Editor’s Note: This is a Braves Bullpen Usage Study comparing Brian Snitker and Fredi Gonzalez. Our founder Mac Thomason wrote up Fredi when he was hired and Matt Langford wrote up Brian Snitker here. Now, on with the show. Take it away, Alan.
It’s about time to add some context to this.
When Brian Snitker elected to use Patrick Weigel with the Braves trailing 8-7 in the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals two weeks ago, it felt like the boiling point of what many Braves fans have been thinking for a while regarding Snitker’s management. The quote from after the game just brought confirmation.
Snitker doesn’t like using his high leverage relievers when the Braves are behind. The eye test supports this claim, and the quotes do as well.
But do the numbers? How often does Snitker actually use his best guys with the team ahead vs. trailing? And how does it compare to how his predecessor handled similar situations? Let’s look at some numbers on the Braves Bullpen Usage.
Below is the bullpen usage for every Atlanta reliever with at least 20 appearances in a contending season since Bobby Cox retired. It’s a very arbitrary number, but I’m working off the assumption that any reliever that didn’t even appear in 20 games wouldn’t qualify as a high leverage option.
I am defining contending seasons as 2011-2013 for Gonzalez and 2018-2020 for Snitker. Part of that was to have an even three seasons vs. three seasons sample size, part of it was because it seems a little harsh to judge either manager’s bullpen usage while they were managing teams without a lot of good bullpen options.
It’s also worth noting I lowered my cutoff point to 10 appearances for the 2020 season as a result of the abbreviated schedule.
Braves Bullpen Usage Under Fredi Gonzalez
When it came to his undisputed best reliever Craig Kimbrel, Gonzalez did try to say away from using him without the lead or at least a tie game. Kimbrel made 210 appearances across these three seasons, and 199 (94.8%) came with the Braves leading or tied. That’s to be expected; after all he did spend those three years as the team’s closer.
Where it gets more interesting is when you look at the rest of the high leverage relievers. Eric O’Flaherty spent most of this time period either as a seventh inning man in front of Jonny Venters, or an eighth inning set-up man for Kimbrel once injuries started to plague Venters. O’Flaherty fell shy of the 20 appearance cutoff for 2013, but in 2011-2012 he appeared in 142 games and pitched to a microscopic 1.31 ERA.
O’Flaherty made 119 (83.8%) of those appearances with the Braves leading or tied, but he did still get the call 19 times (13.4%) when the Braves were within three runs. At least some of the time, Gonzalez called on his best non-closer weapon to keep a game within striking distance.
The cases of Luis Avilan and David Carpenter are also interesting. Avilan pitched to a 1.52 ERA in 75 games for the 2013 Braves, and Carpenter had a 1.78 ERA in 56 appearances. Both were extremely effective relievers who Gonzalez clearly trusted to pitch in big spots.
Avilan had usage that lines up with his numbers a little more. He made 30 (40%) of his 75 appearances in games the Braves led by 1-3 runs, and only 18 (24%) in games the Braves were trailing. Carpenter on the other hand? He made more appearances (28.6%) with the Braves trailing by 1-3 runs than in any other situation. He still made the majority of his appearances in games the Braves were leading or tied in, but it was a closer split than you would expect from a pitcher with an ERA under two. He pitched 60% of the time with the lead or tied, and 40% with the Braves trailing.
And in the case of Anthony Varvaro and his impressive 2.82 ERA in 62 appearances, 36 (58%) of his appearances came with the Braves trailing. In fact, Varvaro only pitched eight (12.9%) of the time in games the Braves were leading by 1-3 runs. Where Varvaro ranks in terms of relievers on this team can be debated, but he was third and usage, so Gonzalez clearly trusted him. And more than half of the time he did trust him, it was with the Braves behind in the game.
And now to return to the present, here are the three contending seasons with Snitker at the helm under the same microscope:
BRAVES BULLPEN USAGE UNDER Brian Snitker:
The Snitker situation is a little bit tougher to get a handle on because he never had a truly dominant Braves bullpen like Gonzalez did until the second half of 2019, but there are still some interesting numbers on the table.
The best individual seasons Snitker has had at his disposal belonged to Arodys Vizcaino and Brad Brach in 2018. Vizcaino’s 2.11 ERA in 39 appearances came almost exclusively with the lead or in a tie game (89.7%); in fact 28 of his 39 appearances (71.8%) came just with the Braves leading. Vizcaino only made four appearances (10.3%) all season with the Braves trailing, and only twice with the Braves trailing by 1-3 runs.
Brach pitched in 27 games, 21 of which (77.7%) came with the Braves leading or tied. The closest Snitker came in 2018 to using a high leverage reliever with the team trailing probably came in the form of Shane Carle. Carle pitched in 53 games, and the bulk of them (18, 33.4%), came with the Braves down 1-3 runs. In total he pitched 22 times (41.5%) with the lead and 20 times (37.8%) with a deficit, and filled out the rest of his work in tie games.
Greene is the club leader in relief appearances this year, and when you tack on his work last year he now has 49 regular season outings for the Braves. 40 (81.6%) of Greene’s 49 appearances have come with the Braves tied or leading, and 21 (42.9%) have come in that sweet spot of a 1-3 run lead.
Martin has pitched to a solid 2.48 ERA in 35 appearances, but he too has mostly worked from ahead. Only six of his 35 appearances have come with the Braves trailing, meaning he is on the mound with the lead or in a tie game 82.9% of the time.
Finally, Mark Melancon has almost exclusively pitched from in front throughout his 41 Braves appearances. Melancon has taken the mound with the Braves leading or tied 35 out of 41 times, good for 85.4% of his outings.
Luke Jackson’s 2019 would be further evidence towards Snitker’s reluctance to use high leverage relievers without the lead. Jackson led the team in appearances with 70 and had a 3.84 ERA. An even 70% (49 out of 70) of those outings came with the lead, and another eight (11.4%) came in tie games. Put that together, and the best (full season) reliever on the 2019 club was only summoned with a deficit on the scoreboard 18.6% of the time.
Total it all up and you get 1,155 appearances from 20+ outing relievers across 2011-2013. Gonzalez made 569 calls with the lead (49.3%), 191 (16.5%) in tie games and 395 (34.2%) with the Braves trailing.
Snitker’s sample size has been almost identical; he’s had 1,114 appearances from 20+ outing relievers. Snitker summoned these relievers 581 times with the lead (52.2%), 170 times in tie games (15.3%) and 363 times (32.5%) with the Braves trailing.
So by a nose, Snitker does use his better relievers more with the lead (52.2% to 49.3%), while Gonzalez was more ready to use high leverage relievers to keep a game close (34.2% to 32.5%).
Fredi vs. Snitker Wrapup
What do you want to take out of this? Your prerogative. A lot of the calculations are arbitrary, because if you altered my premise of 20 appearances being the magic number for a reliever, the results would be altered as well. It’s also up to you to decide which relievers truly are “high leverage” ones, and therefore should be deployed in what spots.
If it feels to you like one manager prioritized certain relievers in certain situations, it might loop back to your opinion of the relievers themselves. And of course, it’s up to you to decide how much stock you take in data that ultimately produced a difference of just a few percentage points in either direction.
You can even argue they’re too similar, and that itself is the problem. The numbers aren’t too far off.
Thanks for reading on Braves Bullpen Usage, Fredi Gonzalez vs. Brian Snitker. If you missed yesterday’s piece on “Freddie Freeman, Hall of Famer?”, you can find it here.