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Are the Braves riding dominant duo of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel into the ground?

Jul 5, 2011, 10:15 AM EDT

venters and kimbrel

Now that we’ve passed the midway point of the season I thought it would be interesting to examine reliever workloads to see which pitchers have been ridden the hardest in the first half.

Atlanta’s late-inning duo of lefty setup man Jonny Venters and righty closer Craig Kimbrel has been incredibly dominant, combining for 2.01 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 85 innings while holding opponents to a .180 batting average.

However, manager Fredi Gonzalez has leaned on them a total of 91 times in 86 games, as Venters leads all of baseball in appearances with 47 and Kimbrel ranks second with 44.

Here’s the appearances leaderboard:

Jonny Venters       47     Braves
Craig Kimbrel       44     Braves
Bill Bray           43     Reds
Kameron Loe         43     Brewers
Jeremy Affeldt      42     Giants
Nick Masset         41     Reds
Chris Resop         41     Pirates
Eric O'Flaherty     41     Braves
Javier Lopez        41     Giants
Jose Veras          41     Pirates

You’ll notice a third Braves reliever, Eric O’Flaherty, also cracks the top 10, but as a left-handed specialist his overall workload hasn’t been as huge as the appearance count suggests. O’Flaherty has logged a total of 39 innings in his 41 appearances, whereas Venters has thrown 52 innings and Kimbrel has thrown 43.

Here’s the relief innings leaderboard:

Jonny Venters       52     Braves
Jim Johnson         49     Orioles
Jeff Samardzija     46     Cubs
Tyler Clippard      46     Nationals
David Pauley        45     Mariners
Craig Kimbrel       43     Braves
Nick Masset         43     Reds
Drew Storen         42     Nationals
Daniel McCutchen    42     Pirates
Brian Sanches       42     Marlins

Venters leads baseball in relief innings in addition to relief appearances, and Kimbrel and Nick Masset of the Reds are the only other pitchers to crack the top 10 in both categories. Atlanta wouldn’t be leading the Wild Card race at 50-36 without riding Venters and Kimbrel so hard in the first half, but will that catch up to the Braves in the second half?

Right now Venters is on pace to throw 98 innings in 89 appearances, which is a combination no reliever has topped in 25 years. Kimbrel is on pace for 81 innings in 83 appearances, which puts the Braves on track to become just the seventh team in baseball history to have two relievers with 80-plus innings and 80-plus appearances in the same season.

  1. rynev - Jul 5, 2011 at 10:22 AM

    I knew the AL and NL had different bullpen usage patterns, but I never realized just how different. Every member of the top 10 appearances list is from the NL and 8 of the 10 on the innings list are as well.

    • kopy - Jul 5, 2011 at 10:59 AM

      No kidding. At first, I was going to ask if the comparison was NL-only until I saw the 2 AL names in the 2nd list.

  2. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Jul 5, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    This sounds like it will end up hurting the Braves b/c these pitchers may tire in the late months of the season. Obviously, Craig has mentioned this for a couple months as well. I’m not convinced. I’d like to see how past relievers with as many appearances and innings in the have fared late in the season. Let’s see some past examples on this before we assume these two will tank (which you aren’t but certainly it’s been alluded to repeatedly). I think (and hope) that these two will dominate into the playoffs and I’m not very concerned about their innings right now.

    • Kevin S. - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:17 AM

      Past relievers made two- and three-inning appearances to get to those inning totals, though, and there is some evidence more one-inning appearances can be more harmful than fewer multi-inning appearances. In other words, the Braves might want to toy with the idea of having Venters and Kimbrel alternate two-inning saves.

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:43 AM

        I haven’t seen the evidence of one inning vs. two inning appearances but it doesn’t sound off base or anything. I still don’t buy that this is necessarily a bad thing. It obviously also depends on the individual. Some guys handle high workloads much better than others. I just would like to see a study of relievers after a full season with similar innings and appearances as these two are projected to have. Then I’ll start being alarmed, assuming it shows a decline in performance.

  3. paperlions - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:12 AM

    Aaron, could you do a follow up that compares NL versus AL bullpen/starter use?

    It is highly likely that more pitches are thrown in the AL….so do starters go longer in the AL or are is the bullpen workload just more evenly distributed in the AL?

  4. Chris Fiorentino - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    And notice a team that has nobody in the top ten…the Phillies who have the best starting staff in baseball, not only because they just are, but because they keep the bullpen fresh with all their complete games.

    • paperlions - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:29 AM

      …plus, any good candidates for heavy use by the Phils are on the DL….but yeah, they probably also lead the league in innings/start.

    • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:39 AM

      Put your Phillies lovefest on another post. Can’t the Braves fans have one post w/o the Phils fans ruining our fun? You cocky bastards with your awesome pitching go eat a bag of…..ahahahhahahahhaha…..I hate you all.

    • spudchukar - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:45 AM

      The term solipsistic comes to mind when I feel bombarded by the Phillie Phanatics

    • jjschiller - Jul 5, 2011 at 12:18 PM

      Funny you should say that. While, yes, the Phillies starters have been the best in baseball, as a whole staff, the Braves have been just slightly better, by the narrowest of margins:

      Phillies Staff: ERA 3.05, FIP 3.16, xFIP 3.34 in 783 IP
      Braves Staff: ERA 3.05, FIP 3.15, xFIP 3.29 in 787 IP

      If you don’t want to count FIP and xFIP advantages, since they are indicators rather than measurements of actual runs, then the push, I’d say, would go to the staff with the identical ERA but having done it in more total innings.

      Of course, yes, the Phillies starters have been better, and for more innings:

      Phillies starters ERA 3.01 in 562.1 IP
      Braves Starters ERA 3.23 in 516.0 IP

      Pretty remarkable that the Braves bullpen made up that much discrepancy, to create identical staff numbers. A fat lot of good that ‘fresh’ bullpen has done them.

      Let’s not quibble about injuries, because sure, Philly has been without Lidge, Madson, Contreras, Blanton, and Oswalt for varying amounts of time. (Note, mostly relief pitchers.) while the Braves have had Jurrjens, Beachy and Hanson all do stints on the DL this year, along with Medlen who would have been the number 5 starter, and Moylan, who would actually be the primary righthanded setup man. (Note, mostly starters.)

      So Philly has leaned on those 3 horses to overcome injuries in the pen. Atlanta has leaned harder on a shutdown pen to overcome injuries to the starting rotation…. And what do you know? The results have been almost exactly the same. Except for Atlanta actually doing a little better. Hardly something to jerk yourself off over.

      • trigzter - Jul 5, 2011 at 12:33 PM

        The numbers wouldn’t even be close is the Phillies didn’t use Romero this year. There’s a reason he was released.

      • jjschiller - Jul 5, 2011 at 12:45 PM

        That sir, is complete and utter nonsense. The numbers would also be different if you changed the decimal places and divided by two.

        Romero pitched 16.1 innings of 3.86 ERA. The Braves have gotten 15.2 innings of a 4.02 from Scott Proctor. Every team’s got ’em.

      • Mark - Jul 5, 2011 at 5:46 PM

        …And someone just got owned. Nicely done.

    • bengunby - Jul 10, 2011 at 12:39 PM

      Ever think that maybe they have to throw complete games because the bullpen isn’t as good? Think that perhaps Atlanta starters dont pitch as many innings because they have the luxury of THREE dominant relievers to throw in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings? Nah, that couldn’t be it, could it?

  5. jjschiller - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    Seems simple to me. The DH means never pinch hitting for a reliever. You run your starter for 6 2/3 instead pinch hitting for him in the top of the 6th. Then you can let relievers pitch parts of two innings, because there’s no threat of their spot in the lineup coming up, and you can make your pitching changes based on matchups instead of for a pinch hitter. Got two more lefties coming up next inning, you leave that lefty in for two more batters next inning. In the NL, you might pinch hit before that, require a second lefty, who would then be replaced with a righty. And since you don’t know if the 9 spot will come up, you better get that other lefty warm. And hey, since he’s warm, might aswell use him, since this guys cooled down in the rigour for 12 minutes.

    When you play every game that way, you structure and condition your bullpen that way, so that in the NL, you rarely see pitchers pitch parts of two different innings, regardless of a pinch hitter. The bullpens have just become more structured. So an AL team gets through a game with fewer relievers appearing.

    All of which is why the DH is so-neato and like way more better, because AL managers can manage run prevention completely separate and apart from, and completely without regard for run production. Which obviously makes sense, because, you know, they are two different games. Obviously much more interestinger.

    • spudchukar - Jul 5, 2011 at 11:49 AM

      Simpler Yes, interestinger debatable.

  6. Vincent - Jul 5, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    I would ride these two all season long. Given the volume, quality, and consistency– I would definitely rely on them the way the braves have been. If they want to hold onto the wildcard and potentially even over take the phillies for first, they have no other choice but to play these two…. or you know… their offense can do something.

  7. bobulated - Jul 5, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    Another factor is that Braves just aren’t putting many games away due to their inconsistencies on offense so they are having to overuse their young stud relievers. Fredi did run Venters out with a 4 run lead on the Stros a couple of weeks ago which I thought was strange decision when actually given a rare opportunity to rest Jonny.

  8. abevanderbent - Jul 5, 2011 at 1:36 PM

    I’m not too worried about Venters – he made 79 appearances last year in the majors (83 innings), and was a starter in the minors in 2009, pitching 156 2/3 innings that year. I understand that the bullpen innings are probably a greater strain on his arm than his innings as a starter in AA/AAA, but the precedent is there. Even Kimbrel made 69 appearances last year between AAA and the majors (76 1/3 innings), so that’s not too big a jump.

    In an ideal world, the Braves would have more options to go to, but no baseball team has a bullpen that deep. Since their overall workload isn’t that far out of line with what they’ve done in the past, I’d rather continue this current pattern of usage than start relying more heavily on lesser options.

  9. foreverchipper10 - Jul 5, 2011 at 1:49 PM

    In a previous discussion about this wasn’t it stated that the upside of this is that the Braves bullpen will have all new elbow ligaments in three years?

    • chomsky66 - Jul 5, 2011 at 2:37 PM

      Long live the new flesh!

  10. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Jul 5, 2011 at 3:24 PM

    Read this again and noticed a fun fact re two of the top ten in appearances above…the following two have 46 appearances each:

    Jeff Samardzija: 46.2 innings; 3.86 ERA; 32 hits; 20 ERs; 3 HRs; 34 BBs (one IBB); 1.414 WHIP; 49 SOs

    Tyler Clippard: 47 innings; 1.91 ERA; 25 hits; 10 ERs; 7 HRs; 15 BBs (one IBB); 0.851 WHIP; 59 SOs

    Is this really the best middle reliever for the Cubs? Why is he in the majors again? Jeff’s numbers are a bit better than I last looked, but that dude has no right to be in the MLB.

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