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There is no doubt that the Atlanta Braves bullpen is one of the best in baseball; Atlanta relievers have a 2.53 ERA, second behind only San Diego, and are allowing opponents to hit .214 this season (also ranks second). How are they reaching such lofty numbers?
It's partially due to a very high strikeout rate. No relief crew in baseball has a higher rate of strikeouts per nine innings (9.2) and the Braves’ 2.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio is second to only the Rockies.
The names you should know are Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel. While Kimbrel has gotten the majority of save opportunities this season, Venters has pitched better. O’Flaherty, who is primarily used in the seventh and eighth innings, has had a remarkable 2011 season as well, allowing an earned run in only five of his 32 outings this season.
Closer, But for How Long?
Kimbrel has had an interesting 2011 season. He has 18 saves, breaking Yhency Brazoban's record set in 2005 for most saves by a National League rookie before the All-Star break. Yet no pitcher in baseball has blown more saves than his five. In each of those instances, it’s his fastball that has given up the tying run. His heater has been relatively effective this year, but it’s certainly taken a step back when compared to 2010.
Craig Kimbrel Fastball, Last 2 Seasons
Last year Kimbrel’s fastball had a strikeout percentage of over 37 percent. This season that number is below 32 percent. Opponent OPS was a scant .526 last season; this year it’s .685. While still good, Kimbrel’s fastball has clearly lost some edge.
His velocity is still there (95.4 mph in 2010 compared to 95.7 mph in 2011), and he’s also cut down on his walk rate by over eight percent. It’s simply come down to contact. In 2010, hitters posted a .280 batting average on balls in play. This year, they’re hitting .383 in that category.
Waiting in the Wings
Enter Braves sophomore Jonny Venters. He leads all pitchers with 35 appearances this season, and has made the most of those opportunities.
Venters has just a 0.47 ERA and 0.72 WHIP this season, the only pitcher in MLB with both those numbers under 0.80 (minimum 20 IP). According to Inside Edge an incredible 87 percent of two-strike at-bats become outs, 19 percent better than league average. He’s also been effective when it comes to eliminating the first batter of an inning. In those situations, Venters is converting that hitter into an out 80 percent of the time. Compare that to 62 percent last year.
He also has posted incredible numbers when called up on zero days rest. In 14 innings pitched he has allowed just one hit, while striking out 16 batters and holding opponents to a .195 OPS.