The Atlanta Braves bullpen is a different animal in 2012 thusfar than it was in all of 2011. Last year's Braves bullpen had a 3.11 ERA and 3.12 FIP in March & April, and a 2.91 ERA and 3.42 FIP in May. This year, the pen had a 3.91 ERA and 3.57 FIP in April, and a 4.48 ERA and 4.41 FIP in May. That is a HUGE difference when looking at a crew of seven pitchers, with the best three returning from 2011 to 2012.
Before everyone immediately starts pinning the struggles of this year's bullpen on Chad Durbin, remember that the 2011 pen had Jairo Asencio destroy his chances at ever making it in Atlanta in April, and Scott Proctor sabotage the world in May. And actually, Durbin has calmed down quite a bit in May. His 2.38 ERA is second lowest in the pen for the month (*what?!*), but his 4.95 FIP is second-worst. Regardless, both are improvements over April, when his ERA was 9.00 and his FIP was a starting 7.38.
The pen was largely fine in April, aside from Durbin. The only FIPs higher than 3.20 belonged to Durbin and (perhaps shockingly) Eric O'Flaherty, sitting at 4.37 and adding a 4.91 ERA to the crew as well. May on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster. Only two pitchers had a FIP under that 3.20 mark, and one of them is currently in Gwinnett stretching to be a starter (obviously, Kris Medlen). The other one, and the best pitcher on the staff, is once again Craig Kimbrel.
But what is the absolute root of the bullpen's struggles? A lot of it just has to do with luck coming back and slapping the Braves in the face. The league averaage HR/FB rate for relievers is 10.0%. Four of the Braves seven relievers have posted marks higher than that, including Jonny Venters at an eye-popping 27.3%. Venters had allowed a total of three homers over 171 innings over 2010 and 2011, and has allowed three in 20 1/3 innings this year. Dumb luck, or a sign of something worse? I'm not going to say that Venters' career is over, but his groundball rate is down to 55.9%, after being above 68% in his first two years in the majors. Furthermore, he has a 25% line drive rate, which is just terrible. The .466 BABIP possessed by Venters also suggests that he's just terribly unlucky, but with that line drive rate, it makes a little more sense. On the other side of the coin, he has career bests in both strikeout and walk rates, signifying that there's still something there. His fastball velocity though, has dropped one mile per hour from 2011 to 2012. That's a little concerning.
The other negative option from the bullpen is Eric O'Flaherty, initially brought to the team in 2009 as a LOOGY, but then was transitioned into the seventh inning role. Last season, when O'Flaherty had a 0.98 ERA, he was aided by a 92.3% strand rate and 3.9% FB/HR. This year, those marks have regressed to 75.3% and 16.7%, which seem a little more realistic. As a result, his ERA is 3.66 and his FIP is 4.18. Oh, and there's the righty thing. O'Flaherty is allowing a 1.018 OPS to righties, and he's faced 54 of them compared to just 34 lefties. Last year, O'Flaherty faced four times as many righties as lefties, and held them to just a .599 OPS. That's a little low for a guy who's allowed righties to a .739 OPS over his career, in comparison to the .560 OPS he's held lefties to.
You can point your finger at Durbin or old man Livan (who has actually been perfectly adequate in his role) all you want, but quite frankly, the Braves bullpen is struggling because two of the big three (on an aside, how silly was it for people to get obsessed over a nickname for a reliever trio when only one of those relievers possesses long-term sustainable dominance?) are struggling terribly this year. The only player to amass less fWAR than either O'Flaherty or Venters this year is Durbin, and everyone pretty much expected that.
One HUGE positive note for the Braves bullpen, though. If Venters and O'Flaherty do manage to put it together over the season's final four months, they'll be fresh. They've combined to throw just 40 innings this year (with Kimbrel adding 20 of his own), while last year, O'Flaherty logged 26 1/3 innings over the season's first third, with Venters clocking in at a mind-blowing 33 2/3 innings. For comparison's sake, Kimbrel had 27 innings over that timespan, and actually pitched worse than he has so far this year. At least Fredi is attempting to make sure a late-season bullpen meltdown doesn't happen this September.
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