New Braves lefty Aaron Bummer excited to join loaded bullpen, team that’s aiming high

NORTH PORT, Fla. — When the Atlanta Braves traded Michael Soroka and four other players to the Chicago White Sox for veteran left-hander Aaron Bummer on Nov. 16, some eyebrows were raised considering Bummer’s career-worst 6.79 ERA last season.

There were also plenty both inside and outside the Braves organization who noted that despite that bloated ERA — it was nearly four runs above his ERA from the previous three seasons — Bummer still had strong underlying statistics including a 29.2 percent strikeout rate and 58.2 percent ground ball rate.

But he will stop anyone who tries to dismiss the ERA and make reference to other telling stats including a .387 on-base percentage against him in 93 plate appearances in high-leverage situations, or a 1.008 OPS in tie games. Don’t try to blame that on the White Sox defense or anything else, Bummer says.

“No, I was the one who threw ball four, let him get on first base, let him take second, and then a single let him score,” said Bummer, 30, describing the sort of rough outing that sunk his 2023 season. “That’s the way that I go about my business. I’m forever going to be the guy that stands up and would rather look myself in the mirror and point the finger directly back at me than anything else.

“Ground balls are great, but if they’re not hit at people, it doesn’t make a difference. So, it’s my job to make as good of pitches as I possibly can and just continue to work.”

Bummer’s 2023 ERA was nearly double his Fielding Independent Pitching number (3.58), an indication of unusually bad luck. By comparison, he had a 2.36 ERA and 3.19 FIP in 2022, and has a career 3.84 ERA and 3.38 FIP.

He still averaged 94.3 mph with his sinker, nearly equal to 2022 and 1.3 mph below the average in his breakout season in 2019, when Bummer posted a 2.13 ERA in 58 appearances, with 60 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings and a stunning 72.1 percent ground ball rate.

It was the career-high 36 walks that hurt him most in 2023, he said. (He didn’t mention some shaky defense, but there was that.)

Despite the dip in performance, he still never expected he’d be traded entering the final year of a five-year, $16 million contract that includes club options for 2025 and 2026. Bummer had a 2.92 ERA in 103 appearances from 2020-2022, with 119 strikeouts and 44 walks in 92 1/3 innings. His 2019 breakthrough earned Bummer that contract, which includes a $5.5 million salary in 2024. There are club options for $7.25 million in 2025 and $7.5 million in 2026, with $1.25 million buyouts. The Braves will strongly consider those if he pitches as he has in the past.

“I don’t think anybody ever wants to have the worst season in your career,” he said. “You want to be able to walk in and walk out of work every day knowing you got better. I think that I created quite a few bad habits through my injury — my lat strain in 2022. … I was trying to stay afloat for quite a while.

“Honestly I was never really able to get the ball rolling the way that I wanted to last year. Struck out enough people, but put myself in enough bad counts to where I was walking way too many people. When there’s somebody standing on first base because I gave them a free pass there, that’s an easy way for them to score runs. So, going into this offseason, being able to control my walks and being able to control the running game, keeping guys on first base, was a huge priority for me.”

Bummer had spent his entire career with the White Sox, who took him in the 19th round of the 2014 June draft out of the University of Nebraska. He didn’t want to be traded, but likes where he landed, with a Braves team that has perennial championship aspirations.

“It’s awesome,” Bummer said of his new team’s atmosphere. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to accomplish that goal (with the White Sox). There’s a decent core over in Chicago and we were all building towards one common goal. We weren’t able to do that. But to come over here, in an organization and clubhouse where there is only one common goal — the one common goal is to win a World Series — it’s pretty awesome. It’s exciting.”

Bummer’s sinker and slider are the primary, potent staples in his repertoire, and his funky three-quarters delivery — he sweeps his arm across and slings the ball to the plate –— make him an uncomfortable at-bat for left-handed hitters, who have a .199 average and .527 OPS in 426 plate appearances against him over his seven-year career.

He’ll join A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek to give the Braves three high-leverage lefties in their Opening Day bullpen, provided Matzek doesn’t need an extra couple of weeks to shake off rust as he returns from October 2022 Tommy John surgery. Lefties Dylan Lee and Ray Kerr are also competing.

A.J. Minter spent much of last season as the only lefty in the Braves bullpen. He’ll have some backup in 2024. (Robert Edwards / USA Today)

The Braves’ bullpen has been a tight-knit unit for years.

“It’s dedicated and focused,” Bummer said of his early impressions. “These guys come into work every day, focused with intent. It’s doing the little things right. There’s not a lot of reps, but making sure that you’re doing them right, getting as much as you can out of each day, whether it be in the weight room, the training room or on the field.”

It’ll be the most lefty relievers the Braves have had since their 2021 World Series bullpen featured Matzek, Minter and closer Will Smith.

“They’re quality guys, all of them,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of the current lefty options. “Matzek, I can’t wait to see him (in games), see where he’s at. Until we get out there (in games) you don’t know. But there’s a lot of really good options this year.”

When a reporter suggested to Snitker that he might be able to throw a different lefty against Phillies sluggers Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber each time they come up, Snitker laughed and said, “Yeah, I know. That’s a pretty good chance.”

Minter, who was the Braves’ only lefty reliever at times last season and has been a workhorse since 2021, is excited about the additions. He played catch with Bummer and said it was not fun.

“The sinker and obviously the sweeper. I mean, it’s not comfortable,” Minter said. “And I can’t imagine as a hitter being up there. (His delivery) is unorthodox. That’s what makes him unique and nasty at the same time. I know he’s going to be a big addition for us, another guy coming in and getting lefties out. We’re going to need him.”

Minter smiled and added, “The way the Phillies line up, we’re gonna need him. It’s gonna be big.”

Snitker has watched Bummer throw a few times in bullpen side sessions in the past two weeks and marvels at the angles and pitch movement generated by Bummer and lefty starter Chris Sale, another big offseason pickup for the Braves.

Like Minter and Matzek, Bummer is another lefty who can handle righties, who have a .239 average and .687 OPS in more than 700 plate appearances against him.

In 2023, lefties hit .231 and righties .238 against Bummer, and his career-high walks undermined him against hitters from both sides.

“At the end of the day, your job is to get outs and prevent runs,” said Bummer, who also throws plenty of cutters and four-seamers and some changeups, an unsually large assortment for a reliever. “I didn’t do a good job of that last year, and that’s entirely on me. Look at the ground ball rate or K percentage or any of those things, it doesn’t matter if you’re scoring runs.”

Still, he can appreciate hearing how much value the Braves put in some of the other analytics that convinced them he could still be a top-shelf reliever. They traded pitchers Soroka and Jared Shuster, infielders Nicky Lopez and Braden Shewmake, and minor league righty Riley Gowens for him.

“To be valued in other ways, and to have the skill set of being able to get the ground balls that I can get, with the strikeouts that I have — there’s not a whole bunch of people out there that can do both,” Bummer said. “A lot of them either get ground balls or strike out people. Knowing that I can do both, it’s something that I’m proud of, and being able to capitalize on that is the most important thing.”

(Top photo: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

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