NORTH PORT, Fla. — The evolution of modern baseball is best explained by the Atlanta Braves’ journey 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 returned to Maddux and Glavine to finish Cleveland. Last fall, with a two-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 at the clubhouse during spring training on Sunday, his uniform number, 89, underscoring his status. What happened to his old number? Lee pointed to a locker a few stalls away, the estate of Kenley Jansen, the reliever who spent a dozen years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, all at Lee’s old number 74.
“I think I have as much service time in days as he has in years,” Lee said accurately. “So he can take this number.”
Lee and Davidson are still looking for their first career wins. Lee is a left-handed reliever; prior to the World Series, his last start was for the Class A Greensboro Grasshoppers in 2017. Davidson was not on Atlanta’s playoff roster until Charlie Morton broke his leg on a comeback while starting the first game of the World Series in Houston. Davidson’s World Series cameo was his sixth majors start and brought him some fame back home in Amarillo, Texas.
“I went to my high school football playoff game; they announced me at half time and I walked out on the pitch,” he said. “And then I remember eating in restaurants and people coming in to take a picture. It was kind of like, ‘Wow, I’ve never been famous in my hometown.’
Lee faced four hitters (one hit, two walks, one strikeout) opening for Kyle Wright, who struggled as a starter but pitched well in relief early in the series. Wright helped the Braves win Game 4, which meant Davidson would start a potential game-breaking game the following night. He pitched a scoreless first inning, faltered in the second and left in the third, getting no decision in a 9-5 loss.
“They pretty much wanted me to give it my all,” Davidson said. “And definitely, at this point in the game, we have to play matchups. We obviously want to hand over the task to the Night Shift and let them do their job. Because you have 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 World Series Most Valuable Player for hitting three well-timed homers. But the Night Shift gang in the Atlanta bullpen — as a unit — had the biggest impact, recording 32 ⅓ of the team’s 53 World Series innings, with a 2.51 ERA. .
Lee and Davidson were mostly just for the ride, and both are now vying for spots on the opening day roster. Atlanta made it harder this month by doubling the depth of its bullpen, 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 that we felt really good with,” said general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “We tried in November; we did nothing. The best thing to do is solidify your bullpen and shorten the game. So if we’re deep, we might be able to pull a starter after four innings if he gets into a fight, especially with a young rotation like the one we’re anticipating. having.
Ian Anderson and Max Fried are young, but Morton, 38, is an exception. Fully recovered from his broken leg, he returns for his 15th season in a career that finally blossomed when he reinvented his style.
Morton grew up in Connecticut and rooted for Yankees teams deep in workhorse starters: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, David Cone and so on. Morton admired these pitchers and tried for years to cast sinkers, generate low contact, and dive deep in games. Now he’s adapting his pitch mix to swing and miss hitters, a popular approach that comes at a cost.
“If I’m full on the throttle for seven innings, by the time I go out there for the seventh inning, I’m gassed,” said Morton, who hasn’t pitched a full game since 2011. “I “I’m absolutely gassed. Because what I’m appreciated for is my pure thing: sitting 95 with a high-spin, high-motion curveball. That’s how the league appreciated me.”
Morton came to epitomize the north-south way of throwing, baiting hitters on the top and bottom edges of the strike zone with high fastballs and dipping curves. The reason for this strategy, he said, is that referee standards are better.
“The zone is the zone now,” Morton said. “Referees are getting exhausted for missing a pitch that misses the area by an inch. You’ll be watching tapes from the 90s, these guys were calling strikes a foot from the plate. If you just lived downstairs and out of the way, it was fine when down and out was six inches from the trim. Now down and away is a barrel every time, because the hitters are covering that.
In other words, even though Major League Baseball is considering an automated batting system, the umpires are so good that batters have little reason to expand their strike zones. If they only swing on strikes, those strikes better be hard to hit. Producing these pitches, all the time, is stressful on the arm – but inventorying powerful short-burst pitchers has never been greater.
“You can go to any camp right now and it’s like, ‘Who is this guy? Oh, he throws 97,” Morton said. “Look around.”
The team that collects the most of these weapons and keeps them fresh might just be the last team standing. That’s why Atlanta will once again be so dangerous no matter who gets the first outs in a game.
“That’s how devastating their bullpen is,” Jansen said. “That’s what I hear from hitters. I’ve seen that in the World Series, and when it comes to that bullpen, it was nothing but dominance. I’m thrilled to be here and help them win another one.