The Braves 5-0 start has been quickly erased by a bad stretch. It should not be a surprise that the bullpen has been a bit of a problem.
And no, this has nothing to do with Craig Kimbrel now being in San Diego. Instead, it’s the use of the bullpen that is also a symbol of what is wrong with pitching and perhaps one of the reasons so many pitchers are getting hurt around baseball.
Through Friday night’s game, the Braves had four pitchers that had been used in more than half of the 16 games. Brandon Cunniff has pitched in 10 games, while Cody Martin, Luis Avilan and Jim Johnson have each made nine appearances.
On Wednesday, manager Fredi Gonzalez lifted starter Eric Stults after six innings. Stults had allowed just one run on four hits, with no walks and five strikeouts. But he had thrown 103 pitches, and as you may know, when starters go past 100 pitches there seems to be an alarm that goes off in the Atlanta dugout.
Stults is a soft-tossing left-hander. Would it have really been horrible to send him back out to start the seventh inning, with a one-run lead? Then if he had given up one base-runner, Stults could have been pulled. It’s safe to believe Stults throwing 103 pitches is not like a hard-thrower like Shelby Miller doing it. Maybe if Stults could have gotten one or two outs, it could have saved one reliever from being used.
Instead, Martin came in and gave up a solo home run to Wilmer Flores. Johnson then came in and walked three and gave up the go-ahead run. Cunniff then had to replace Johnson to get the final out of the eighth inning.
After the game, Gonzalez was asked by a New York reporter if his bullpen, which has clearly not been as effective as it was the first week of the season, was a bit taxed (or tired).
Gonzalez replied, “Taxed? No, these guys haven’t gone three games in a row, that kind of stuff. The bullpen has been used the right way. It’s just one of those things.”
The very next day, on Thursday, Gonzalez used Cunniff for the third day in a row. Then Friday the Braves sent Cunniff down to Triple-A Gwinnett, despite the rookie allowing just two runs on one hit in his first nine innings in the big leagues. They knew he wasn’t going to be available Friday night, and Cunniff likely needs a bit of rest.
Gonzalez’s use of the bullpen has been questioned from his first season, when relievers Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Kimbrel averaged 80 appearances between the three of them in 2011. O’Flaherty had Tommy John surgery two years later, while Venters has had the surgery twice and may never pitch again.
The starting pitchers need to do their part, as well. There have been just six quality starts (when a pitcher goes at least six innings and allows three or fewer earned runs) so far this season. Only Alex Wood has pitched into the seventh inning, and he’s done that twice. Only four times this season has a Braves starter had more than 100 pitches in a start.
That’s part of the problem. Gonzalez needs to let his starters go longer in games. Friday night Wood had a shutout in the sixth inning. He allowed a one-out walk, then a single. After getting the second out, Wood allowed an infield hit to load the bases. But he was at 101 pitches, so Gonzalez pulled him.
Now, Martin came in and got a fly out to end the threat. But why not let Wood try to get that last out? Then in the seventh inning, Martin allowed a leadoff single. The next batter then sacrificed the runner to second. But then Gonzalez pulled Martin in favor of lefty Avilan to face two left-handed hitters.
Avilan got them out to end the inning. But the point is the specialization of the relief pitchers is causing issues, and not just in Atlanta. Have we gotten to the point where left-handed pitchers can’t get right-handed hitters out, and right-handed pitchers can’t get left-handed hitters out? Sure, some can’t, but teams are going to have to find pitchers that can get everybody out.
Yes, the Braves bullpen is taxed already. The starters need to go longer in games. Gonzalez needs to trust them more and forget about the 100-pitch limit. Keeping pitchers around 100 pitches doesn’t guarantee they are going to avoid injuries. Throwing relief pitchers in three straight games, and even getting relievers up to warm up and not use them is more of a risk. And Gonzalez has got to stop pulling the relievers just because of a certain batter coming up.
Atlanta’s offense is already an issue, but the pitching will have to do better to keep this team competitive. More importantly, Gonzalez must do a much better job of managing it, or this is going to be a very long season.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Braves need better pitching
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