There was a time, not too long ago, when Craig Kimbrel did not have sole ownership of the closer’s chair on the Atlanta Braves.
Given the astounding year Kimbrel had as arguably the league’s best reliever in 2012, that time probably feels like it was a lifetime ago when manager Fredi Gonzalez was coy about whether Jonny Venters would share the ninth inning.
In fact, Venters not only pitched more innings than Kimbrel in 2011, but he also posted a lower ERA (1.84 to Kimbrel’s 2.10), and also held opponents to a lower batting average (.172 BAA to Kimbrel’s .176). If Kimbrel was the team’s best reliever then, Venters was only inches behind.
All that, of course, changed in 2012.
After missing a couple of games of May with a sore shoulder, the lefty wound up giving up runs in seven his next 14 appearances, and finished off that part of the season with a disappointing 4.45/1.79 ERA/WHIP. That’s not the Jonny Venters that had dominated, and the Braves found out why just before the All Star break, when Venters landed on the DL with a left elbow injury.
Was he pitching hurt the whole season? The elbow injury was almost certainly related to the shoulder issues he had – how much did it affects his mechanics?
The biggest question, of course, was how time time would he miss?
As it turns out, not as much as feared. Venters came back near the end of July, and for the lack of a better term, simply got right back to work. He allowed runs in just two of his last 26 appearances, and finished the second half with a much more familiar 1.71/1.18 ERA/WHIP.
How much he’ll be able to carry that into 2013, though, remains murky waters.
There’s little doubt that two years of 80+ innings caught up to Venters last year. Though he had denied that the elbow issues were the cause of his struggles, his health will be something to keep a very close eye on going into 2013.
Fortunately, there are signs that suggest he’ll be fine. Although he was definitely more hittable last season (3.8% jump in contact rate), Venters still got his fair share of whiffs (14.1% swinging strikes). There is also no reason to believe that his massive HR/FB jump from 7.1% to 24.0% in 2012 will hold, unless someone handed out a “how to smash Jonny Venters” pamphlet to the NL.
Will he return to the kind of Kimbrel-like dominance in 2013? Perhaps not. But he’s probably going to be better than his 1.52 WHIP, and it would not be unreasonable to expect a ERA in the high 2.00s with a WHIP around 1.20.
That won’t get Venters any closer to Kimbrel’s level, but it’ll still make him one of the better set-up men in the league.