Bullpen workload improving

Will the improved workload on the bullpen matter later this season?

There are certain times in a baseball season you can look at stats and make some numerical projections. One is near the halfway point, or even at the All-Star Break. But we're right around the one-quarter mark for the Braves, so there are a few things that stand out.

It's good to see, for example, Martin Prado on pace for a bounce-back season, and that Freddie Freeman is on pace for 28 home runs and 128 runs batted in. Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy are on schedule to win near 20 games, and that's pretty good.

Plus, the fact the Braves have played like a team on pace for 100 wins is pretty impressive, especially considering the 0-4 start in April.

But the most important stat of all is games pitched. Yes, forget about how many saves Craig Kimbrel has, or how low an ERA may be so far. The most impressive stat is the ‘normal' amount of games pitched in by Atlanta's top relievers.

Remember last year when Kimbrel and Jonny Venters ran out of gas in September? It really wasn't a surprise, knowing how much they had been used, or overused, earlier in the season.

Kimbrel pitched in 67 games in the first five months of 2011. He had a 1.65 ERA in 65.2 innings of work. But then in 12 games down the stretch in September, Kimbrel had a 4.76 ERA and, of course, blew the save in the final game of the regular season.

Venters had a 1.31 ERA through August in 2011, as he pitched in 72 games. Then in September, Venters allowed seven earned runs in 13 games for a 5.11 ERA.

Venters led all of baseball last season with 85 appearances. Kimbrel was tied for second with two others with 79 games pitched, while Eric O'Flaherty was in a three-way tie for fifth place with 78 outings.

So it was easy when looking for excuses as to why the Braves choked in September to look at the heavy workload by the relievers. Of course, they probably wouldn't admit it contributed to the late season struggles, but if you watched the season, you know they pitched in too many games.

It's worth pointing out that while Kimbrel and Venters struggled down the stretch, O'Flaherty's historic season (a 0.98 ERA) included a perfect September (0.00 ERA). But O'Flaherty has struggled early this season, making some wonder if the heavy workload finally caught up with him.

When you look at the same games pitched stat this season, not one of the big three are anywhere near the top. In fact, Chad Durbin, everybody's favorite punching bag, leads the team in games pitched and is in a tie for 37th in MLB in appearances.

Venters and O'Flaherty are on pace for 64 games each this season, while Kimbrel is on pace for only 60. Last year the three averaged 80 games between them, but this year that number is down to a projected 62 games pitched.

Part of this lighter workload for the relievers can be attributed to better run support from the offense. The Braves are winning in games that are not as tight as they did last season, so there's room for manager Fredi Gonzalez to rest his big three when they are not really needed.

And also, the Braves have Kris Medlen and Livan Hernandez eating up innings. Those two have combined for 46 innings in 29 games, so they are coming in and going more than one frame.

Atlanta didn't really have that kind of pitcher last year. Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill were pretty much one-inning pitchers, as they combined for 90.1 innings in 115 games pitched.

Plus, you have to give a little credit to Gonzalez. He had to know that he overused the bullpen last season, so hopefully Gonzalez learned from that and will be better at saving the relievers this year.

After watching Kimbrel and Venters get tired last season, knowing they are on a more normal pace gives reason to believe this strong start by the Braves may not run into a brick wall later in the summer.

Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, GA, WHAL Fox Sports 1460 in Columbus, GA and WCOH Fox Sports 1400 in Newnan, GA. Shanks is a columnist for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.

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