Braves Report Card - Part III: Relief Pitching

In Part III of his season report card, Andrew Bare grades the 2003 Atlanta bullpen. In a down year for Atlanta relief pitching, Andrew takes a look at the perfomances of everybody from <B>Jung Bong</B> to <B>John Smoltz</B>. <BR> <BR> <B><I>Plus</B></I> - Can <B>Jaret Wright</B> and <B>Will Cunnane</B> duplicate their late-season success in 2004?

A note on the grading: In the last chapter of the trilogy more highly awaited than "The Matrix", grading is a little more difficult. Players are still graded only on their performance at the major league level. But with several pitchers brought in from different teams late in the year, I decided to grade them only on their performance with the Braves, with one or two exceptions.

John Smoltz
64 1/3 IP, 1.12 ERA, 73 Ks, 8 BBs, 48 hits, 2 HRs:

Well that was fun, wasn't it? Overrated a bit by conventional analysts for his save totals, but also underrated by a lot of sabrmetricians who were reacting to the aforementioned analysts' hype. A lot of the statheads (and I use that word with all due respect and admiration) fell so in love with Eric Gagne's strikeout rate that they completely forgot that Smoltz had a lower ERA while pitching in a tougher environment. K rate is an excellent predictor of future performance, but for the here and now, Smoltz did a better job of preventing the opposition from scoring runs. The only thing keeping Smoltz from a perfect grade is health; missing 23 games and being unavailable in important situations for several others hurt the Braves.
Grade: A

Ray King
80 games, 59 IP, 3.51 ERA, 43 Ks, 27 BBs, 46 hits, 3 HRs:

A big boy with a big heater and a big slider. Struggled with control at times, and frayed the nerves of several thousand Braves' fans, but basically a good pitcher. He was extraordinarily hard to hit, holding opponents to a .213 batting average. Lefties became Rey Sanchez against King, (.200/.260/.263), with a grand total of 3 extra-base hits in 95 at-bats. Righties weren't much better, with only a .659 OPS. King really struggled with men on base, and those are high-leverage at-bats, so they count for a little more. The Braves will do well to bring him back next year and keep him away from right-handed batters with runners on base.
Grade: B-

Kevin Gryboski
44.1 IP, 3.86 ERA, 32 Ks, 23 BBs, 44 hits, 3 HRs:

Gryboski was surprisingly good this year, considering his 2002 peripheral numbers. The big man struggled with a 4.70 ERA before the All-Star Break, but pulled an admirable comeback in the second half. He also pitched well in the playoffs, inducing several key double play grounders and notching a couple of nice strikeouts. Like last year, I'm not inclined to give him a vote of confidence for next season, but Gryboski does have real uses to a team in certain tactical situations.
Grade: B-

Trey Hodges
65 2/3 IP, 4.66 ERA, 66 Ks, 31 BBs, 69 hits, 11 HRs:

Kind of an interesting season for the righty. The ERA isn't good, and the iffy control numbers are a little discouraging, but the dramatic increase in his strikeout rate from his 2002 season in AAA is pretty darn intriguing. From April through June he was very good, but July-August-September saw ERAs of 9.31, 6.00 and 7.94 respectively. Second-half poundings aren't a good sign for a pitcher like Hodges, as it might mean that the league caught up to him. He relied awfully heavily on getting hitters to swing and miss at his excellent slider off the plate, and by the time the season ended, batters were taking that pitch for a ball and hitting his mediocre fastball a long way. So there was some cause for hope and some cause for worry, but he's certainly earned at least another look.
Grade: C

Jung Bong
57 IP, 5.05 ERA, 47 Ks, 31 BBs, 56 hits, 8 HRs:

Not too dissimilar from Mr. Hodges. Came out like gang-busters in April, struggled in May, pitched well in June, and then seriously struggled. He flashed some pretty good stuff throughout, especially a nice, sharp-dropping curveball that fooled a lot of hitters early on. But eventually Bong really struggled to control the pitch, and he was forced to throw strikes with his good-but-not-great fastball. Still, the strikeout rate is decent, and there's enough stuff here to succeed in the big leagues. Like Hodges, he earned another look.
Grade: C-

Roberto Hernandez
60 IP, 4.35 ERA, 45 Ks, 43 BBs, 61 hits, 10 HRs:

None of those good numbers are actually GOOD, but aside from the walks and the homeruns, none of them are really that BAD either. It's strange how the human mind works sometimes. I've got this idea of Hernandez having a really awful year in my head, and I'm absolutely sure it's true, but when I go to look at the stats, he's not that bad. A lot of that idea is based on his poor control. Walks have a tendency to stick in your mind because of the way they annoy at the time of their issuing. So if Hernandez walks 2 guys in the middle of 3 easy outs, that sticks in one's head even more than Trey Hodges allowing a homerun and then retiring the next 3 batters. Still, Hernandez did have to be bailed out frequently by his bullpen-mates. A guy with his stuff should not be allowing 10 HRs in 60 innings. Grade: C

Darren Holmes
42 IP, 4.29 ERA, 46 Ks, 11 BBs, 47 hits, 5 HRs:

A bizarre season for Holmes. Those peripheral numbers are really quite excellent; nice K rate, phenomenal control numbers. He had good stuff most of the year, throwing a moving fastball around 91-92 with his usual 12-6 curve. And yet he was remarkably hittable, both for power and average. Injuries really threw him off, especially after he had placed himself pretty high on the middle relief pecking order. Still a solid idea for an NRI next year.
Grade: B-

Jason Marquis
40 2/3 IP, 5.53 ERA, 19 Ks, 18 BBs, 43 hits, 3 HRs:

I'm probably being a little too nice on the grading here, but I really don't think we were told anything about Jason Marquis this year. I know I gave a grade to Holmes based on fewer innings pitched, but Marquis' stints with Atlanta were separated by too many months and his outings by too many days. He's got the same stuff that he did in 2001, and can still become a good pitcher. But he's got to start racking up the strikeouts that his stuff promises, or he's going to be a reclamation project for several pitching coaches over the next few years.

Kent Mercker
OVERALL: 55 1/3 IP, 1.95 ERA, 48 Ks, 32 BBs, 46 hits, 6 HRs
WITH BRAVES: 17 IP, 1.06 ERA, 7 Ks, 7 BBs, 15 hits, 1 HR:

Not a bad comeback season after two consecutive seasons with an ERA over six. By the time he came to Atlanta he was throwing about as hard as he had in a decade. The problem with his time with the Braves was a lack of use, almost certainly the result of injury. If you're going to give up Matt Belisle for a middle reliever, you'd like to throw more than 17 innings. But because of his solid work in Cincinnati and truly good numbers, I'll cheat a little and give Mercker a grade where I would otherwise give an incomplete.
Grade: B+

Jaret Wright OVERALL: 56 1/3 IP, 7.35 ERA, 50 Ks, 31 BBs, 76 hits, 9 HRs
WITH BRAVES: 9 IP, 2.00 ERA, 9 Ks, 3 BBs, 7 hits, 0 HRs:

If his name wasn't "Jaret Wright", you'd wonder how a pitcher with a 7.35 ERA managed to get in to 50 games on the season. And then you'd look at Jesse Orosco's 7.75 ERA and his 65 appearances, and suddenly, Wright's case doesn't look so weird. The easy stathead way out is to call Wright's 9 innings with Atlanta a fluke, and concentrate solely on the overall numbers; honestly, I can't say that's a bad way to go. But I've almost come to the point of just blindly accepting that Leo Mazzone can turn around about 75% of his reclamation projects. Plus, watching Wright pitch with Atlanta the question that popped to mind wasn't "Why was he claimed?" but "Why was he waived?" The raw stuff was pretty clearly there, and he absolutely dominated hitters with Atlanta. Another solid NRI option for next year.

Will Cunnane
20 IP, 2.70 ERA, 20 Ks, 6 BBs, 14 hits, 2 HRs:

This is a guy who has always put up excellent minor league numbers, without fail. He's pretty clearly got the stuff to succeed; especially his curveball, which is first-class. So his career 5.16 major league ERA was pretty hard to explain. It still is, because he was quite nasty with Atlanta, flashing that great stuff and finally putting up good numbers, even in the peripherals. A good bet for future success in my opinion, especially with a pitching coach like Mazzone. Even more than Wright, bringing back Cunnane should be a high priority for the Braves.

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