It’s no secret that the Braves bullpen is among the best in all of baseball, and has been for 2-3 years now. There’s a perfect balance of power and finesse, both left-handers and right-handers. But let’s jump back to September of 2011 and take a moment to look at the dynamic of what was the beginning of a new era in Atlanta Braves pitching.
At the end of what was yet another traumatic season, Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel finished as the main providers of late-game innings. In almost clockwork fashion, the three-headed monster was handed the ball in close games, leading or not, to give Atlanta the best opportunity to come out on top. In nearly every scenario, O’Flaherty was the first of these three to come in. Be it a tight jam in the 6th or a clean inning in the 7th, O’Flaherty was routinely known as the set-up for the set-up. Jonny Venters was given the 8thand well, you know the rest.
But as is often the case, new manager Fredi Gonzalez was second-guessed during the offseason for his relentless use of these three guys, Jonny Venters especially. Venters, who finished the 2011 season with 85 appearance and 88 innings pitched, provided reason to believe that he was tiring down the stretch as he experienced mixed results after dominating for most of the season. Gonzalez immediately relented, vowing to be smarter about his use of Venters and the rest of the group in the seasons to come.
The 2012 season was much different in terms of bullpen utilization, as all three members of the backend saw a drop of 15 innings or more from the previous season. O’Flaherty and Kimbrel seemed to maintain their relative dominance (O’Flaherty saw an ERA increase from .98 to 1.73, but come on…) while Venters struggled mightily.
With the exception of one stint on the 15-day DL due to a minor elbow ailment, Venters was free of any publicly known injury, but quickly became the source of a lot of frustration among fan, as his inability to get outs was mind-boggling after an eye-popping 2011 season. Venters saw his ERA inflate to 3.22 by the end of 2012 and was subsequently relegated to middle inning duty, while O’Flaherty took over the set-up role. In only three save situations in 2012, Venters came away with three blown saves. His Runs Above Average statistic, rating Venters against the average relief pitcher where the league average is always zero, dropped from a staggering 17.0 in 2011 to an even 0 in 2012. Venters WAR dropped from 2.9 to .3 and his Batting Average Against rose from .176 to .270.
But what was the problem? Venters may have seen a slight decrease in velocity, in particular on his sinking fastball, but at 93-94 MPH the pitch was still devastating to both right and left-handed hitters. The issue seemed to be location. Venters, who was once known as a groundball machine, was inducing more fly balls than ever. His ground ball to fly ball ration plummeted from 2.71 to 1.69, or just over a groundball and a half per fly ball in play. As Venters’ sinker made its way up in the strike zone, hitters put it in the air with more frequently and ultimately with more success. But it’s not just an issue of Venters missing up in the zone. In 2011 when Venters was at his best, he tallied 27 3-pitch strikeouts and just 9 4-pitch walks. In 2012, with significantly fewer innings—29.1 fewer to be exact— he managed only 14 3-pitch strikeouts and nearly matched his 4-pitch walk total with 7. Venters not only missed with pitches in the strike zone, but was also arrant with pitches outside of the zone.
So the question is: what can the Braves expect to get out of Venters in 2013? Is he still capable of being one of the league’s best set-up men, reproducing the 35 holds that he earned on 2011, or are Venters’ days a dominant reliever behind him? Your guess is as good as mine. For Atlanta fans, it’s nice to have O’Flaherty as an insurance policy in the event that Venters does not bounce back in 2013, but in order for the Braves to approach the 90-win mark and finally make a run in the playoffs, it will be imperative that all members of the bullpen provide Fredi Gonzalez with reliable appearances, night in and night out.