NL East race comes down to the Mets and Braves and avoiding blown saves

Jason Foster

Jason Foster

www.sportingnews.com

The biggest stat in the Mets and Braves’ race for the NL East crown might not be team OPS, team ERA or even team average with runners in scoring position. No, the stat that settles the whole thing might just be blown saves. Or the lack thereof.

The teams are separated by a tiny margin in the standings, but there’s been a vast difference between the bottom-line performances of their closers when it comes to saves and blown saves. Braves closer Kenley Jansen leads the NL with 33 saves. Mets closer Edwin Diaz has 29. But there’s more to it than which closer has the most saves on his ledger.

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Obviously, individual stats don’t always tell the whole story for any player, but especially not with closers. A high save total will usually indicate that a pitcher is able to close the door with the game on the line, but it’s also a somewhat misleading number. Likewise, a high number of blown saves can indicate a shaky closer, but it doesn’t always mean a pitcher has cost his team wins.

So, while not The Thing to focus on in most cases, there are times when a deeper look into saves and blown saves makes the stats especially noteworthy. And when looking at the NL East race, it’s definitely One of Those Times.

The Mets lead the Braves by 1.5 games heading into play Monday. It looked for a brief time Sunday like the lead would stay at a half-game after the Braves shocked the Mariners with five runs in the top of the ninth and took a one-run lead into the bottom half. But rookie sensation Julio Rodriguez hit a hanging slider from Jansen over the left field wall to tie the game 7-7. Two batters later, Eugenio Suarez smacked a Jansen fastball over the wall in left center for an 8-7 walk-off win. It was one of the wilder ninth innings in recent years.

The Atlanta loss represented the seventh blown save for Jansen in 2022, one off his career high of eight set in 2019 with the Dodgers. It was also Jansen’s third blown save in his past seven attempts. But more importantly, it was Jansen’s fifth blown save of the season that led to a Braves loss. And that’s really the number to focus on. 

The “blown saves leading to team losses” is key because the rules for blown saves are quite liberal. Any relief pitcher who surrenders a lead at any point in the game is charged with a blown save. It doesn’t matter whether the team ultimately wins. You blow a lead, you get a blown save. This is why it’s not a 100 percent trustworthy stat when evaluating a closer, or a team’s entire bullpen for that matter.

So with the Braves trailing the Mets by just 1.5 games, Jansen’s five blown saves leading to losses loom large. Contrast that with Mets closer Diaz, who has just one blown save leading to a loss this season. And this leads into a second important stat to watch: save percentage.

Just as we can’t evaluate a hitter solely based on the number of times he’s reached base, we shouldn’t evaluate closers based on their number of saves. In both cases, percentages are much better indications: How often does he reach base? How often does he convert a save? And that’s another huge difference between the Mets and Braves in 2022.

Diaz has converted nearly 91 percent of save chances this season, while Jansen has converted around 83 percent. For comparison, here are the top five save percentages among current playoff teams (minimum of 20 opportunities):

1. Emmanuel Clase (Guardians): 91.7
2. Edwin Diaz (Mets): 90.6
3. Jordan Romano (Blue Jays): 88.9
4. Ryan Pressly (Astros): 86.7
5. Craig Kimbrel (Dodgers): 84.6

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The issue for Jansen of late has been allowing too many base runners. Over his past seven save opportunities, he’s faced 29 batters and has allowed opponents a .314 average, a .404 on-base percentage and a 1.153 OPS. It translates to an astonishing 11.12 ERA during that stretch. At least publicly, the Braves have no plans to make a change. 

“He’s leading the National League in saves,” manager Brian Snitker told reporters after Sunday’s loss. “He had a bad day today.”

The Braves are 5-2 in Jansen’s past seven save opportunities, but the two losses — a walk-off walk against the Cardinals and Sunday’s big comeback/letdown against the Mariners — were especially brutal, and they helped fuel a pattern of exceptionally unclean innings for Jansen. Since Aug. 1, Jansen has just four clean innings in 15 appearances.

“Nothing bothers me in this game. I’ve been through plenty,” Jansen told reporters Sunday. “One thing I’m going to tell you that’s not going to happen is that this is going to take my confidence away.”

Again, the number of blown saves isn’t necessarily an issue. Even Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, had three seasons with at least seven blown saves. It’s more about the ultimate outcome and the avoidance of bad patterns. 

Unfortunately for the Braves, both markers have been troubling for Jansen in 2022 and could become a major factor in the outcome of the division race — and the difference between a first-round bye and the crap-shoot of a three-game wild-card set.

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