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June 17, 2011

On the Beat

Southpaw Power

by John Perrotto

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Jonny Venters has enjoyed a stunningly successful start to his career, but the southpaw hasn’t let it go to his head. Venters resembles a character from a 1930s children's sports book, the unassuming hero who becomes a star pitcher and is too modest to acknowledge his success.

"He's the most down-to-earth guy you'd ever want to meet," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's completely unaffected by anything."

Venters’ surprising rookie season raised some eyebrows, but his sophomore campaign has revealed that he’s for real, much to the consternation of opposing hitters. Only his numbers as the set-up man to closer Craig Kimbrel this season have an air of unreality: Venters has compiled a microscopic 0.63 earned run average in 40 2/3 innings. That is more than a full run better than any other major-league pitcher who has logged at least 40 innings, as injured Marlins starter Josh Johnson is second with a 1.64 ERA.

While Venters' advanced statistics aren't quite that eye-popping, they are still extremely good, as his 1.89 SIERA and 2.25 Fair Run Average are also tops among pitchers with at least 40 innings. The Brewers' Zack Greinke is second in SIERA with a 2.14 mark, and the Angels' Jered Weaver is second in FRA at 2.77. Furthermore, Venters has an outstanding 45/13 strikeout/walk ratio, an amazing 5.1 ground ball/fly ball ratio, and has held opponents to a.145/.228/.168 slash line in 149 plate appearances.

"He is the best pitcher in baseball," Braves catcher Brian McCann said succinctly.

One can argue over whether a relief pitcher, particularly a set-up man, can be considered the game's top pitcher. However, what can't be debated is that Venters is still a fairly well-kept secret to all but the more informed of baseball fans, primarily because he pitches in the less-glamorous role of eighth-inning reliever. He has just three saves this season, 15 fewer than Kimbrel.

Venters and Kimbrel, a couple of Southerners, have become best friends. Venters hails from Altamonte Springs, Fla., and Kimbrel has his roots in Huntsville, Ala. Because of that friendship, Venters says he is not concerned about who generates more publicity.

"Craig and I have just a great relationship," Venters said. "We don't really care who has what role. It's just awesome for us two to be pitching together late in the game. Craig is a great kid, and we have a lot of fun. We laugh a lot down in the bullpen and have a good time until it's time to get serious and go to work."

Some set-up relievers justifiably bemoan the fact that no statistic has ever gained a foothold within the mainstream baseball culture to quantify the worth of non-closers. Many also feel that the hold is a flawed stat, though Venters isn't one of them, primarily because he doesn't pay attention to it.

"I really don't understand it when I see it in some box scores," Venters said with a smile. "This is pretty much how I look at my job: whenever the phone rings in the bullpen and they call my name, I'm supposed to go in, get people out, and keep us in the game. If I do that then I know I've done well, and that's enough satisfaction for me. I don't really need a stat to tell me how I've done my job."

Of course, Venters won't be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2013 season, so the numbers won't affects his earnings for two more years.

While it might be interesting to look forward two years and speculate about what kind of money Venters could make in arbitration, it is also instructive to turn the clock back two years. In 2009, Venters was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett after making 12 starts for Double-A Mississippi to begin the season. He posted a 5.62 ERA in 17 starts and 91 1/3 inning,s as International League hitters averaged 10.1 hits per nine innings. Venters also walked 4.1 per nine while striking out just 5.7, and it appeared that the Braves' 30th-round draft pick in 2003 had hit the wall.

However, the Braves decided to switch Venters to relief last year, telling him to junk his changeup and curveball and stick to a sinker/slider combination. It proved to be a wise decision, as Venters has been dominant since moving to the bullpen, averaging 94.5 mph on his sinker and 84.9 mph on his sinker (hat tip to Fangraphs), rare velocity for a left-hander. Many scouts believe that Venters has the best sinker in the game because of both its velocity and its movement.

"When I was a starter, I'd get tired and just run out of gas," Venters said. "I never really learned how to pace myself. I'd go all out on every pitch, then be dead by the fourth inning. Now, I can put everything I have into every pitch, and it's more fun for me to pitch that way."

It would stand to reason that a pitcher with great humility who likes to keep pitching simple would also have a matter-of-fact answer to one final question: How did he learn to throw his sinker?

"I started throwing it in Double-A, and it just gradually got better," Venters said. "I just grab it, throw it, and hope it does what it's supposed to do."

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Rumors and Rumblings:

Emmanuel Burris will get the majority of starts at second base for the Giants with Freddy Sanchez possibly out for the season, while Bill Hall, signed as a free agent last weekend, will serve primarily as a utility player… The Pirates have used six catchers, the most they have employed in a season since also having six different players put on the gear in 1988, but they are still looking for help behind the plate with Chris Snyder out for the season and Ryan Doumit not expected to return until late July… The Rangers have scrapped their plan of resting left fielder Josh Hamilton in most day games because they need the reigning American League MVP's bat in the lineup too badly… Adam Kennedy is out of a starting job with the Mariners now that top second base prospect Dustin Ackley has been called up. However, Kennedy is still expected to get a significant number of plate appearances while rotating between first base, second base, third base, and designated hitter. Opening Day second baseman Jack Wilson, meanwhile, figures to get little playing time and is very available on the trade market.

Jake Peavy has volunteered to pitch in relief when he comes off the disabled list in order to break up the logjam in the White Sox rotation, but manager Ozzie Guillen plans to keep the right-hander as a starter… The Rockies are contemplating leaving center fielder Dexter Fowler at Triple-A Colorado Springs once his rehab assignment ends and keeping Charlie Blackmon as their starter in center… Athletics manager Bob Melvin has named designed hitter Hideki Matsui his regular No. 3 hitter, saying it disrupts continuity to make continual changes in one of the most important spots in the batting order, something former manager Bob Geren did frequently… Tony La Russa is scheduled to manage his 2,500th game for the Cardinals tonight when they host the Royals, nearly as many as the combined 2,506 he managed with the A's and White Sox… The Phillies are 30-3 this season when they score four or more runs and 14-23 when they don't.

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Scouts' views:

Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista: "I kind of have to chuckle when people make a big deal about the guy going 10 or 12 days without hitting a home run. If it would have happened two years ago, nobody would have mentioned it. I mean, he's still got 21 homers in the middle of June even though he's getting pitched to like Babe Ruth now."

Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez: "It's hard to find too many faults with King Felix, but he's throwing his changeup more this season, and I don't think that's helped him. He's lost the pinpoint command he had of his fastball, and he's also lost a tick of velocity off it. I don’t understand why he's trying to be more of a finesse guy, especially when he's had so much success as a power pitcher."

White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko: "If I had to sum him up in one word, it would be reliable. He's always there, always producing at a high level. He is also that team's compass. He keeps everyone in the clubhouse together with all the stuff that is always swirling around that club."

Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis: "He can be a very effective pitcher, but he really has no margin for error, because he rarely gets his fastball over 90. He has to pitch down in the strike zone. He hasn't been doing that lately and, as a result, he's been getting slaughtered."

Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy: "I like the way he takes charge behind the plate and handles that staff. You can tell the pitchers trust him, even though he is a young catcher."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Jonny Venters

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