Dan Winkler has been with the Braves since being selected in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft. Coming into this season, he had spent almost all of that time on the disabled list. In 2015, he was out until late September recovering from Tommy John surgery, which was to be expected when he was selected in the draft. In April 2016, Winkler had only pitched in three games, but was pitching well—struck out four of the eight batters he faced with no hits allowed—when he fractured his elbow while delivering a pitch against the Cardinals. This time, he was out until August 2017 when he was activated and finished the 2017 season with a 2.81 FIP over 16 appearances. Through all of that, he still needed to be on the major league roster up to April 12 this season to exhaust the Rule 5 requirements.
While out in the 2016 and 2017 seasons recovering from the fractured elbow, Winkler adjusted his mechanics to create less stress on his elbow. Back now armed with new mechanics, Winkler has been nearly unstoppable in the early going of 2018. There are five relievers in baseball that have struck out over 40% of the batters they’ve faced while walking under 10%. Winkler is among that group of pitchers. The others in that group are Dellin Betances (Yankees), Sean Doolittle (Nationals), Josh Hader (Brewers), Craig Kimbrel (Red Sox), and Richard Rodriguez (Pirates).
There’s one name on that list that stands out to Braves fans above all others, and that’s Craig Kimbrel. This season, Dan Winkler has been just as good, if not better, than Craig Kimbrel. Here are some stats to back up that claim.
Right now, Winkler ranks 6th in baseball in fWAR among relievers. Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman lead the way with over 1.0 fWAR, but then there’s Winkler in a group of relievers between 0.9 and 0.8 fWAR on the season. The members of that group include Adam Ottavino, Chad Green and Shane Carle.
Though tied in fWAR with Shane Carle, Winkler has far and away been the best relief option in the Braves bullpen this season. Carle and Winkler are the only members of the bullpen with greater than 0.1 fWAR, but Carle has done it with nearly six more innings of work.
Last night, Winkler came into the game in the 8th inning and struck out the only two batters he faced. Arodys Vizcaino promptly followed by blowing his second save of the season. After the game, manager Brian Snitker seemed to suggest you may see Dan Winkler in some save opportunities going forward and I’m here to tell you that is long overdue. I still believe Vizcaino is a capable reliever, and at some point of this season, I feel like he’ll be good enough that you can at least argue him, along with AJ Minter, as being the best Braves reliever, but right now something is off with Vizcaino and he isn’t performing well enough to pitch in more critical situations than Winkler, Minter, and Carle.
The Braves have a Craig Kimbrel clone sitting in their bullpen right now, and his value needs to be maximized. With Winkler, the story has never been about his ability to get outs. His career numbers are in line with some of the best relievers in the game. His story has always been about staying healthy and he has adjusted his mechanics with the idea of providing an answer. While I’m not advocating that the Braves ride him as hard as they may ride a pitcher like Kimbrel, if they had him, I am saying that Winkler needs to get more high leverage innings. Hopefully, this will be the season that Winkler remains healthy, but if he doesn’t, you need to maximize his value to your team before he breaks. This doesn’t necessarily mean pitching him more, but the Braves need to make sure his appearances are more meaningful going forward. According to his Baseball Reference inning/score appearance matrix, Winkler has pitched in 20 games this season with 8 of the games coming when the Braves were either ahead by 4+ runs or down by 3+ runs, and three of those appearances came in the 6th inning. In contrast, Vizcaino has pitched in 20 games this season, as well, but all of his appearances have come in the 9th inning or later and the Braves had a lead in all but one of them. These types of appearances need to stop for Winkler so he can get the bulk of his action with the Braves holding a lead that needs protection or down a single run.