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May 20, 2013

Painting the Black

Surgery Comes for the Ace Reliever

by R.J. Anderson

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In The Song of the Lark Willa Cather wrote, "People live through such pain only once; pain comes again, but it finds a tougher surface." Though Cather meant something else, the thought lends itself to physical pain; hence our cliches about broken bones mending sturdier, and reconstructed elbows healing stronger. Unfortunately, Mother Nature trumps tougher surfaces, which explains why Jonny Venters underwent his second Tommy John surgery last Thursday.

The operation comes as a last resort. In April Venters received a platelet-rich plasma injection—a relatively new, painful procedure—along with instruction to rest for a few weeks. When Venters resumed throwing his elbow resumed hurting, necessitating further action. Typically a full recovery takes about 12 months with a high success rate. But the odds diminish with subsequent surgeries.  As Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained: "Though the sample size is smaller, estimations range from 10 to 25 percent of those pitchers returning to be effective major leaguers." 

Until Venters is further along in the rehab process there's no telling when—or if—he'll trek back to the majors. It's an unfortunately cryptic diagnosis for a pitcher who, during the 2010-2011 seasons, merited description as one of the game's best relievers. If this is the end for Venters then it solidifies his place as the essential Braves story.

Chosen as a draft-and-follow in the 30th round of the 2003 draft, Venters attended Indian River Community College, located in Fort Pierce, Florida. Though the school—which is now named Indian River State College—hosts little more than 17,500 students, a surprising amount of big-league alumni have slept through lectures there. Enough to persuade a baseball dreamer to enroll. 

Venters began his pro career 363 days after his selection. Used as a starter throughout his days in the minors, Venters never showed much prospect skin. He battled control problems before and after swapping a four-seam fastball for a sinker. Couple those control issues with so-so velocity and a fringy breaking ball and the profile is that of a by-the-numbers minor-league lefty. Even after a strong showing on the 2008 Hawaiian Winter Baseball circuit, Venters went unpicked in the Rule 5 draft.

For the average non-prospect this is when the wall blocking off the majors is built. But the construction workers left a hole in Venters' wall. In 2009, his final season in the minors, he started 29 games and compiled a 4.42 ERA and poor peripherals. Yet the Braves added Venters to the 40-man roster anyway. The move earned Venters his first Annual comment—one that proved regrettable months later:

Southpaw Jonny Venters gets a lot of ground balls, but is also quite hittable due to a lack of velocity, and his control isn't all that hot either.

Before Venters went on to post back-to-back sub-2 ERA seasons in the majors, he worked on his game. He tightened his once-below-average breaking ball to the point where it became his best secondary offering. His velocity ticked upward to the point where he averaged 95 mph over his three big-league seasons, according to Brooks Baseball. That difficult-to-control and impossible-to-elevate sinker remained his entry code to the majors, and guided him to a career 65 percent groundball rate.

As trite as it sounds Venters became the product of the Braves' scouting and developmental efforts. Not just for the initial interest but throughout. Atlanta read his stock correctly when they left him exposed in the Rule 5 draft and then read it correctly again when they protected him the next winter. It's foolhardy to suggest the Braves knew Venters could someday become a shutdown set-up man. However, they saw some potential; enough to believe he may contribute in some role or another.

Despite Venters' impressive back story, he may not have been the best success story on the Braves staff at any given time. Atlanta also employed Tommy Hanson (another draft-and-follow, this one who stuck in the rotation), Kris Medlen (a 10th-round find), Brandon Beachy (an undrafted free-agent), Peter Moylan (signed after an impressive World Baseball Classic), and Eric O'Flaherty (a waiver claim). Every season the Braves trotted out a new hurler whose performance sewed a new patch to the tapestry of the Braves' scouting mythology. 

But those pitchers share something in common beyond their odds-beating ways: they all got hurt. Hanson and Moylan injured their shoulders; Venters, Beachy, Medlen, and O'Flaherty damaged their elbows. Apparent flaws run rampant, from Hanson's shoulder abduction to Medlen's size, from Beachy's history of arm problems to Moylan's oddball arm slot, and so on. Venters happened to have a large amount of arm drag in his delivery, which, according to Doug Thorburn, is the number one precursor to elbow injuries. Thorburn expanded, "He generates crazy arm speed, but his throwing elbow is in a compromising position when the high-intensity rotation kicks into gear."

The troubling aspect is how these are not limited data points. During the offseason Jon Roegele of Beyond the Box Score produced a chart of Tommy John surgeries by team. No team had its pitchers undergo more of the operations than the Braves, who had about 27 combined between the majors and minors—only the Red Sox and Cardinals were comparable. None of the questions prompted by this data are answerable from the outside. Still, it doesn't hurt to ask. We know the Braves know how to scout and develop pitching; is there something in the system that contributes to the injuries? Be it instruction, unwillingness to tweak potentially harmful quirks, unwillingness to change arsenals, or a combination thereof? Or were these seemingly hidden gems available in part because they seemed more likely to break down? 

An angle guaranteed to get play is the workload endured by Venters—and O'Flaherty, for that matter. Only Sean Marshall appeared in more games than Venters from 2010-2012, and that was only by one game. Presumably Venters would've led the league in appearances were it not for an achy elbow that cost him two weeks last July. Of course it's possible bad luck victimized the Braves on multiple occasions. There's also some selection bias at play. If these pitchers amounted to nothing their injuries would go unnoticed. 

Because Venters (and the others) overachieved we can't help but notice and admire the system that bore them—and wonder if the same system enabled their downfall.

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

Related Content:  Jonny Venters

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