Luis Avilan (left) is one of seven Braves relievers with an ERA under 2.50. (USA Today Images)
At the All-Star break the Braves looked like a team perhaps headed for another second-half collapse. Sure, they held the largest divisional lead in baseball at six games, but they were just 42-40 after a 12-1 start. B.J. Upton was hitting .177. Dan Uggla was at .200. Justin Upton had hit .237 with little power in 61 games entering the break. The rotation was regressing.
And yet here we sit on Aug. 12, less than one month after the final game of the first half, and Atlanta’s lead in the NL East has ballooned to 14½ games over the Nationals, 16½ over the Mets and 19½ over the Phillies.
The Braves had a 14-game winning streak snapped Saturday, two nights before opening a three-game series with the Phillies. Atlanta is 18-5 since the All-Star break; the Phillies are 4-17.
How has a team with as many underperformers as Atlanta posted the best record in the majors? Some may point to the underrated Freddie Freeman, or to the power production from catchers Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. Others could look at the development of Mike Minor and Julio Teheran, two No. 2 starters Atlanta is glad it didn’t trade at recent deadlines.
But the biggest difference between a winner like the Bravers and a loser like the Phillies is the bullpen. More specifically, the contributions from young, no-name bullpen pieces. The Braves have gotten a ton out of their young relief arms. The Phillies have received next to nothing from theirs.
Lefty relief ace Jonny Venters never threw a pitch in 2013. He’s out for the season for the Braves after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery. Fellow lefty bullpen ace Eric O’Flaherty lasted until May 17 before injuring his elbow and requiring Tommy John surgery. The Braves lost two of the top seven left-handed relievers in the sport and didn’t miss a beat. The Phillies lost Mike Adams and never recovered.
Every one of the nine Atlanta relievers with at least 10 innings pitched this season has an ERA between 1.12 and 3.77. Of the 13 relievers the Phillies have used, only four have an ERA under 3.77 –- Jonathan Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, Joe Savery and Luis Garcia.
With Craig Kimbrel, the Braves have a ninth-inning advantage over arguably every team in baseball. But had you ever heard of David Carpenter prior to the 2013 season? Luis Avilan? Anthony Varvaro? How about Alex Wood?
Carpenter has a 1.80 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine in 32 appearances. Justin De Fratus has a 4.11 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 40 games.
The lefy Avilan has a 1.12 ERA in 55 games. The Phillies' lefties have been startlingly bad –- Jeremy Horst has a 6.23 ERA, batters have a .914 OPS vs. Raul Valdes, Bastardo was busted for PEDs and Jake Diekman can’t consistently throw strikes or retire righties.
For years we’ve heard how much the Phillies like De Fratus, a strike-thrower who typically toyed with minor-league hitters. For years we’ve heard about Phillippe Aumont’s electric stuff. Diekman’s fastball and funky delivery intrigued scouts and fans alike.
But at some point the stuff and the flashes have to result in some kind of prolonged success. That hasn’t happened in 2013. Literally every young Phillies reliever has regressed or disappointed, either because of an inability to throw strikes, an inability to keep the ball in the yard, an inability to strand inherited runners or an inability to stay on the field.
It’s put the organization in an unenviable position, where it needs to completely overhaul the bullpen over the winter. No spot other than Papelbon’s is locked down, and the Phillies likely wish that at this point his spot wasn't locked down. Papelbon and Adams are owed a combined $20 million next season, even though the closer is in the midst of a sharp decline and Adams may never pitch again.
The Braves? They just keep churning out young relievers who actually live up to the hype.