The closest the Braves have come to losing over their current winning streak — 10 games after a 4-1 Sunday night victory — was on July 29th, the fourth game in the stretch. Jordan Walden, giving usual closer Craig Kimbrel a rest day, allowed the tying run on a walk and two consecutive hits. With two outs and the bases loaded, Atlanta summoned its new secret bullpen weapon: left-hander Scott Downs, brought in via trade earlier that day from the Angels.
Downs, facing venerated fellow left-hander Todd Helton, made this tremendous play to get out of the inning:
The Braves didn’t score in the ninth, but Downs needed just four hitters to retire the side in the 10th. One Andrelton Simmons walk-off triple later and the winning streak was preserved.
Expect to see Downs heavily involved in many more Braves victories down the stretch as he bolsters what is already one of the most impressive bullpens in the league. Even though Atlanta’s starter Brandon Beachy was torched for seven runs in 3 2/3 innings and Kimbrel the archcloser was unavailable, the Braves bullpen was still nearly flawless. The unit combined for 6 1/3 innings and allowed just Walden’s lone run on seven hits, two walks, and five strikeouts.
As the playoffs near, we’re sure to hear talk of how certain bullpens make teams feel like they need to have a lead by the sixth or seventh inning. With the Downs addition, the prospect of as many as four or five innings against Braves relief pitching becomes a nightmare.
Before adding Downs, the Braves already had three of the 23 relief pitchers (minimum 30 innings) with a sub-2.00 ERA and four of the 34 with a sub-2.20 mark. They already had four of the 57 relievers with a sub-3.20 FIP. Even with two key members of their bullpen out for the year — Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty — the Braves have compiled easily the best bullpen ERA in the league (2.43 against the second-place Royals’ 2.88 mark).
Downs has been a sneaky-good reliever for years. If he can maintain pace, he’ll finish his third season with a sub-2.00 ERA and at least 40 innings pitched over the past six seasons. He hasn’t finished with an ERA above 3.15 since 2006, and he hasn’t finished with an ERA+ below 100 since his time with the Expos in 2004.
This year has seen some of his best pitching. Since a rocky start saw him give up three runs in his first three innings, Downs has been lights out. He owns a 0.90 ERA in 30 innings, has allowed just one home run and has allowed a run to score in just three of 43 appearances, including an 18-inning scoreless stretch from May 5th through July 23.
In that sense he’s a natural fit for the Atlanta bullpen, one that has featured premier arms for years now. However, his style is unique on a staff filled with power arms the Braves are known for developing. Of the pitchers sharing the bullpen with Downs, only Luis Ayala throws a sub-90 MPH average fastball. Kimbrel and Walden each hurl it in at 95 or higher, with David Carpenter close (94.8 MPH), and Alex Wood, Anthony Varvaro and Luis Avilan all over 92.0.
Downs hasn’t thrown a pitch faster than 90.5 MPH all season, according to FanGraphs. He’s a control and command pitcher and has been for his entire career — he was clocked at 87 MPH on average when the White Sox scouted him in Kentucky in 1997, when he was 21, and he averages 88.0 MPH on his sinker now with Atlanta. Combine his drab arsenal with his unassuming long-haired look and it could be easy to mistake Downs for a replaceable part bullpen arm.
It seems, given the low cost the Braves spent to get Downs — Cory Rasmus was a 2006 first round pick but at 25 has pitched exclusively in relief the last two season — the rest of the league views him as such. Instead, the Braves added to what already has been the most effective bullpen by one measure and near the top of the list in many others. He can get outs on both sides of the plate and he gives the Braves three relief aces — with Kimbrel and Walden — and multiple other power arms slinging outs left and right.
The Braves own a 12 1/2 game lead in the National League East, so we will be seeing them in the playoffs. We’ve seen over the last few years how important a bullpen can be in the playoffs, where you have the luxury of blowing through three or four relievers on a game-by-game basis thanks to the extra rest days. The Cardinals and Rangers rode their bullpens to the World Series in 2011, and the Tim Lincecum bullpen was gigantic for San Francisco on their way to a title in 2012. The addition of Scott Downs will give them the ability to follow that model in 2013, if they so choose.