The Braves Aren’t Overworking Their Relievers

With the Atlanta Braves starting rotation facing some significant health questions, they are going to need strong performances from their relievers to have a chance of advancing in October. However, no team in 2011 has relied more on their relievers during the regular season – Jonny Venters, Craig Kimbrel, and Eric O’Flaherty rank 1st, 3rd, and 4th in the majors in relief appearances – and these relatively large workloads have created doubts about how well the Braves bullpen will perform in October.

There’s only one problem – these workloads aren’t actually historically unique for relievers at all. Focusing solely on 2011 totals gives the appearance of overwork, but in reality, the Braves are simply using their bullpen in the normal way it has been deployed for most of the past two decades. Instead, it’s the rest of baseball that is seeing a fairly dramatic shift downward in reliever usage.

From 2000 to 2004, a minimum of 20 relievers in each season threw 80 or more innings. In 2004, 27 relievers hit that mark, with eight of those throwing 90 or more innings. Scot Shields even topped the 100 inning plateau. However, in 2005, teams became more judicious with their willingness to use relievers that frequently, and only 10 bullpen arms managed to throw as many as 80 innings that year. Teams continued that pattern until 2009, when only eight relievers threw as many as 80 innings.

Last year, only five relievers were used that frequently, and the same is true this year – though with two weeks left in the season, we’ll likely end the season with seven or eight relievers surpassing that mark. However, that is still well under the average for the previous decade, and continues to show that teams have shifted the way they’re using their relievers.

There are two obvious factors that have driven this shift – a downturn in offense and the expansion of the number of relievers being carried by each team. With run scoring taking a nosedive the last few years, starting pitchers have been able to work deeper into the game, as there aren’t as many offensive rallies which push a manager towards making a call to the bullpen.

Now, even when a manager does make a pitching change, the rise of the seven and even occasionally eight man bullpen gives him significantly more options to choose from. While a six man bullpen was the standard for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, more and more teams have exchanged a bench player for another relief arm, giving them more match-up flexibility and allowing the manager to spread innings around to give more frequent days off during the season.

These two factors have served to all but eliminate the modern day “rubber-arm” reliever, as teams have spread the wealth among a larger pitching staff rather than asking their best relievers to pitch with significant frequency. The Braves, however, are simply bucking the modern trend, and are continuing to use their bullpen in the way that was standard for most of the last several decades.

If you look at the workloads of Venters, Kimbrel, and O’Flaherty from a wider perspective, it becomes nearly impossible to argue that they’ve been historically overworked. If we go back to the turn of the decade, 112 relief pitchers have thrown more innings in a season than Jonny Venters has this year. If you’d rather go by games pitched, 53 pitchers were used more often than Venters has been this season. He’d have to appear in six of the final 12 Braves games of the season to even crack the top 10.

Kimbrel and O’Flaherty’s innings totals are even significantly lower than Venters, and are not remotely out of the norm for quality relief pitchers. For comparison, Mariano Rivera threw 70 innings or more in every season from 2003 to 2008, and it would be impossible to argue that his regular season workloads took had a negative effect on him in the postseason.

The Braves have the best bullpen in baseball, so it’s only natural that they’ve relied on their relievers more than other teams have in 2011. However, there’s nothing in the history books to suggest that the workloads they’ve asked their relievers to carry this year are out of the ordinary or in any way potentially damaging to their potential success in October. Kimbrel, Venters, and O’Flaherty have been used frequently because they’re among the best in the game at what they do, and you shouldn’t expect that to change in the playoffs.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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