There are plenty of reasons why the Atlanta Braves have the worst bullpen in baseball.
Things happen in the game: trades, suspensions, injuries or simple ineffectiveness. Lump all of that together, and it explains why the Braves have the worst bullpen ERA (5.03).
Last year, that statistic was 3.31, 11th best in baseball. Two years ago, the Braves had the best bullpen ERA in the sport (2.46). But this year, it has become a dumpster fire. Prior to Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, the previous three games were a nightmare, as Atlanta’s relievers allowed 12 runs in 10 innings.
Sure, trading closer Craig Kimbrel the day before the season started didn’t help matters. It pushed everybody up a role, with Jason Grilli becoming closer and Jim Johnson taking Grilli’s spot as the main setup man. The PED suspensions of Arodys Vizcaino and Andrew McKirahan didn’t help, either. Rookies have been put in situations that have not been preferable.
And some of the pitchers simply have not been very good.
But there is another problem. Atlanta’s manager is not good at handling a bullpen.
Fredi Gonzalez arrived from Florida five years ago with a reputation of not being the best at using his relievers. He proved that his first year with the Braves when he overused Kimbrel and his two main setup pitchers, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty.
Then there was the time in the playoffs a few years ago when the season was on the line. David Carpenter was pitching to Juan Uribe (who is now with the Braves), while Kimbrel (the best closer in baseball) had his hands on his hips in the bullpen waiting for the call to come into the game. Uribe hit a home run to end Atlanta’s season.
We’ve seen other examples more recently. On Friday, starting pitcher Williams Perez was not very effective, so he was removed after five innings. Gonzalez put rookie right-hander Brandon Cunniff into a tie game. He pitched to only two right-handed hitters (and got them out) and was then removed from the game in favor of Luis Avilan, the only lefty in the bullpen.
Why would Gonzalez play situational baseball in the sixth inning of a tie game with his only left-handed reliever? Cunniff couldn’t get one left-handed hitter out? Lefty hitters are batting only .286 against Cunniff, which is not horrible. And what were lefty hitters batting against Avilan going into Friday night’s performance? .282.
Avilan gave up a single to left-handed hitting Gregory Polanco, and then right-handed hitting Starling Marte hit a two-run home run to give Pittsburgh a two-run lead.
What if the Braves had needed a left-handed reliever in a more crucial situation later in the game? Well, Gonzalez blew that possibility by over-managing and putting Avilan in when he really didn’t need to.
It would have made more sense if Gonzalez had used long reliever Trevor Cahill to start the sixth inning Friday night instead of mixing and matching with two relievers. Avilan, by the way, would have been removed even if he had gotten Polanco out since he was due up third in the bottom of the sixth.
Instead, Gonzalez then brought Cahill in with the Braves down by two. Cahill pitched two innings -- the seventh and the eighth -- and gave up two more runs to help Pittsburgh win the game. Cahill is not good, but he would be better used as a long reliever earlier in a game instead of being out there in the final three innings.
Gonzalez’s over-managing is his biggest problem. He makes moves he doesn’t need to. He doesn’t seem to trust even the pitchers who have showed him they can be effective. If you’ve watched this team, you know there are many more examples like this we’ve seen already in the first two months of the season, with a couple of more in just the past week.
We know Gonzalez’s lineup construction has been comical. The Braves are scoring runs in spite of his shuffling, not because of it. And while the pitchers in this bullpen are not great, the issues are not helped by the decisions being made by a manager in the final year of his contract.
If this continues, this Braves team is going to become what we thought it was -- mediocre. And this manager will be what many are already predicting.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at www.twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.