Did heavy workloads in the past come back to haunt Jonny Venters in 2012?
Between the years of 2007 and 2010, former Braves manager Bobby Cox had a favorite toy to play with out of the Atlanta Braves' bullpen. His name was Peter Moylan. There was reason for it too; during that span of time, Peter Moylan was very reliable, and over those four seasons, Moylan would post a cumulative ERA of just 2.50. However, this was done in a span of 226.1 innings over 259 appearances. Over a span of four years, such workloads do not sound that daunting, but it's worth mentioning that 2008 was a season in which Moylan pitched just 5.2 innings in seven games, because he was shelved with Tommy John surgery. In the other three years, Bobby Cox had trotted Peter Moylan out of the bullpen over 80 times each; the results were good, but they did gradually worsen over time.
2010 was the year in which Jonny Venters was called up, and along with many of those of us in Braves Country, Bobby Cox fell in love. And what was not to love; between the 95-mph sinker from the left side, all the strikeouts, all the groundballs, and all the double plays induced, Jonny Venters arrived on the scene like a beast that could not be hit, and notched an impressive 1.95 ERA, 2.69 FIP and a 10.08 K/9, but Bobby Cox had trotted him out to the mound 79 times, where he pitched in a total of 83.0 innings.
In 2011, Peter Moylan became plagued by a litany of shoulder injuries, with tears in both his labrum and his rotator cuff. Since then, he has pitched in approximately 13.1 innings over 21 games at the major league level, spending most of his time either rehabilitating, or in the minor leagues over the last two seasons. He was non-tendered and brought back on a minor league deal, and it's safe to say that the injuries cost him a substantial amount of money he could have received through arbitration. But back to the story at hand, there was not that much of panic when Peter Moylan went down, because for new manager Fredi Gonzalez, that just meant more innings where Jonny Venters could be used instead. And in more innings, Jonny Venters was used, with him finishing out 2011 with 88.0 innings over an NL "best" 85 appearances.
Although 2011 was a season in which Jonny Venters was an All-Star, and put up ridiculous numbers comprehensively, most of us in Braves Country very much remember the obvious fatigue and wear-down that caught up to Venters in September. It became such a glaring point of concern going into 2012 that pretty much anyone who had an opinion about Braves baseball knew that Fredi Gonzalez was going to have to ease up on the use of Jonny Venters (and Craig Kimbrel) in order to be successful.
But the question was, was 171 innings over a span of 169 appearances in two seasons already too much?
Every single human body in the world is different, but logic tends to favor the belief that too much work increases the risk of degradation and eventual injury. If this is the case, and Jonny Venters' body of work in 2012 is the example, then going back to the question, I would have to err on the side of yes, Jonny Venters was probably used way too much in his first two seasons, and it affected his performance in 2012.
Despite the fact that Fredi Gonzalez made an earnest attempt to manage the Braves' bullpen to spread the wealth of work around a little better, as it pertained to Jonny Venters, it might have been a season too late. It started as far back as Spring Training, where Jonny Venters required a cortisone shot in his throwing arm, to alleviate some inflammation which led to early concerns for some Braves and all Jonny Venters fans. He quickly snuffed those worries out with an April that was business as usual, where he pitched in 8.2 innings and held batters to a .212/.324/.250 line while allowing no runs.
But literally since the start of May, the wheels began falling off. The normally reliable and unhittable Jonny Venters became very hittable, and worse off, very homer-prone. Over the next 30 outings, Venters would give up runs in ten of them, and allow six home runs; Venters had given up three total homers in the prior two seasons, combined.
Personally, the worst of these was a game I was at, where the Yankees were in town, and Mike Minor had cruised through 7.1 innings, but was pulled for Jonny Venters, who would not only load the bases, but allow a grand slam to Alex Rodriguez, which tied the game, instantaneously wiping out the 4-0 lead. The Braves would ultimately lose this game, and all fingers were pointed at Jonny Venters (well, and some to Fredi too).
After another bad outing in July, Jonny Venters was put on the disabled list for impingement in his throwing elbow. This didn't raise concern of any possibility of being any ligament tears, but for those of you who want a more understandable definition of what elbow impingement is:
Elbow impingement typically occurs due to activities that excessively or repetitively straighten the elbow (hyperextension).
Elbow impingement may occur due to overuse associated with repetitive throwing (especially in throwers who 'open up too soon' or throw with a low arm) and are particularly common in baseball pitchers...
In other words, soreness due to hyperextension, which was a symptom of overuse. Venters admitted that it had been bothering him for a little while, but got to the point where it really began affecting his performance. One of the biggest concerns of those watching Jonny Venters throughout the season was the drop in velocity; with a fastball that sat at more around 95-96 mph throughout his first two seasons, was down to 93-94 mph in 2012. I'd err on the side of the nagging arm pains leading to the speed drop, and the propensity to hang pitches, before declaring him as falling off a cliff.
The good news was that after his stint on the disabled list, Jonny Venters returned to the Braves and put up some more Jonny Venters-like numbers afterward, holding 108 batters to a .211/.292/.211 slash line, with an ERA of 1.71 over 26.1 innings.
Ironically, if you look at Jonny Venters' numbers as a whole, they're still really not that bad, for an ordinary reliever. But as Braves fans who had seen what Jonny Venters had been doing for the past two years, it was clearly not the same level of ridiculous dominance that we may have grown accustomed to. Overall, Venters held a total of 262 batters to a .270/.363/.376 slash line while striking out 69 and walking 28. Fredi Gonzalez made a conscious effort to curb his Jonny Venters use, and it showed, as he was only used 66 times (down from 85), and pitched in 58.2 innings (down from 88.0). Furthermore only 16 times out of his 66 appearances did Venters go back-to-back days, which was 24% of the time, down from 36% of the time from two prior years combined.
Venters was inherently more hittable all throughout 2012, but as mentioned above, I would discredit much of it on account of soreness as a result of overuse. Groundballs were down; 62.8% is still high, but Venters' career average is 68.4%. Line drives (21.2%) and especially the HR/FB (24.0%) took jumps subsequently. Regardless, it still affects all his numbers from his career-high ERA of 3.22, career-high FIP of 3.76, career-high WHIP of 1.52. But if you're a fan of skill-independent ERA (SIERA), Venters regressed a little, but not nearly as drastically (2.80 vs. 2.65 career SIERA).
One thing that sticks out a little bit to me is the fact that Venters uncorked nine wild pitches in 2012; prior to 2012, he had lost control of eight combined in two seasons. It's not something really trackable unless you're looking at PitchFX data after every single game, but it's safe to say that most of them were simply sliders that had a little too much bite, and ate the dirt, and could not be corralled. Not to mention Brian McCann wasn't exactly the beacon of health who could cover the requisite ground to block some of these spikes in the first place. But I'd hope a healthy Venters would be able to reel in the mechanical discrepancies that led so many wild pitches moving forward.
In spite of all the numbers that did regress, there were two numbers that still are very promising. At 10.6 K/9, Jonny Venters notched his career-best K/9 numbers, all while keeping his BB/9 numbers right along his career average (4.3 BB/9).
The bottom line is that 2012 was a season in which Jonny Venters wasn't the same Jonny Venters that we have all gotten accustomed to seeing over the last two seasons, but it still wasn't a bad season for him. Both fWAR and bWAR have tallied up Venters at 0.3 WAR, so whatever way you look at it, in spite of the homers and the earned runs he gave up, he was still overall a positive contributor to a 94-win season.
There is still plenty of reason to be excited about Jonny Venters in 2013, especially if he manages to resolve all these nagging throwing arm injuries, and reports to Spring Training with no pain or aches. If Venters remains healthy in 2013, combined with the conscious efforts of Fredi Gonzalez to manage his workload similarly to 2012, there should be plenty of reason to believe that there's still plenty of Jonny Venters dominance left to enjoy.