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May 29, 2012

Overthinking It

Jonny Venters and What a High BABIP Looks Like

by Ben Lindbergh

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A few days ago, I got an email from someone who wanted to know why Jonny Venters isn’t dominating people like he did last year. He speculated that there’s something wrong with his stuff, or that his mechanics might be off.

I started formulating an answer even before I looked at the numbers. Well, it’s too small a sample to draw conclusions. Well, Venters was so good in 2011 that it’s unfair to expect a repeat performance. Well, he led the league in appearances last year, so maybe he’s feeling some fatigue.

Then I looked at the numbers, and my answer quickly became, “Jonny Venters is dominating like he did last year.”

Well, not quite like he did last year—he’s recording his outs a little differently in 2012. Venters is getting more strikeouts and fewer ground balls, though it’s early enough that he’s only a few Ks and grounders off his respective rates from last season. He’s given up three homers, the same number he allowed in the last two seasons combined. The home runs, additional strikeouts, and reduced grounder rate paint a picture of a pitcher who’s throwing higher in the zone, and the stats say that Venters has thrown both up and inside a little more frequently. Fredi Gonzalez recently remarked, “The sinker is coming out sideways instead of going down, and for me, that’s just tinkering a little bit with the hand position.” Data from Brooks Baseball supports him, sort of—the sinker has had about an inch less of vertical movement and a half inch more movement horizontally in 2012.

If we squint, we might be able to make out a pitcher who’s been marginally less effective. But we’d have to squint hard. And even then, we might just be doing this:

Venters has struck out over 12 batters per nine innings. Nearly 60 percent of his batted balls allowed have been on the ground. His sinker has averaged 94.0 miles per hour (compared to 94.3 through the same point last season). Pitchers who can claim one of those things are generally very good. Pitchers who can claim all three are almost uniformly elite. So what stat was it that led my enterprising emailer to fear for Venters’ season? Take a look at the table below.

Year

IP

ERA

FRA

2010

83.0

1.95

3.41

2011

88.0

1.84

3.72

2012

18.3

3.44

3.80

Venters’ FRA suggests that he’s the same stud he’d been since his debut. Venters’ ERA suggests that he’s been about half as effective as he was last season. Here’s why they disagree:

Year

BABIP

2010

.291

2011

.250

2012

.458

Venters entered this season with a .271 career BABIP, so he might have been a bit lucky before. Then again, he might not have: plenty of elite relievers (Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan, Keith Foulke, Armando Benitez) have managed to keep their career BABIPs under .270. Either way, sabermetric orthodoxy holds that there’s no way he’s deserved to have nearly half his balls in play turn into hits.

It’s been about a decade since noting that a pitcher had a high BABIP qualified as an original observation, so I felt a little lazy citing Venters’ .450-something figure and slapping a QED at the end of my email. Sure, over a full season, most pitchers’ BABIPs will be close to league average, and most of those that aren’t will be the result of good or bad luck. But over 18 innings, maybe a pitcher can be more hittable than usual. Maybe he can consistently fall behind in the count, or leave balls over the middle. Maybe Venters was asking for every hit he allowed.

The season is still young enough that we can answer that question through old-fashioned empirical observation. I wanted to know what a high BABIP looks like in action, so I watched every non-homer hit Venters has allowed to get a feel for how many balls were hit hard. Then I fired up my GIF machine so that you could do the same. We’ll go in chronological order, beginning with the extra-base hits.

The Doubles
Date: 4/29
Batter: Pedro Alvarez
Count: 1-2
Pitch: 87 mph slider
Luck: Slightly bad

Venters hit his target, and Alvarez hit the ball off the end of the bat, but it dropped in a few feet fair. Far from the cheapest double you’ll ever see, but hardly a fluke. Doesn’t reflect too poorly on Venters, who did what he wanted to do with the pitch. Broadcasters probably overuse the phrase “nice piece of hitting” when describing opposite-field hits, but considering Alvarez was down in the count and Venters didn’t miss his spot, that’s actually what this was.

Date: 5/1
Batter: John Mayberry
Count: 1-0
Pitch: 94 mph sinker
Luck: Slightly bad

Another pitch that went where it was supposed to, another pitch that ended up sliced softly to the outfield. It might be a stretch to call it bad luck, but it’s definitely a stretch to call it bad pitching.

Date: 5/14
Batter: Chris Heisey
Count: 0-0
Pitch: 93 mph sinker
Luck: Neutral

That, ladies and gentleman, is what a line drive looks like. Batted-ball classifications make Colin Wyers cry, but no stringer worth his salt could see that as anything else.

Date: 5/14
Batter: Brandon Phillips
Count: 2-1
Pitch: 85 mph slider
Luck: Good, if anything

A few feet to the left, and that ball would have left Turner Field. If that ball had left Turner Field, Venters’ BABIP would be lower. Unlucky! No, that’s not how it works.

Date: 5/26
Batter: Adam LaRoche
Count: 3-2
Pitch: 95 mph sinker
Luck: Bad
Bonus broadcaster comment: “Bad hop. Hinske I don’t think ever saw that.”

This was hit pretty hard, but it was well within Hinske’s reach. It looked like it hit the bag and took a bad bounce.

The Singles
Date: 4/5
Batter: Scott Hairston
Count: 1-0
Pitch: 94 mph sinker
Luck: Neutral

Only a few inches above Martin Prado’s outstretched glove, but the ball was hit hard, and it would have been an impressive catch. Chipper Jones is three inches taller than Prado, so if he hadn’t been recovering from surgery on his left meniscus at the time, he might have caught that ball, only to go in for even more serious knee surgery after landing.

Date: 4/5
Batter: David Wright
Count: 1-0
Pitch: 94 mph sinker
Luck: Neutral

Generic line-drive single. Wright has a .430 BABIP this season, so this was simply a case of a batter who won’t stop getting hits running into one who won’t stop allowing them.

Date: 4/10
Batter: Jose Altuve
Count: 0-1
Pitch: 95 mph sinker
Luck: Slightly bad

This one was on the ground, but it was hit hard. Venters barely avoided being hit. A kick save might have led to an out, but it might also have led to an amputation.

Date: 4/13
Batter: Alex Gonzalez
Count: 1-1
Pitch: 94 mph sinker
Luck: Bad
Bonus broadcaster comment: “And that ball ate him alive.”

Hit hard enough not to be an error, but right at Tyler Pastornicky, who couldn’t handle the weird hop. If this had been last season, Alex Gonzalez would have been trying to field that ball instead of trying to hit it, and it might have been an out. In related news, the Braves were better at fielding last season.

Date: 4/14
Batter: Mat Gamel
Count: 1-2
Pitch: 93 mph sinker
Luck: Bad
Bonus broadcaster comment: “A little bloop off the bat of Gamel.”

Bonus broadcaster comment says it all. Gamel got jammed and hit a soft liner/fliner/thing-that-makes-Colin-cry that Jason Heyward couldn’t quite get to.

Date: 4/14
Batter: Norichika Aoki
Count: 2-0
Pitch: 92 mph sinker
Luck: Bad

The swinging bunt: high-BABIP hallmark. Gamel scored on Uggla’s ill-advised throw. Gamel probably won’t tell his grandkids about scoring that run.

Date: 1-0
Batter: Jimmy Rollins
Count: 1-0
Pitch: 95 mph sinker
Luck: Slightly bad
Bonus broadcaster comment: “Little flare into shallow left, and that’s going to drop.”

Like Gamel before him, Rollins got jammed and managed to drop a ball that hung up forever in front of a Braves outfielder.

Date: 5/1
Batter: Shane Victorino
Count: 2-2
Pitch: 94 mph sinker
Luck: Slightly bad
Bonus broadcaster comment: “Off Jonny’s foot!”

The first time Venters gets nailed. It won’t be the last. Venters must be the most-bruised pitcher in baseball this season. Hard to say whether it would have been fielded otherwise.

Date: 5/1
Batter: Hunter Pence
Count: 2-2
Pitch: 94 mph sinker
Luck: Bad

This batted ball is what’s known as a grounder to second base. But since Victorino was running, the second baseman was covering the bag, which made it a single instead.

Date: 5/8
Batter: David DeJesus
Count: 2-2
Pitch: 94 mph sinker
Luck: Slightly bad

DeJesus got jammed, though he got a little more wood on it than Gamel and Rollins got on their soft liners. You know how old-timers sometimes say that when so-and-so hit the ball, his bat made a special sort of crack, and everyone in the park looked up? DeJesus’ bat did not make that kind of crack. It made more of a hollow thud, and everyone in the park looked down to see if they’d dropped their plastic beer cup.

Date: 5/8
Batter: Starlin Castro
Count: 1-0
Pitch: 86 mph changeup
Luck: Neutral-ish

Venters left it up a little, but Castro hit it off the end of the bat, and it looped pretty softly into center.. You’re probably sensing a theme here.

Date: 5/14
Batter: Drew Stubbs
Count: 3-1
Pitch: 92 mph sinker
Luck: Bad

This single made the one Aoki hit look like a line drive. Venters wouldn’t have had a chance to throw out Stubbs even if he’d fielded it cleanly instead of like a poorly animated, low–poly player from Triple Play 2000.  

Date: 5/18
Batter: Luke Scott
Count: 0-2
Pitch: 86 mph slider
Luck: Neutral-ish

Just out of Uggla’s reach, which describes almost every ball on a baseball field.

Date: 5/20
Batter: Luke Scott
Count: 0-2
Pitch: 95 mph sinker
Luck: Good, in a weird way

This ball hit Carlos Pena between first and second, which means it was both a single and an out—bad for Venters’ BABIP, but good for his ERA. It might have been fielded even if Pena hadn’t been hit, and even though Uggla was at second. Since he wasn’t hurt, I’m sort of glad it did hit Pena. Baserunners aren’t hit by baseballs often, and this occasion afforded us an opportunity to see how the batter reacts when one is.

First, Scott executed a rarely seen over-the-head backwards bat flip without breaking stride:

Second, Scott executed a look of indescribable sadness:

Date: 5/23
Batter: Chris Heisey
Count: 3-1
Pitch: 95 mph sinker
Luck: Slightly bad

Venters adds a bruised heel to his bruised body part collection.

Date: 5/26
Batter: Ryan Zimmerman
Count: 2-0
Pitch: 95 mph sinker
Luck: Bad

Venters 2012:

Except the balls hit off of Venters are hit less hard. Against Zimmerman, Venters actually gets a glove on the ball, but the glove refuses to function.

Date: 5/28
Batter: Matt Holliday
Count: 1-2
Pitch: 95 mph sinker
Luck: Bad

Your stereotypical seeing-eye single. Of the 17 singles off Venters, 10 were grounders that found a hole. The other seven were classified as line drives, but only two or three were hit hard. No pitcher goes through a season without allowing a cheap hit or three, but Venters has given up more than his fair share. To be fair and balanced, I also watched all of the balls that were turned into outs behind Venters, just to see if he’d lucked out on any of those. There wasn’t a Web Gem in the bunch, though there was another ball that bounced off of Venters.

Takeaways: Atlanta’s defense isn’t very good. Jonny Venters is going to be just fine. And that collection of bloops, bleeders, and perfectly placed soft flies above is what a high BABIP looks like at the end of May.

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

Related Content:  Luck,  Atlanta Braves,  Dan Uggla,  Jonny Venters,  Braves,  Babip,  Bad Luck

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