As I watched last night’s Braves-Mets game, the already fascinating NL East bullpen dynamics really came into view. Here we have four clubs — those two, plus the Nationals and Phillies — with big expectations and major core talent, all trying to get past season-long relief woes.
Odds are, none of these clubs will truly put the ’pen problems behind them between now and the end of the season. Even if one or more teams get on a relief roll, you just know that fans — and, quite likely, each club’s uniformed and non-uniformed personnel — will have near-constant butterflies as soon as the starter hits the showers.
Honestly, it’s exciting. The Braves still hold a commanding lead, but the Nats are close enough that they can’t assume anything. Plus, they have to hone their late-inning approach for the postseason. The other three clubs will obviously be going all out to eke out every possible win from here to the finish line, knowing full well how tight the Wild Card race (if not also the division) will be down the stretch.
The Nats and Mets have received brutal overall results from their relief units all season long. In terms of ERA, their units rank second and third-worst in baseball, surpassed only by the lowly Orioles in the frequency of earned-runs allowed. While the Nationals’ rightly-maligned unit has probably received the most attention, it is the only one of the four that checks in above replacement level (only barely) by measure of FIP-based fWAR. The Mets, Braves, and Phillies are all in the black by that metric. Of course, the Nats’ relief corps is the runaway league leader in net win-percentage deducted (as opposed to added), so it has well earned its reputation for unreliability.
Recent developments have shifted the picture, but haven’t necessarily improved the outlook. The Phillies’ health issues are worsening, with David Robertson down for the year and Adam Morgan recently hitting the shelf. Closer Hector Neris has at least been back on the upswing of late. The Mets’ steadiest reliever, Seth Lugo, was just roughed up last night; their most talented pen arm, Edwin Diaz, has still not emerged from his season-long doldrums. Both of those clubs forewent opportunities to improve at the deadline and have been picking up veterans discarded by other teams. The Nationals did make some notable but modest deadline acquisitions and have received good work from them so far. But overworked closer Sean Doolittle hasn’t been his reliable self and the unit as a whole remains quite underwhelming. While the Braves surely added the most pen talent at the deadline, their new arms have been anything but conquering heroes. Shane Greene, Mark Melancon, and Chris Martin have combined to allow 19 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings in Atlanta. As a whole, the Atlanta relievers have been particularly awful over the past thirty days.
Any way you cut it, it seems reasonable to expect that we’re in for a thrilling roller-coaster the rest of the way. If you had to take one of these bullpen units for the next six weeks and a potential postseason run thereafter, which would it be? (It bears emphasizing that “best” is a relative term.)
(Poll link for app users.)