Tonight, the Braves are essentially playing for their lives. If they lose and the Cardinals beat the worst team in baseball, their season is over. It’s possible that the Astros could help them out and beat Chris Carpenter, but Atlanta shouldn’t count on it, and thus, they should treat their contest with the Phillies this evening as an elimination game.
That kind of situation requires a different kind of managing. While they have their best healthy starter on the mound, Fredi Gonzalez should still be willing to go to his bullpen extremely early tonight.
This isn’t a slight on Tim Hudson, who is still a very good starting pitcher. His ERA was 14 percent better than league average this year, and his peripherals support the idea that he’s one of the more reliable starters around. However, even a good starting pitcher is generally more susceptible to allowing runs than a good relief pitcher, and their value comes from their ability to produce quantity of innings rather than quality.
For all the Braves struggles this month, they still have one thing going for them – the best bullpen in baseball. For all the talk about Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel being “worn down” and “overworked”, there’s not much evidence that it’s actually true. While Kimbrel has blown a couple of notable saves, his September xFIP is a ridiculous 1.30, so the problems have actually been more about the timing of hits allowed than actual struggles. Venters has been worse than earlier in the season (3.85 xFIP), but his GB and K rates remain strong, and his velocity hasn’t dropped significantly – I wouldn’t read too much into a one month surge in walk rate.
Venters and Kimbrel are two of the very best relievers in baseball, and the odds that the Phillies put up runs while either is pitching is dramatically less than if Hudson is the one on the mound. For comparison, Hudson allowed one run for every 10.2 batters he faced this year, while Kimbrel and Venters allowed one run for every 17.5 batters they faced this year. Even if you want to account for potential fatigue, you have at least a 30 percent decrease in run expectation with those guys on the mound as compared to Hudson.
The Braves can’t count on racking up a ton of runs tonight, so keeping the Phillies offense off the board is imperative – to that end, both Venters and Kimbrel should be informed before the game that they’ll each be going two innings tonight unless the Braves open up a big lead early. Kimbrel hasn’t pitched in four days, and Venters has made one appearance (throwing 13 pitches) in that same span. They’re rested and they’re capable of getting six outs apiece.
Ask Hudson to get through the line-up no more than two times, hoping he can give you five innings of something close to shutout baseball. After one full trip through the line-up, have Eric O’Flaherty start getting loose. It doesn’t take long for a rally to start, and with the left-handed bats in Philadelphia’s order, a critical situation with an LHB at the plate could materialize very quickly. O’Flaherty isn’t just a LOOGY, but he’s lights out against left-handers and good enough to get good right-handers out as well. If Hudson runs into some trouble in the 4th or 5th inning, O’Flaherty is likely a better bet to quench the rally before the Braves find themselves down a couple of runs.
By planning on getting three or four innings from Hudson, an inning or so from O’Flaherty, and two each from Venters and Kimbrel, the Braves can significantly lower the Phillies expected run total and increase their odds of winning tonight’s game, keeping themselves alive to fight another day. Pulling Hudson early also has the side benefit of potentially making him available for an earlier playoff start if the Braves advance to the National League Division Series.
Given the struggles of the rest of the team, I know it’s tempting to give your best starter the ball and ask him to win the game for you. However, the Braves best chance to win tonight – and to keep their season alive – is to let Hudson know that he’s only going to throw 60-75 pitches tonight, and he should plan accordingly. With a trio of relievers behind him that are just more likely to keep runs off the board, the Braves should not ask too much from Hudson tonight. Extending him too deep into the game could be costly, and this isn’t a game the Braves can afford to lose.