Braves' six lefty relievers on verge of history

October 28th, 2021

ATLANTA -- Left-handed pitchers are always in demand. One study found that lefty pitchers make it to the big leagues about three times as frequently as righties. That’s why some parents joke (and we hope they’re joking) about tying their kids’ right arms behind their backs as they learn to play, to improve their odds of one day making millions of dollars as a lefty specialist (the three-batter minimum has only slightly dulled this dream).

But when you look at the bullpen of your National League champion Atlanta Braves, this lean towards lefties is taken to an eye-catching, historic and potentially risky extreme.

With the addition of Tucker Davidson to the World Series roster to replace the injured Charlie Morton in advance of Game 2, Atlanta is now carrying seven lefties overall and an astonishing six in the bullpen -- Davidson, Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, A.J. Minter, Drew Smyly and Dylan Lee (with Max Fried as the lone lefty starter).

This wasn’t by design.

“We didn't go into it like we have some series sometimes over the course of the last few years,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It was just kind of ... those were the guys that we targeted that were throwing good at the time to put on the club, pretty much.”

Assuming Davidson gets into one of these games (and with the Braves expected to go the bullpen route for Games 4 and 5, that seems likely), Atlanta will become the first World Series team in history to use six lefty relievers.

Before we delve into what that means for the rest of this Series, let’s first acknowledge that lefty reliever usage in this tournament has been quietly building over the past decade, mostly because teams have turned more and more to starters in relief spots.

The 2011 American League champion Texas Rangers became the first team to use five lefties in relief in a single postseason, thanks to starters Derek Holland, C.J. Wilson and Matt Harrison making scattered relief appearances alongside regular relievers Michael Gonzalez and Darren Oliver.

In the decade since, six other teams -- including these Braves -- have matched that mark (the 2016 Dodgers, '17 Cubs, '19 Yankees, '20 Dodgers and '20 Padres are also on the list). And two more -- the '18 Dodgers and '20 Rays -- exceeded it, with six lefty relievers apiece, including five in the World Series round.

As with the 2011 Rangers, the ’18 Dodgers goosed their numbers by using lefty starters Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill in emergency relief. Last year’s Rays, with Aaron Loup, Shane McClanahan, José Alvarado, Josh Fleming, Ryan Sherriff and swingman Ryan Yarbrough all pitching relief innings from the left-hand side, are the closest comparable to what Atlanta has aligned here. But even there, the Rays had right-handers Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo and Pete Fairbanks handling many of the more high-leverage assignments, so it’s not really the same thing.

We knew coming into this World Series that Snitker would look to Smith, Matzek and Minter to preserve leads wherever possible, and that’s precisely what happened in Game 1. But the Morton injury has only increased the importance of the ‘pen and its oddly left-oriented alignment.

Obviously, this Astros’ lineup, which had the best weighted runs created plus mark, strikeout rate and runs scored average in MLB this season, is a handful for right-handers and lefties alike.

But in this postseason, Houston has done its best work against southpaws, with a .306/.368/.471 slash and 16 extra-base hits in 190 plate appearances (compared to a .255/.330/.407 slash and 19 extra-base hits in 275 plate appearances against right-handers). And that’s with key right-handed bats Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman slumping of late.

Smith, Matzek and Minter all did their jobs in maintaining a lead in Game 1. It is worth keeping in mind, though, that the two total runs allowed by Minter and Matzek in that tilt doubled their total combined allotment this postseason (Smith remains unscored upon this month).

In Game 2, Snitker turned to Smyly when looking to prevent the Astros from building on a 6-2 lead in the seventh, and, instantly, the right-handed Jose Altuve smacked a solo shot to the Crawford Boxes. It didn’t affect the outcome, but it was a reminder of the danger of being so lefty-reliant against this Astros team.

Between the regular season and postseason this year, Houston has five regulars with OPS marks above .800 against lefties: Yuli Gurriel (.955), Yordan Alvarez (.919), Kyle Tucker (.895), Correa (.832) and Altuve (.805).

You wouldn’t know from those numbers that Tucker and Alvarez bat from the left-hand side. Playing for the platoon advantage against them is a fool’s errand.

Additionally, center-field and pinch-hit option Chas McCormick has an .814 OPS vs. lefties this year. And though the left-handed-hitting Michael Brantley has been nowhere near as productive against lefties (.606 OPS) as righties (.912) in the full year, he’s gone 10-for-29 (.345 average) against lefties in this postseason. So he’s dangerous, too.

“You'd better have guys that really aren't matchup guys,” Snitker said of facing the Astros. “And we kind of feel that way with all the lefties that we have, that they're not matchup guys.”

That’s certainly true of Matzek, who has limited right-handers to a feeble .138/.276/.219 slash this year (regular season and postseason combined). Smith (.185/.276/.380) and Minter (.227/.295/.364) have also been very good against opponents from the opposite side. And though it’s a small sample of 57 at-bats, the same can be said of Davidson (.211/.270/.386).

Smyly’s .261/.326/.459 opponent slash against righties isn’t up to that standard, but it’s better than his .287/.329/.531 slash against fellow southpaws. The jury is out on Lee, who has only faced 14 right-handed batters in the bigs and has been roughed up to the tune of a .286/.286/.643 slash.

Obviously, this is not precisely how the Braves drew up their Series plans. The Morton injury upped the lefty equation. But it will be interesting to see, as this Series continues to evolve, if an Astros team that has generally scorched southpaws this postseason will have the upper -- ahem -- hand here.