‘You’ve got to get 27 outs, and it doesn’t matter how you get them’
By Tyler Kepner
The evolution of modern baseball can be neatly explained by the Atlanta Braves’ path to their last two championships.
In the 1995 World Series, they used four ace starters — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery — in the first four games, then went back to Maddux and Glavine to finish off Cleveland. Last fall, with a two-games-to-one lead over Houston, they turned to Dylan Lee and Tucker Davidson for the next two starts. Again, they won the championship in six games.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Lee said in the clubhouse at spring training in North Port, Florida on Sunday, his uniform number, 89, underscoring his status. What happened to his old number? Lee pointed to a locker a couple of stalls away, the domain of Kenley Jansen, the reliever who spent a dozen years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, all in Lee’s old No. 74.
“I think I’ve got as much service time in days as he has in years,” Lee said, accurately. “So he can take that number.”
Lee and Davidson are still seeking their first career victories. Lee is a left-handed reliever; before the World Series, his last start had been for the Class A Greensboro Grasshoppers in 2017. Davidson was not on Atlanta’s postseason roster until Charlie Morton broke his leg on a comebacker while starting Game 1 of the World Series in Houston. Davidson’s World Series cameo was his sixth start in the majors, and brought him a measure of fame at home in Amarillo, Texas.
“I went to my high school football playoff game; they announced me at halftime and I came out on the field,” he said. “And then I remember eating at restaurants and people coming up to take a picture. It was kind of like, ‘Wow, I have never been famous in my hometown.’”
Lee faced four batters (one hit, two walks, one strikeout) as an opener for Kyle Wright, who has struggled as a starter but pitched well in relief early in the series. Wright helped the Braves win Game 4, meaning Davidson would start a potential clincher the next night. He pitched a scoreless first inning, wobbled in the second and left in the third, getting no decision in a 9-5 loss.
“They pretty much wanted me to give as much as I could,” Davidson said. “And definitely, at that time of the game, we’ve got to play matchups. We obviously want to turn it over to the Night Shift and let them do their thing. Because you’ve got to get 27 outs, and it doesn’t matter how you get them.”
Jorge Soler, an outfielder now with the Miami Marlins, was named the most valuable player of the World Series for hitting three well-timed homers. But the Night Shift gang in Atlanta’s bullpen — as a unit — made the biggest impact, logging 32 1/3 of the team’s 53 innings in the World Series, with a 2.51 ERA.
Lee and Davidson were mostly just along for the ride, and both are now competing for spots on the opening day roster. Atlanta made that harder this month by doubling down on its bullpen depth, signing Jansen (one year, $16 million) and Collin McHugh (two years, $10 million) after trading with Oakland for Matt Olson as a more affordable long-term alternative to Freddie Freeman at first base.
“We would have loved to find another starter we felt really good about,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “We tried in November; we didn’t get anywhere. The next best thing is to solidify your bullpen and shorten the game. So if we’re deep, maybe we could take a starter out after four innings if he’s scuffling, especially with a young rotation like we’re planning to have.”
Ian Anderson and Max Fried are young, but Morton, 38, is the exception. Fully recovered from the broken leg, he returns for his 15th season in a career that finally blossomed when he reinvented his style.
Morton was raised in Connecticut and rooted for New York Yankees teams deep in workhorse starters: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Cone and so on. Morton admired those pitchers and tried for years to throw sinkers, generate weak contact and pitch deep into games. Now he tailors his pitch mix to make batters swing and miss, a popular approach that comes with a cost.
“If I’m full-bore on the throttle for seven innings, by the time I go out there for the seventh inning, I’m gassed,” said Morton, who has not thrown a complete game since 2011. “I’m absolutely gassed. Because what I’m valued for is my pure stuff: sitting 95 with a high-spin, high-movement curveball. That’s how the league has valued me.”
Morton has come to embody the north-south way of pitching, baiting hitters at the top and bottom edges of the strike zone with high fastballs and diving curves. The reason for the strategy, he said, is that umpire standards are better.
“The zone is the zone now,” Morton said. “Umpires get worn out for missing a pitch that misses the zone by an inch. You go look at tapes from the ’90s, those guys were calling strikes a foot off the plate. If you just lived down and away, that was fine when down and away was six inches off the plate. Now, down and away is a barrel every time, because hitters cover that.”
In other words, even as Major League Baseball considers an automated ball-strike system, umpires are so good that hitters have little reason to expand their strike zones. If they’re only swinging at strikes, those strikes better be difficult to hit. Producing those pitches, at all times, is stressful on the arm — but the inventory of short-burst power pitchers has never been greater.
“You can go to any camp right now and it’s like: ‘Who’s that guy? Oh, he throws 97,’” Morton said. “Just look around.”
The team that collects the most of those arms, and keeps them fresh, just might be the last team standing. That is why Atlanta will be so dangerous again, no matter who gets the first few outs of a game.
“It’s about how devastating their bullpen is,” Jansen said. “That’s what I hear from the hitters. I saw that in the World Series, and when it comes to that bullpen, it was nothing but dominance. I’m excited to be here and help them win another one.