AJ Minter, Braves’ bullpen thriving as team extends win streak to 14 games

It was assumed the Braves’ bullpen would again be a major strength in 2022. After all, the top four relievers were returning from a bullpen that was so good late last season into the postseason that it was nicknamed “The Night Shift,” and setup man Tyler Matzek attained cult-hero status en route to Atlanta’s World Series championship.

Then the Braves signed veteran reliever Collin McHugh at spring training, and followed that a few days later with the surprise signing of longtime Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, and it looked like the Braves might have the deepest bullpen in the majors and the best in franchise history . It was practically an embarrassment of bullpen riches.

But that was before one of the core four returners, setup man Luke Jackson, blew out his elbow at spring training and had season-ending Tommy John surgery. And before Matzek struggled early and landed on the injured list in mid-May with shoulder inflammation. And before last year’s closer Will Smith, who was superb from late September through the World Series, posted a 4.05 ERA with four homers allowed through his first 13 appearances of 2022.

Given all of those developments, and with versatile McHugh on the COVID-19 injured list since June 7, one might suspect the Braves’ bullpen would be struggling a bit. But such an assumption would be wrong. Entirely, spectacularly wrong.

The Braves’ reshuffled relief corps (it has a new nickname: Arm Barn) hasn’t just continued to perform at its late-2021 level, but actually gotten better, particularly during a 14-game winning streak, the latest coming as Atlanta beat the Nationals 8-2 in Wednesday night’s series finale.

With left-hander AJ Minter — the final member of last year’s core four — pitching as effectively as any MLB reliever, Jansen remaining a top-shelf closer in his 13th season, Smith settling in and doing good work in a setup role, and some well-traveled veterans excellent in high-leverage opportunities, the Braves’ bullpen has thrived.


Kenley Jansen has 18 saves with the Braves this season. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

The Braves were fourth in the majors and first in the NL in bullpen ERA at 2.95 before Wednesday, third in the majors in WHIP (1.12), and fourth in opponents’ batting average (.212). And they have ramped things up substantially during June, posting a majors-leading 1.44 bullpen ERA during the winning streak that began June 1.

Minter has made a strong case for All-Star selection; traditional statistics and advanced metrics indicate he’s one of the two or three best relievers in the majors this season. He had a 1.01 ERA in 28 appearances before Wednesday and a 1.00 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) that was the best among MLB relievers. Minter’s 1.3 fWAR also ranked second among relievers behind the Yankees’ Michael King.

Before Wednesday, Atlanta relievers’ .197 opponents’ on-base percentage during June was more than 50 points better than the next-lowest in the majors. Braves relievers had 47 strikeouts with only six walks during the month and struck out 30 percent of the batters they faced in June.

Minter and grizzled veterans Darren O’Day and Jesse Chavez had five scoreless appearances apiece during the winning streak before Wednesday, while Jansen had converted six saves in six June appearances with eight strikeouts and no walks.

“I need to stay hurt because this is the best bullpen in the league,” Jackson joked before Saturday’s game in Atlanta, where he hangs out with the team at home games after doing his elbow-surgery rehab. “Ever since they got rid of Matzek they’ve been taking off. Me and him just need to stay on the shelf.”

Jackson’s sense of humor reflects a mood that prevails in Atlanta’s bullpen through good times and rough stretches. In a clubhouse where team chemistry is valued a great deal and has been an integral part of the Braves’ success during a run of four consecutive NL East titles and last year’s World Series win, the bullpen is a tight-knit team within a team, its members spending hours together every day, working out and sitting together during games.

This bullpen group is close and many of them have been together for several years, its newcomers vetted carefully by general manager Alex Anthopoulos in an effort to assure incoming personalities won’t disrupt the good vibe.

“I tell people all the time, it could have been easy for all of them to not talk to me at all,” said Jackson Stephens, 28, whose only major-league experience was 36 appearances with Cincinnati in 2017-2018 before the Braves signed the Alabama native to a minor-league contract after a stellar winter ball season in Venezuela. “For one, I wasn’t in big-league spring training with them. I had never talked to anybody on this team; the only person I’d played with was Duvey (Adam Duvall), and I played with William (Contreras in winter ball). Those were the only two people I knew in the whole clubhouse.

“But they all welcomed me in, introduced themselves, got to know me, made me feel comfortable. And more relationships were built, and now I see them all as brothers. Everybody wants to win, and everybody wants to do their job. It’s really fun. We’re super supportive of each other. We hang out a lot. We go on a road trip and have dinner sometimes, we go out to eat, spend time with each other, get to know each other. Obviously there’s a lot of goofing around and everything, but it’s really good.”

Stephens has been one of the team’s pleasant surprises, posting a 2.42 ERA and two saves in 22 1/3 innings over 15 appearances, with 21 strikeouts and five walks. He was so good early, he’s worked his way into a high-leverage role.

“We knew going into spring training that the bullpen was going to be a strength,” Minter said. “And unfortunately we’ve seen that injuries do happen — we lost Luke, we lost Matzek — so we needed guys to step up, including myself. Guys like Jackson Stephens — man, he’s getting this opportunity and he’s taken off with it. He’s done an excellent job.

“So many guys down there have just stepped up, embraced some different roles, and we’re just executing on all cylinders right now.”

Minter, who was demoted to Triple A last summer because he was walking too many batters, had a resounding turnaround after returning in August. Now he’s gone next-level with command of his fastball and cutter mix this season, racking up 38 strikeouts with just four walks in 26 2/3 innings before Wednesday.

“He’s a freakazoid,” Jackson said. “The guy has an unbelievable arm. Unbelievable man. I mean, you’ve seen him put it together in ’18, you’ve seen it. I think he’s maturing again to the point where he knows how to do it every time out. I mean, there’s going to be days where he gives up runs, but his stuff right now is probably the best left-handed stuff in the game.”

Among 13 MLB relievers who had at least 36 strikeouts before Wednesday, none had as few walks as Minter, and the only others besides Minter who had allowed no home runs were Milwaukee’s Devin Williams and Minter’s teammate Spencer Strider, the flamethrowing rookie who has since moved to Atlanta’s starting rotation.

Strider had 37 strikeouts, a 2.22 ERA and a .167 opponents’ average in 24 1/3 relief innings before shifting roles just over two weeks ago and solidifying what had been a shaky fifth spot in the starting rotation.

Minter has soared since making it a priority to avoid three-ball hitters’ counts, trusting his overpowering stuff and throwing strikes on 2-0 and 2-1, daring hitters to swing instead of giving them pitches too easy to take.

A year ago, he had a 4.86 ERA and 14 walks in 33 1/3 innings through July 18, when he was optioned to Triple A for four weeks. After rejoining the major-league team in August, Minter had a 1.89 ERA with 20 strikeouts and six walks in his last 19 regular-season appearances, then 18 strikeouts with four walks in 12 postseason innings.

“Last year was just a crazy year,” he said. “Looking back on it, yeah I could have felt sorry for myself and said, ‘I shouldn’t be down at Triple A,’ got mad at the world. Don’t get me wrong, I was pissed off that I got sent down. But looking back, it was the best thing for me, unfortunately. Because I went down there and I just came to a point with myself, and I just told myself that I’m not going to walk any more guys.

“I’m gonna throw strikes, and if they hit it, they hit it. And I’m gonna try to strike guys out, but in order to strike guys out, you’ve got to get to two strikes. And I just carried that mentality over, and I felt like it paid off in the second half of the season last year, and even this year.”

They expect to have McHugh back in the next few days — he had 25 strikeouts with five walks in 23 2/3 innings before he landed on the COVID-19 IL — and could have Matzek back around the All-Star break.

But for now, between the improvement from Minter, the work they’ve gotten from veterans pitching like anything but journeymen — Jesús Cruz is another example — and some others answering the call including rookie Dylan Lee, the Braves have pieced together a unit that’s been outpitching every bullpen in the NL.

If you’d have told someone that would be the case, given their injuries, even Minter conceded, “That’d be hard to believe. But we knew we had depth in the bullpen, and that’s what has kept us afloat. Alex does a good job of realizing that you need depth to make it far in this game, and it’s obviously shown.”

(Top photo of AJ Minter: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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