don’t have a phd in data science (I have an MBA), but when games are practically coin tosses, it doesn’t make sense to me how any team has much more than a 15% chance on the high end.

betting odds are one thing and yes, both OAK and NYY are better teams than maybe the entirety of the NL field, but the odds of either moving on to the real playoffs (for lack of a better word) is ~50%. then they play BOS, then possibly HOU, then the WS.

maybe I’ve sold myself too much on the idea that the playoffs are a crap shoot. if we’re playing roulette with 100 spaces, you’re telling me BOS/HOU are on 40 spaces. If that’s what the people who know more about stats than I will ever know about anything say, then I guess I trust it

ThomServo
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ThomServo

Yea imo the ‘playoffs are a crapshoot’ meme is overplayed.

But the main issue here is that historically great teams aren’t ‘basically a coin flip’ against fairly standard low/mid 90s playoff rivals.

As you reference, in order for Boston and Houston to each have a 20%+ chance to win the WS, there would need to be something close to an 80% chance for either one to reach the WS. Indeed, the public odds for Houston or Boston to reach the WS is around 70%- ie substantially more likely than not. Since AL teams are likely to be heavily favored in the WS, the odds don’t have to be quite 80% for Houston/Boston to make the WS in order to have 40% odds to for one of them to win it.

That’s pretty much the main issue driving the limited odds for the worst 4-5 playoff teams: a group that includes some great clubs, but which is also a substantial step behind the historically great clubs at the top. Agreed that, typically, it’s hard for even strong playoff favorites to get WS victory odds too far north of 15%- but there’s an absurdly strong top 2 this year.

FWIW 40% is a slight understatement by most public sources, some books are closer to a pick um between Boston/Houston and the field. Those are two strong teams with favorable playoff situations-save only that they likely have to face each other.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

probably an unpopular opinion, but BOS has greatly outperformed both pythag and baseruns and beaten up on TOR/BAL. They won 108 real games, but digging into the underlying numbers, are they really historically good? 31-7 vs BAL/TOR (.816), 77-47 (.621) vs everyone else. A very very good team with a true talent (baserun/pythag) ~100 win team.

I think HOU is as good as advertised, but Im not sold on BOS.

In general, we should probably keep in mind just how absurdly top heavy the AL is. 5 teams lost 95+ games, 3 teams lost 100+ games. are these AL teams historically good? or are the bottom 1/3 historically bad (as a group)? both?