The Atlanta Braves had the best bullpen in baseball last year, leading all of Major League Baseball (MLB) with an earned run average of 3.03, opponents’ batting average (.216) and strikeouts (536).
This was mostly due to the dynamic trio of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and the 2011 Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrell.
Outside of those three pitchers, however, it seemed that Fredi Gonzalez did not trust his bullpen. O’Flaherty pitched in 78 games, Venters played in 85 and Kimbrell made 79 appearances. Compare this to other members of the Braves’ bullpen: Anthony Varvaro (38), Arodys Vizcaino (17), Scott Linebrink (64), Scott Proctor (31), George Sherrill (51).
The real story comes from the ERA of these players, however: O’Flaherty (0.98), Venters (1.84), Kimbrell (2.10), Varvaro (2.68), Vizcaino (4.67), Linebrink (3.64), Proctor (6.44) and Sherrill (3.00).
To be fair, the elevated number of appearances for the bullpen was due in part to Peter Moylan and Kris Medlen being out all season due to injuries, partly to the post All-Star break collapse of Jair Jurrjens, and partly due to another terrible year from Derek Lowe.
Luckily for Braves fans, Lowe, Linebrink, Proctor and Sherrill are no longer with the ball club. However, Medlen and Moylan are both back. Medlen posted a 3.68 ERA in 31 games in 2010. So far in 2012, which consists of two innings against the New York Mets in the season-opener, Medlen has yet to allow a run with an opponents’ batting average of .160. Moylan posted a 3.24 ERA in 13 games in 2011, though his career ERA is an impressive 2.60 in 255.2 innings.
With Lowe no longer with the club, the Braves starting rotation is comprised of Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor, with Randall Delgado coming out of the bullpen as well. Delgado and minor-league ace Julio Teheran will most likely make starts once the roster expands to 40 in September.
Outside of stellar pitching, a lot of other areas seem to point to a better 2012 for the Braves. For one, Atlanta finally has a solid leadoff hitter in Michael Bourn. In a deal where the Houston Astros basically gave Bourn away, the Braves traded Jordan Schafer, who had 47 hits, 15 stolen bases, and a .623 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in 52 games for the Braves, for Bourn, who managed 62 hits, 22 stolen bases, and a .673 OPS in 53 games for the boys in red, white, and blue. It turned out to be a great deal for the Braves on multiple accounts, as they were able to keep their top pitching prospects and avoid Schafer’s off-field drug issues.
Other things that are looking up for Atlanta: Dan Uggla’s post All-Star break batting average (.296 vs. .185 pre-All Star break average). Uggla’s 33 game hitting streak last season somewhat salvaged his pedestrian .233 batting average. If Uggla continues to hit, Freddie Freeman’s power flourishes (Freeman tied for the most home-runs in spring training in all of MLB), Brian McCann stays healthy and Jason Heyward sheds his sophomore slump in favor of his rookie campaign. The Braves could have one of the most potent offenses in the National League.
All in all, with the 2011 collapse as fuel to the fire, the Atlanta Braves will look to rebound in 2012 and make it back to the postseason.