SweetSpot: Jonny Venters

Braves' pen woes deepen, but they'll be OK

May, 19, 2013

The Braves might be atop the National League East, the beneficiaries of Justin Upton's slugging largesse, and they just got Jason Heyward back from the disabled list after getting Brian McCann back in action earlier this week.

Yet for all that, the news in the bullpen seems dire after the past 72 hours or so. Start off with Jonny Venters' Tommy John surgery on Thursday: expected, but glum. Then, Jordan Walden landed on the DL on Friday. And then Eric O'Flaherty joined him there on Saturday -- with the always-ominous appointment with Dr. James Andrews to look at his torn ulnar collateral ligament and a likely Tommy John surgery in his future to look forward to.

How much can a team meaningfully prepare for losing just about everybody in your bullpen but your closer? The Braves had already insured themselves by dealing for depth, trading for Walden -- the Angels’ former closer -- during the winter and then adding Orioles veteran Luis Ayala last month.

This isn’t new territory for the Braves: They’ve seemingly used up top-shelf relief talent before, and they probably will again. They worked Aussie side-armer Peter Moylan hard in 2007; he blew out his elbow in 2008. Moylan came back to pitch 172 games combined between 2009-10, scragged his shoulder and hasn’t been the same since. But the Braves got three tremendous relief seasons out of somebody nobody else had even noticed -- and without spending top dollar to get it on the open market.

[+] EnlargeBrian McCann, Eric O'Flaherty
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinJust after Atlanta got Brian McCann back, it lost lefty Eric O'Flaherty, right -- perhaps for the season.
O’Flaherty had durability issues as a younger pitcher coming up with the Mariners, but after snagging him on a waiver claim, the Braves managed to get a pair of 78-game seasons out of him in the four seasons they’ve had him before 2013, and his only DL time on their watch was time lost to mononucleosis in 2010.

Venters threw 81 games (majors and minors combined) in 2010 before his league-leading 85 in 2011. He wasn’t the same pitcher last season. After he recovers from Tommy John surgery, we’ll see if he’ll ever be that rubber-armed shutdown reliever again.

But you can’t really put that on the Braves as instances of bullpen abuse. Would O’Flaherty or Venters or Moylan have ever amounted to as much? Would they have blown out their arms at some point? They were assets, and the Braves used them to good effect over multiple seasons. For all the advances that have been made in evaluating starting pitcher workloads, there’s still a relative lack of hard information about what’s possible out of the pen in terms of appearances and innings.

It’s also pretty clear that when it comes to ideal workloads, one size does not fit all, so even individual examples don’t form a basis for useful comparison. Not everybody should grow up to be Rollie Fingers or Dennis Eckersley -- pitching one inning and only one inning; not everybody who is left-handed could do what Jesse Orosco or Rick Honeycutt did, either. Not everybody could handle the kind of workload that Mark Eichhorn or Mike Marshall did. In short, managers and general managers are in a constant cycle of adapting to the talent at hand and adapting those to their teams’ needs.

So you can gnash your teeth over these losses, because if you’re a Braves fan, you have the right to be worried. But if anybody can cope, it’s the Braves. One of the most overused tropes about them throughout the '90s and on into the 2000s was that the Braves needed relievers, but whether it was a matter of fishing Kerry Ligtenberg out of the independent leagues, finding Moylan at the World Baseball Classic or investing their full faith in a journeyman like Mike Remlinger, few teams have been as consistently good at conjuring up quality relief help out of thin air to augment their bullpen as the Braves. O’Flaherty came over a waiver claim. They’ve made mistakes (Danny Kolb, anybody?), but they’ve rarely hurt them badly or cost them much.

So, if anybody is going to find quality help on the fly without having to spend top dollar, I’d bet on the Braves doing so in their moment of need. To put their problem in perspective, consider what they still have going for them: Craig Kimbrel owns the ninth, and even if he has had a moment of vincibility or two, he’s still arguably the best reliever in baseball right now. They still have a nifty situational side-arming righty in Cory Gearrin and another live-armed righty in Anthony Varvaro. Walden’s injury doesn’t appear serious; he’ll be back. So will Ayala.

On the other side of every ballgame, Atlanta has a rotation armed with four men who can consistently pitch into the sixth or seventh inning. In the fifth slot, the Braves have a top prospect in Julio Teheran, a live arm who, for his own workload as well as the team’s need for relief, stands ready to bump back into the bullpen once starter Brandon Beachy comes off the DL in a few weeks.

In the aggregate, they’ll be fine if they keep their heads and stick with what they have. What the Braves will need with an eye toward high-leverage matchups later in the season will be a top-shelf lefty, because that’s where they’ve been truly spoiled by having both Venters and O’Flaherty around. If (when) Joe Beimel disappoints, Braves general manager Frank Wren could settle for dealing a Grade C prospect for a similar vet at the deadline. But if he decides to replace like with like and aim for better southpaw support, it’ll be interesting to see whom he targets. The Angels’ Scott Downs or Sean Burnett? Matt Thornton of the White Sox? J.P. Howell of the Dodgers? All it takes is a little bit of big-budget heartbreak and a visible white flag, and those will be run up in good time. The Braves can supply a suitable semi-promising Grade C prospect not yet on the 40-man roster to make it all seem reasonable.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

OK, so the Braves will listen on reliever Jonny Venters. With hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon struggling to throw strikes, the Tigers are shopping for a potential closer, and possibly using Rick Porcello as trade bait. The Braves' fifth starter right now is Julio Teheran, who was awful in Triple-A last year. The Braves have bullpen depth (although Eric O'Flaherty hasn't pitched yet this spring due to a strained groin). The Tigers have Drew Smyly ready to pitch in the rotation.

How does this not make sense?

Venters was a dominant setup guy in 2010-11, posting a 1.89 ERA over 171 innings with 189 strikeouts and .190 batting average allowed. His numbers fell off in 2012 -- 3.22 ERA, 1.5 WHIP in just 58.2 innings -- raising concerns his workload from the previous two seasons had affected him. But it looks like a classic case of bad luck: He allowed a .427 BABIP in the first half. He did have some command issues on his hard sinker, allowing four home runs (all six of his home runs came in the first half). Venters fixed any issues in the second half: 1.71 ERA, no homers in 26.1 innings. He still walks more guys than you'd like, but certainly has closer stuff.

Is he worth Porcello? The right-hander is still just 24 but he has four years in the big leagues and hasn't improved from his rookie season. Sure, the Tigers' defense doesn't help the groundball specialist, but he still lacks the strikeout pitch that will vault him above being a back-end starter.

I don't really think the Tigers need to make a move right now; on paper, they're clearly the class of the division (although we said this last year and they won just 88 games and didn't pull away until the final two weeks), so they don't need to make a panic move. Guys like Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and sleeper reliever Al Alburquerque could do an adequate job closing games out until you see if you need a closer at the trade deadline, or give Rondon time in the minors to improve his control.

There's always the fear Porcello does improve and trading him thins out your starting pitching depth, but Smyly is the better pitcher and Venters would add a nice late-inning arm. Behind Craig Kimbrel, the Braves still have O'Flaherty, hard-throwing Jordan Walden, lefty Luis Avilan (impressive in 36 innings last year), reliable innings eater Cristhian Martinez and sidearmer Cory Gearrin. Even minus Venters it projects as one of the better bullpens in the majors.
Atlanta Braves fans, you can rest easy. Your team will make the playoffs. There will be no collapse like a season ago. In fact, I suddenly like the Braves' chances to come out of the National League.

The Braves' sweep of the Washington Nationals may not have been the most important result of the weekend, but it was the most impressive. On Friday, Kris Medlen delivered as dominant a performance as any pitcher this season, striking out 13 over seven innings (surrendering only a Bryce Harper home run). The Braves won that game in the bottom of the ninth. On Saturday, the Braves won 5-4 with a run in the bottom of the eighth as Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward homered earlier off Edwin Jackson. On Sunday, with rain coming down at times, Mike Minor outdueled Gio Gonzalez, who was seeking his 20th win, in a 5-1 victory.

For the Braves, it eases any big concerns about a 2011 repeat. They're now 7 ahead of the Cardinals for the first wild card and 8 ahead of the Dodgers. But sweeping the Nationals should add a little confidence about where this team is at right now. While they may not catch the Nationals for the NL East title -- they're 5.5 games back -- here are six reasons the Braves could be October's NL surprise.

1. Kris Medlen in the coin flip game.

Every team wants to avoid that one-game wild-card insanity -- or coin flip game, as Joe Sheehan termed it -- but at least the Braves can line up the hottest pitcher in the game to start. Since joining the rotation on July 31, Medlen is 7-0 in nine starts with a 0.86 ERA and .490 OPS. The Braves have won all nine games as Medlen has allowed just eight runs. Remember, the postseason isn't about determining the best team in baseball; it's about determining the best team in baseball in October. Is there another starter you'd want out there right now?

2. Craig Kimbrel and the bullpen.

Is there another closer you'd want out there right now? After winning Friday's game (three punchouts) and saving Saturday's (three more punchouts), Kimbrel got a welcomed day off on Sunday. After tiring down the stretch as a rookie in 2011, Kimbrel has been handled very carefully by manager Fredi Gonzalez. He's on pace to throw just 61.1 innings, 16 fewer than a year ago. You can actually argue that he's been underutilized, but at least it means he's dominating down the stretch. Kimbrel's numbers are sick; he's like Danny Almonte playing against 12-year-olds. Batters are hitting .122 off him; he's struck out over half the batters he's faced. You know who's done that before? Nobody. Aroldis Chapman is No. 2 all time (50 innings pitched) and he's at 45.4 percent this year.

But it's not just Kimbrel. Jonny Venters struggled in the first half, allowing 12 extra-base hits and 5.25 ERA, but has a 2.20 ERA and no extra-base hits allowed in the second half. Throw in Eric O'Flaherty and Luis Avilan and the Braves have three solid lefties in front of Kimbrel. Sidearmer Cory Gearrin -- one home run over the past two seasons between Triple-A and the majors -- doesn't have many big league innings but could prove to be a key righty in October. It's a deep pen with baseball's best closer in a year in which a lot of the potential playoff teams are very shaky in the ninth inning.

3. Mike Minor is on a roll.

There were calls in the first half to send Minor back to the minors but the Braves stuck with him, as much due to Brandon Beachy's injury and Jair Jurrjens' terrible pitching as much as their belief in him. Homer-prone in the first half -- he had a four-homer game and two three-homer games -- Minor has a 2.28 ERA over his past 12 starts with six home runs allowed. Medlen, Tim Hudson, Minor and Paul Maholm or Tommy Hanson suddenly looks like a solid playoff rotation.

4. Andrelton Simmons is back.

The 22-year-old rookie returned last week. Before his broken pinky, Simmons had wowed with his glove and impressed with his bat. Paul Janish played a nice shortstop in his absence, but Simmons provides a spark at the bottom of the Braves' lineup. They'd been hitting seven guys without him; now they have an eight-man lineup again.

5. Jason Heyward.

The bat. The arm. The range. The grizzled 22-year-old veteran has been lost in the Mike Trout/Harper adulation, which means October may be his time to capture the spotlight.

6. Chipper Jones.

Jones can still play: .297/.382/.477, 14 home runs (although just one in his past 75 at-bats). Win one for the Chipper? I think Chipper may win one more for the Braves. Sentimental story lines don't usually end the right way, but this one is gaining steam as we head to the final chapter.
Jonny Venters entered Tuesday night's game in Atlanta with a 4-0 lead, a runner on first and one out. Here's what happened:
  • Curtis Granderson: slider in dirt; fastball called strike; fastball inside; fastball, slow grounder into the hole between third and short for a hit.
  • Mark Teixeira: fastball in dirt; fastball away; fastball in; fastball for a called strike; fastball that went about 59 feet for ball four.
  • Alex Rodriguez: fastball in dirt; slider in dirt; fastball in dirt; called strike; low and in fastball popped foul; low and in fastball fouled off foot; low fastball down the middle lined to left for a grand slam home run.
  • Robinson Cano: slider way outside; fastball in for ball; fastball, soft liner to center for a base hit.

Four batters, four bad results, four runs and then the loss when Nick Swisher greeted Cory Gearrin with a two-run homer. (Where was Craig Kimbrel, you ask? Nowhere to be found, of course. Closers can't pitch in the eighth or be forced to get five outs.)

A year ago, Venters posted a 1.84 ERA, held hitters to a .176 average and went 6-3 with five saves. This year, he's 3-3 with a 4.50 ERA and .330 opponents' average.

Ben Duronio of our Capitol Avenue Club blog on the Braves wrote a post today saying Venters is just fine. In fact, he titled the post "Jonny Venters is just fine." Ben writes, "Venters currently has a BABIP of .439 compared to a .288 career average, with a HR/FB rate of 33.3% compared to a career rate of 9.5%. If you think those rates will continue, I do not know what to tell you."

I went back and watched Tuesday's performance. While neither Granderson or Cano hit the ball hard, it's also true that Venters was horrible, falling behind all four hitters and throwing six of his 19 pitches in the dirt. The ball A-Rod hit for the slam was the third straight fastball in the same general location. With Venters not trusting his slider with the bases loaded, A-Rod was able to sit on the fastball.

That's just one game. Ben has been watching Venters all year and it's true that his strikeout and walk percentages are pretty much the same as last year. With the movement he gets on both his hard sinker and slider, he's always going to walk his share of hitters, so control is never going to be a strong suit. And while the Granderson and Cano hits are good examples of soft singles, it's all also true Venters is not throwing to the same location as consistently as last year.

Here are the heat maps of all his pitches in 2011 and 2012. They don't look the same to me.

VentersESPN Stats & InformationJonny Venters' location isn't the same as it was last season.
I'm with Ben in that Venters is likely to improve moving forward. But I'm also not sure he's going to be a reliable eighth-inning guy. His approach in the A-Rod at-bat was also terrible. Last year, he probably gets A-Rod to strike out or ground out on a 3-2 slider. This year, he falls behind and A-Rod knows the fastball is coming.

As my friend MK the Braves fan told me, "And without fail, I wake up weeping the morning after he pitches."

What do the Braves do? Kris Medlen has been getting stretched out as a starter in the minors. He may return as a starter (although Mike Minor pitched well on Tuesday) or maybe he just goes back to the pen. Eric O'Flaherty, also so good a year ago, has a sore elbow and has been unavailable for a few days. He hasn't pitched as well as last season either. Maybe Fredi Gonzalez turns the eighth inning over to Cristhian Martinez, who has been solid as the team's middle guy.

Or, less likely, Kimbrel could also be brought in on occasion with runners on base. But Kimbrel hasn't pitched in the eighth inning all year, so that doesn't seem to be in Gonzalez's playbook. Maybe Kimbrel's arm will fall off if he has to get more than three outs.

Regardless, with the Braves' rotation just 12th in ERA in the National League, they need more than just Kimbrel to be effective at the end of games.
There was definitely some clowning around on Wednesday's Baseball Today podcast as Keith Law and I discussed many a fun topic relating to the great game of baseball!

1. Bryce Harper hit a mammoth home run and then hit a figurative one when dealing with a reporter postgame. Congrats to Harper, bro.

2. Why shouldn't Harper and Mike Trout be All-Stars? Vote them in, people! The game counts, after all!

3. Are the Giants really tinkering with the idea of Tim Lincecum as a reliever? We also discuss Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner.

4. Emailers posed questions about attendance in Florida, LSU/Baltimore's Kevin Gausman and on-base percentage versus batting average.

5. Wednesday's schedule features an under-the-radar New York Yankee, a legit All-Star for the New York Mets, Lance Lynn and much more!

So download and listen to Wednesday's Baseball Today podcast and get your clown on!

Phillies take runs where they find them

May, 2, 2012

While the Nationals lost in Bryce Harper's home debut, they clung to first place thanks to the Phillies-Braves battle. If you left the Phillies for dead because the right side of their infield is on the DL and Cliff Lee, also injured, hasn’t even begun throwing, then you made a first-month mistake. On Tuesday night as they beat the Braves 4-2, Philadelphia reminded you why you shouldn’t be surprised when the Phillies come back from an early grave and eat your brai … . Well, you shouldn't be surprised when they stay alive in the so-called "Division of Death."

First, the Phillies have their set stars who aren’t missing in action. Cole Hamels ran off his fourth straight quality start of the season. He put the team in a position to win yet again, even though he was facing a Braves team averaging more than five runs per game. Even without Lee, the rest of the Phillies’ star-staffed rotation has notched 17 quality starts in 21 turns -- delivering enough ballgames that even a team with a weak offense can win.

That same rotation has had to take four “tough losses” (that’s an "L" in a quality start, per Baseball-Reference.com) because of the anemic offense. That can’t be chalked up to injuries alone: Rookie Freddy Galvis might not be ready for big league pitching while filling in for Chase Utley. But that’s just one lineup slot hampered by injury. Among the guys the Phillies are counting on, Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco both have OPS marks below .600. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino were both getting on base at less than a .300 clip before Tuesday night’s action.

That’s not just injury related, that’s a collection of slow starts. And it won’t last because all four vets are better than that, and they’re the players on the spot who will turn the Phillies offense around now, not later, once Howard and Utley return.

Sometimes an offense needs a nudge, though, and the Braves’ defense certainly obliged. History sees hits and runs, but it also recorded an error on Martin Prado's fourth-inning flub in left field when he flat out missed Ty Wigginton's two-out single through the left side, allowing Pence to follow Polanco home for a 2-0 lead.

In the eighth, with the game tied and Phillies on second and third, Jonny Venters got what he needed, striking out Polanco with a slider … that got away from Brian McCann, plating the lead run because John Mayberry Jr. was alertly coming home already. The Phillies’ fourth run was a well-placed hit: With the infield pulled around to the left side on the shift with the pull-hitting Pence at the plate, Pence responded by poking a single through that gaping hole on the right side.

Call those events situational snafus or perfect execution, either way the Phillies will take it. Those things won’t always go the Phillies’ way on any given night, of course; Prado has a strong arm in left, and if he comes up with that ball off Wigginton’s bat, Pence may not have made it home, or may have just held up. McCann isn’t among the very best receivers in the game, but he isn’t a brick wall either. After achieving rare notoriety as a set-up man Venters is going to get his man at home plate more often than not.

But as the Phillies try to crawl back up from their slow start at the plate, they won’t get all the way there on big innings and blowouts -- things this lineup may not have. They’ll need to get by with nights like Tuesday, where they can exploit the athleticism of Pence or Mayberry or Victorino. Even absent Lee, thanks to Hamels & Co., games will be in reach. They may eventually get real thunder from Utley and Howard, but in the meantime they’ll have to get by with what opportunity affords them.

Jason DonaldJerry Lai/US PresswireJason Donald's miss on this ball off Alejandro De Aza's bat produced a rare infield double.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
When is Opening Day not really Opening Day? And why is a baseball game that counts pushed to the back burner by a bigger story on this fine Wednesday? Keith Law and I (with help) explain on Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast!

1. Excellent ESPN The Magazine writer Molly Knight joins us to discuss the stunning $2 billion deal involving the Los Angeles Dodgers. Molly tells us why Dodgers fans should be very pleased.

2. Meanwhile, the Mariners and Athletics played a baseball game that will be reflected in the relevant standings, but not many people saw it. Well, I did! Keith tells us what to expect from Dustin Ackley.

3. What can Mariano Rivera do this season to break his personal best in Wins Above Replacement? Well, he can’t do it. Not in 60 innings. We relate this to the Braves' bullpen.

4. Keith tells us what’s new with Royals pitching prospect Noel Arguelles, and explains the luxury tax system.

5. What’s the difference in "power" and "raw power"? An emailer asks and our scout answers.

So download and listen to Wednesday’s fun-filled Baseball Today podcast, and then follow the gang on Twitter (@karabellespn, @keithlaw, @therealpodvader)!

Rough spring, but Braves still contenders

March, 22, 2012
Giants/BravesScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesDan Uggla and Brian McCann will be counted on to provide pop for the Braves in 2012.
With the way 2011 ended for the Atlanta Braves, many hoped a good start in spring training would put any thoughts about last season behind them. At the start of camp, however, Tommy Hanson crashed his car and received a concussion. That was certainly not a good omen, to say the least.

Then Tyler Pastornicky, the expected starting shortstop, started 3-for-33, sparking questions about whether he or last season’s Lynchburg Hillcat (Atlanta's high-A affiliate) shortstop Andrelton Simmons should start at shortstop. A week ago, Chipper Jones stated in jest that he was unsure if he could even finish the season, and then Thursday announced that he'll retire at the end of the season. Additionally, the team is 6-13 in the Grapefruit League, ahead of only the Mets. Spring training records do not mean much, if anything, but the Braves have most certainly not played quality baseball.

On Tuesday, the worst news of the spring hit the Braves as Arodys Vizcaino, the 14th-ranked prospect in baseball according to Keith Law, will miss the entire season with Tommy John surgery. Vizcaino was projected to pitch in the Braves’ bullpen and was expected to help ease the workload of the team’s back-end relievers.

Not much has gone right, but there are still reasons to be optimistic. With Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy ready to break out and Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado not far behind them, the Braves still have a strong core of young starting pitchers who are major league ready. With Tim Hudson already being ruled out until the start of May and Hanson and Jair Jurrjens attempting to rebound from last year’s season-ending injuries, the depth in the rotation is the team’s biggest strength and should come in handy over the course of the season.

Although Vizcaino will miss the year, swingman Kris Medlen should bolster what was already one of the game’s top bullpens. His ability to eat innings, along with fellow bullpen mate Cristhian Martinez, should lessen the workload on Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. The bullpen should again be stellar.

While the pitching should remain sturdy, the big questions in Braves camp revolve around the bats. Jason Heyward and Martin Prado had sub-standard years and will look to rebound, while Brian McCann and Dan Uggla try to stay consistent throughout the season. Heyward has altered both his swing and stance, and he has really started to swing the bat well over the past two weeks. Prado and Uggla have both looked tremendous all spring.

The basic assumption the front office has made, judging by their lack of acquisitions, is that they doubt things go as bad for the offense in 2012 as they did last year. Having Michael Bourn in center field for the entire season should stabilize the top of the lineup and result in improved production compared to what the Braves received from Nate McLouth, Jordan Schafer and Bourn during his few months with the team.

With all that went bad toward the end of last year, this team still won 89 games and would have made the playoffs if this season’s playoff format had been in place. They have a ton of pitching depth and have one of the best bullpens in the league. While they do not have a tremendous offense and will likely struggle with their infield defense, they do have the tools to score runs and prevent runs at a better than average rate. As bad as this spring has been, the Braves are still one of the better teams in the National League and should certainly be in competition for a playoff spot, which is all you can really ask for in a crowded NL East.

Ben Duronio writes regularly about the Braves at Capitol Avenue Club. You can follow him on Twitter @Ben_Duronio.

Baseball's top set-up men

September, 2, 2011
So who are the real firemen? You know who leads the majors in saves, but ninth-inning save opportunities aren’t distributed especially equally. And in the age of Eck-style three-out saves, it isn’t like the guys getting saves are the ones charged with putting fires out with the game on the line. They’re fulfilling the job of protecting ninth-inning leads, and they get the glory stat and the big-time money for their troubles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the ninth inning isn’t often the point in time when a game’s outcome hangs in the balance.

Instead, let’s take a look at the guys who have made the biggest impact on outcomes because of the situations they get thrown into, which often involves handing off that lead to the closer. Using what Baseball-Reference.com refers to as “High Leverage” situations, who are the non-closers who have been put into the most key situations this season? Here’s the list of the guys with the highest number of High Leverage games without notching 20 or more saves. For good measure, let’s toss in innings pitched, games, their average leverage index (aLI), their tally of Holds + Saves and their total save situations (rarely in the ninth inning), their inherited runners, inherited runners who scored (IS), and the percentage of inherited runners who scored (IS%):

As much as we’ve already gotten to hear about Venters this season, it’s worth noting that he and Adams have come into more high-leverage situations than anybody in the game today, even after you include the closers. It’s also nice to see O’Flaherty show up, because Spuds has to live with being the third wheel in the Braves’ outstanding late-game trio, and not everyone gives him his due. The Cubs’ Marshall makes an appearance as a pitcher very similar to Venters, in that he’s earned a rubber-armed reputation while killing people with sinkers. And as former starting pitchers, they’re not the sort of southpaw set-up men who get chased by the first sign of a right-handed bat in the on-deck circle.

In Clippard and Veras, you get a pair of mid-game workhorses on non-contenders. More so than the others here, they’re also relievers who rank high among those who’ve had to pitch with the most runners on base. The MLB average for inherited runners scoring is 29 percent, and Clippard’s 19 percent clip puts him among the most effective at stranding other people’s problems. For the curious, the man with the mixed fortune of pitching with the most inherited baserunners has been Jason Motte with 56, but he’s also allowed a slightly worse-than-average 32 percent to score. Beyond Motte are a gaggle of situational guys: lefties Bill Bray of the Reds and Tim Byrdak of the Mets, plus submariner Brad Ziegler.

Which leaves Mike Adams, who’s interesting in that he’s almost the antithesis of a mid-game fireman: He almost never gets put into situations with men on. Instead, he’s entrusted with eighth-inning leads that are save opportunities -- they just don’t happen to lead to him notching many saves. Between San Diego and Texas this year, Adams has been handed 28 eighth-inning leads of three runs or fewer, and appeared in 16 eighth-inning ties. Between an injury-marred career that argues against him being asked to pitch multiple innings and a long delivery that makes him a poor choice to pitch with runners aboard, but leave him alone in this sort of role and he’ll strike out a man an inning and pitch his own innings. As set-up heroes go, he’s fairly unusual, but handled carefully, he’s an asset who belongs on this sort of list.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Eric Karabell is on vacation this week, leaving yours truly on the Baseball Today podcast. As usual, Mark Simon was on Monday and we somehow kept the show under an hour. Hey, it was a busy weekend!

1. The Tigers swept the Indians and we talked about Austin Jackson's awesome throw on Sunday. You won't believe how rare this play was.

2. Thoughts on Jered Weaver's new deal. As long as the Angels have Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout in the outfield, Weaver should be terrific.

3. Mark has some thoughts on the AL Rookie of the Year race and disses my man Michael Pineda. But what about Ivan Nova?

4. It's Monday, so that means Power Rankings. Are the Tampa Bay Rays underrated? (Yes they are, I say!)

5. Reader email: Pitchers who dominated at home, WAR and John Lackey's bad ERA but good record.

Plus: Brian Wilson's injury, thoughts on the Cubs, Freddie Freeman's throw, Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters and previewing Monday's action. Whew.

Braves relief trio tough to top

August, 19, 2011

On Thursday night, Mike Minor was brilliant against a Triple-A lineup, while Chipper Jones made Tim Lincecum pay for one mistake. But good luck beating the Atlanta Braves when Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel jog in from the bullpen.

They may sound like a law firm or maybe the Notre Dame backfield from 1955, but what they are is baseball’s most lethal bullpen trio. The three each pitched one inning in Thursday’s 1-0 victory over the Giants: O’Flaherty threw 15 pitches, allowed a two-out single, but otherwise cruised through the seventh; Venters threw 12 pitches and induced three easy grounders in the eighth; and Kimbrel threw 14 high-explosive laser beams in the ninth, getting a popout, Pablo Sandoval swinging and Aubrey Huff looking.

The trio’s combined numbers on 2011: 187 1/3 innings, 1.39 ERA, four home runs allowed, 73 walks, 228 strikeouts, 41 saves. Forget Roy Halladay or Clayton Kershaw or Cliff Lee, the NL Cy Young Award should go to O’Ventrel.

While many managers and executives prefer to put their late-inning trust in more experienced arms, the Braves entered spring training with a plan for relying on the rookie Kimbrel and second-year lefty Venters, who came out of nowhere to excel last season. In doing so, manager Fredi Gonzalez simply followed a belief system long held by Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz: Don’t be afraid to go with the youngsters -- especially those with power arms. This isn’t the franchise that’s going to pick up Arthur Rhodes and give him important innings in a pennant race.

Cox and Schuerholz learned this the hard way. The 1992 Braves had hard-throwing young guys Kent Mercker, Mike Stanton and Mark Wohlers, but the team picked up veteran closer Jeff Reardon late in the season … an end-of-the-line, fool-'em-with-offspeed-stuff Jeff Reardon, who served up a game-losing home run in the World Series to Toronto’s Ed Sprague.

After that, Cox never shied away from using a young closer. Rookie Greg McMichael saved 19 games in 1993. Wohlers, still just 25, assumed closer duties in 1995 as the team won its only World Series. When Wohlers developed the yips in 1998, rookie Kerry Ligtenberg became the closer, saving 30 games while the Braves won 106. Ligtenberg got hurt the next season so Cox turned to hard-throwing John Rocker, in his first full season. He had 38 saves and struck out 104 batters in 72 1/3 innings. True, Cox would later install John Smoltz as closer for a few seasons, but the Atlanta philosophy has always been to try to find young, power arms for the late innings.

Can the Braves’ late-game threesome carry them to a World Series title, like the Cincinnati Reds’ Nasty Boys trio of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton did in 1990? If there’s one concern that many bloggers and fans have raised, it’s the workload the three have carried. O’Flaherty is on pace for 73 innings, Kimbrel for 78 2/3 and Venters for 91 2/3. The Giants, for example, had a similar shutdown threesome last year in Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, as they combined for a 1.97 ERA, but threw just 192 innings in the regular season -- or just five more than the Atlanta three has already thrown.

But their projected workloads aren’t that out of whack with some other recent World Series champions. The 2008 Phillies’ top three of Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin all appeared in more than 70 games and combined for 239 2/3 innings, with Madson and Durbin both topping 82. The 2004 Red Sox had closer Keith Foulke with 83 innings and set-up man Mike Timlin with 76. And the Nasty Boys? Myers pitched 86 2/3 innings, Dibble 98 and Charlton 154. (OK, Charlton started part of the season.)

If the Braves are concerned, they can take comfort in building their wild-card lead to six games over the Giants and 6 1/2 over the Cardinals. They have plenty of room to play with. Oh, and another young gun just arrived: Hard-throwing 20-year-old Arodys Vizcaino has started his major league career with 5 1/3 scoreless innings.

Just what Braves’ opponents want to see: Another Atlanta reliever throwing nasty 95-plus stuff in the late innings.

Tony Gwynn JrJeff Hanisch/US PresswireTony Gwynn Jr. figures he has places to go and things to do.

Braves take Uggla turn for the better

July, 23, 2011

It's been a rough year for Dan Uggla. After being traded from the Marlins to the Braves and signing a shiny new extension, he has struggled to live up to expectations so far, hitting just .193/.265/.380 (BA/OBP/SLG) entering play Friday night. Add in his customarily questionable defense around the keystone, and Uggla has been below replacement level thus far in 2011.

But it was all smiles in Cincinnati after Friday’s game, as Uggla came up as a pinch-hitter with two outs in the eighth inning and delivered a two-run homer off the Reds’ Nick Masset to give the Braves the lead for good in a back-and-forth game that included seven total home runs, three by each team before Uggla’s decisive blow.

For the Reds, this was a must-win game to sustain any chance of eventually winning the wild card. Entering the game, the Braves had a 9 1/2-game lead on the Reds in the standings, so Cincinnati needed a sweep to have any realistic chance of catching up any time soon. At this point, catching up is all but impossible, meaning the Reds will need to overcome the Brewers, Pirates and Cardinals to win the National League Central if they want to participate in the postseason again.

For the Braves, it was another win on another day for arguably the least talked-about good team in baseball. Entering play the Braves boasted the NL's second-best record and second-best run differential. Unfortunately, they trail division rival Philadelphia in both of those counts and remain four games out of first place in the NL East. Being overshadowed by the Phillies is probably part of the reason few people seem to have noticed the Braves are nevertheless having an excellent season, but that's no reason to overlook this Braves team.

The Braves’ unquestioned strength is their pitching staff, which on the whole is the best in the NL. The Braves' starters rank third in the league in FIP behind the Phillies and Giants, but their bullpen ranks first, while the Phillies’ bullpen ranks 13th (and 14th in xFIP). And they're not lacking for high-end talent, either. Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe all have fWARs of at least 2.0 so far. With an ERA of 2.26, Jurrjens likely would win some Cy Young votes if the season ended today. In the bullpen, Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are two of the four most valuable relievers in the NL.

On the other hand, the Braves certainly could stand to improve themselves offensively. They were 11th in the NL in wOBA entering Friday, and their positional players as a whole also were just 11th in the league in fWAR. To that end, the Braves have been heavily linked to Carlos Beltran in recent trade rumors, as well as lesser outfielders such as Coco Crisp, Jeff Francoeur and Jonny Gomes. Some of those names make more sense than others, but taken together, they paint a clear picture of a team aggressively seeking to improve its offense before the deadline.

If there's a reason for the Braves to worry about a potential bump in the road to October, it might actually be Jurrjens. Beyond the nifty ERA and 12-3 record, make no mistake, Jurrjens is a pitcher dramatically outperforming his peripherals. Although he doesn't walk many batters, he also doesn't strike out many (5.5 K/9), and although his home run rate is certainly fantastic at 0.39 HR/9 (not too far below his career 0.65 rate), it's built on a HR/FB rate of 4.1 percent, which is probably unsustainable. If that weren't enough, Jurrjens is somehow doing all this while allowing a career-high number of line drives against him (although the fact that most of those line drives appear to be coming at the expense of the number of fly balls he's allowing could mean there is a healthy dose of classification error in those numbers).

But for now, Jurrjens is getting the job done, and the Braves currently look like a strong bet to make the playoffs, with a five-game lead in the loss column over their nearest wild-card rival. And if they do manage to add a bat as significant as Beltran’s or otherwise find some offense to go with their deep pitching staff, the Braves are a team you might not want to overlook down the stretch and into the postseason.

Mike TroutEvan Habeeb/US PresswirePen in hand, Mike Trout offers a fan more than a tip of a cap in Baltimore.
Brien Jackson is a contributor and editor at It's About the Money, Stupid!, an ESPN Sweetspot Network affiliate. You can follow Brien on Twitter, and follow IIATMS on Twitter and Facebook.

Protecting Hanson working well

June, 8, 2011
For Tommy Hanson, winning in the big leagues might have seemed somewhat easy at the start of his career. When he came up as a 22-year-old rookie in June 2009, the highly touted prospect delivered on his promise by collecting 11 wins in his first 21 starts, against just four losses. He collected his first big league victory in his second start in what you might term a “cheap” win, in that he didn’t get through six innings, getting away with just two runs allowed while giving up 14 baserunners in 5 2/3 innings. The team's bullpen and offense picked him up, and the Braves beat the Orioles 7-2.

A win’s a win, but almost two years later Hanson’s victory over the Marlins on Tuesday serves as a reminder that there has been nothing cheap about Hanson’s victories since that rookie campaign. Hanson’s 17-15 record in 2010-2011 might make it seem as though he’s merely been a placeholder in the Braves’ rotation, but nothing could be further from the truth. Marlins rookie Brad Hand threw an excellent game in his debut, his lone mistake an inside fastball that Alex Gonzalez got around on and jacked into the left-field seats to lead off the fourth inning. As it turned out, that would be the only run the Braves needed.

Hanson pitched six shutout innings to get his seventh win of the season, that in his seventh quality start. Hanson has won all seven -- simply put, anything less than a quality start, and Hanson has nothing to show for it so far. That may sound like a hard circumstance, but he has been here before: Hanson got his first eight wins in his first eight quality starts in 2010. It’s what came after that last season which has made it seem as though Hanson has been anything less than outstanding. After going eight-for-eight, Hanson had to settle for one win, three losses and seven no-decisions in his final 11 quality starts.

In a microcosm, Hanson’s quality spin Tuesday provided the reasons why. It goes back to the how and why of his first win -- like any well-managed young pitcher, he gets pulled before his pitch counts pile up too far beyond 100. In 2009, when Hanson was 22, he pitched into the seventh inning or later just 10 times in 21 starts. In 2010, he got into the seventh or later just 14 times in 34 starts. This year, in his age 24 season, he’s done so in just four of his first 13 starts.

That isn’t about a quick hook, not from Bobby Cox or now from Fredi Gonzalez. Instead, that’s the nature of careful management of a quality arm as he matures. In the meantime, more often than not, Hanson is pitching two-thirds of the game or less -- which makes generating wins a tough proposition without great run support (like he got in his first win and first season), as well as great relief help.

This year he’s as carefully managed as ever, and Hanson’s getting the worst run support of his brief career. After Tuesday’s 1-0 win, a quick envelope calculation says that he’s getting just 3.7 runs of support per 27 outs, against the 5.0 he got as a rookie or the 4.2 he received last season. But he is getting a boost from the other unit that can turn a good start from Hanson into a win in the standings: the Braves’ bullpen.

Hanson has a power trio to make his good work stand up: lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, and closer Craig Kimbrel, a righty. O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel have provided the Braves’ game-winning script for the final three frames this season, a major change from last year; only Venters is reprising anything like the role he had on Cox’s watch.

All three relievers rank among the league leaders in appearances, and all three are almost entirely reserved for pitching with the lead. Instead of strictly situational roles defined by pursuing platoon advantages, Gonzalez’s bullpen has its roles defined by the score: If the Braves lead after six, the trio pitches. It’s the older pitchers who are assigned the less significant roles -- 30-somethings Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill generally pitch when the Braves are down by a little, and veteran Cristhian Martinez when they’re down by a lot.

Combined, the three older men have pitched to protect a lead just nine times in 63 appearances, and 11 tie games. The kids? They’ve been entrusted with 56 leads and 22 ties, and with a combined 1.61 runs allowed per nine while stranding 18 of 23 inherited runners, they’re making those leads stand up as wins -- including Hanson’s.

Carlos GomezJeff Hanisch/US PresswireCarlos Gomez is just hanging out. He got the ball, but will he ever come down? Please hold.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
There are many reasons you should listen to Wednesday's three-headed Baseball Today podcast with myself, Keith Law and SweetSpot blogger David Schoenfield, but here are the top five:

1. Tuesday was a far different day for the De La Rosa pitchers, as one blew out of his elbow, and the other got the call to the big leagues. Are the Colorado Rockies in trouble replacing their De La Rosa? And what are the Los Angeles Dodgers doing promoting theirs?

2. Sticking with the NL West, do the San Francisco Giants want to score runs? Of course they do, but then why aren't they playing their best hitters? Then again, this isn't the same offense it was a year ago.

3. Should MLB take a cue from Premier League soccer and bump out the bottom few teams each season? As always, Mr. Law brings a strong opinion.

4. We talk relief pitchers, from the hierarchy of the Atlanta Braves' top duo to the fellow that earned a three-year contract from the Detroit Tigers.

5. On Wednesday's docket is a rematch of one of the best pitched games of 2010. Not to give too much away, but you can find this game on ESPN2!

Plus: Excellent, Gleeful emails (send to baseballtoday@espnradio.com, incidentally), discussion about a few prospects in the upcoming draft, Alfredo Simon's presence in the big leagues, Edinson Volquez's presence in the minor leagues, why Madison Bumgarner isn't a bum and I wantonly ring the Kara-bell, all on Wednesday's Baseball Today podcast!
The Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox battled for 11 innings on Monday night, and in the end, Carl Crawford’s double high off the Green Monster plated Jose Iglesias with the winning run in a 2-1 victory.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, apparently waiting to take the lead before using closer Matt Capps, and not wanting to use Joe Nathan on back-to-back days, was left with somebody named Jim Hoey on the mound. With one out, Hoey walked Jed Lowrie -- not necessarily a surprise since Hoey walked 34 in 52 2/3 innings in the minors last season. Iglesias came in as a pinch-runner and Crawford hit a 3-2 pitch off the wall.

We’re going to see a lot of games like that this season: low-scoring affairs decided in the late innings. With scoring down, games will be tight, and with close games, late-inning bullpen work may be more important than ever. And if you’re relying on Jim Hoey in tie games, chances are you may be 12-21.

Let’s do a quick overview of the state of 'pens around baseball.

Three best bullpens on contenders

1. San Francisco Giants: The unheralded secret weapon of last year’s champs, the bullpen has picked up where it left off, with Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Ramon Ramirez and Guillermo Mota throwing lights-out. Closer Brian Wilson blew his first save chance but has since converted 11 in a row, despite a little wildness. The team has lefty-righty balance, with lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Dan Runzler adding solid depth.

2. Florida Marlins: Several arms were added to the Marlins' 'pen after last season’s shaky performance and so far they have a 2.59 relief ERA, second only to San Diego’s. I believe in this group, although stellar setup man Clay Hensley was just placed on the DL with a bruised rib. Closer Leo Nunez appeared in 17 of the team’s first 32 games, so watch his usage carefully.

3. New York Yankees: Yes, Mariano Rivera had that little burp, but he’s back on track. Setup man Rafael Soriano has struggled, but I project he’ll turn it around. Joba Chamberlain is throwing better than he has in years, and underrated David Robertson has one of the nastiest curves you’ll see. The 'pen has allowed just five home runs in 95 innings. The big question is whether Boone Logan will prove to be a reliable lefty in the absence of Pedro Feliciano.

Bullpen doing it with smoke and mirrors right now

Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays have a 2.69 bullpen ERA, third-best in the majors, and have allowed opponents a .203 batting average. They’ve allowed just 61 hits in 87 innings despite a poor 51/34 strikeout/walk ratio. Some of that is attributable to their defense, but the low strikeout rate means that .203 average will be difficult to maintain. And maybe you believe in Kyle Farnsworth more than I do.

Three bullpens I’m worried about

1. Texas Rangers: The Rangers will be fine at closer once Neftali Feliz returns, but the rest of the ‘pen looks shaky, as it has allowed 16 home runs in just 94 innings and has a poor 66/43 strikeout/walk ratio. Forty-somethings Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes are looking more their age and have surrendered three home runs apiece, and Darren O'Day is on the 60-day DL with a torn labrum in his hip.

2. Detroit Tigers: The team’s best reliever has been Al Alburquerque, and with a name like that, he'd better be good, because we want him to last a long time. Closer Jose Valverde is always a tightrope, but the rest of the setup crew, including high-priced free agent Joaquin Benoit, has looked inconsistent.

3. Milwaukee Brewers: Brewers relievers already have nine defeats. They have a few good arms in closer John Axford and Zach Braddock and Brandon Kintzler, but control issues have been a problem so far and lack of depth could be an issue.

Two awesome bullpens if you only need two guys

1. Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are dominant (and Eric O'Flaherty provides a nice third guy). We’ll have to see whether Venters holds up after pitching 79 games and 83 innings last year, but so far he’s been even better than he was in 2010, with a 0.70 WHIP.

2. Boston Red Sox: Daniel Bard’s raw numbers are great (well, except that 0-3 record, which is not exactly a non-important notation). Jonathan Papelbon is back with an 18/2 strikeout/walk ratio. But new acquisitions Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler have been disastrous, leaving a gaping hole after the top two.

Bullpen that may actually be OK

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cards are tied with the Brewers with nine bullpen losses, three by deposed closer Ryan Franklin. And while the team may not have a set closer (Fernando Salas has the role for now), there are some good arms here. Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs and rookie Eduardo Sanchez all average more than 93 mph with their fastballs, and Salas throws strikes. Mix in LOOGYs Trever Miller and Brian Tallet, and I think Tony La Russa will figure out roles that turn this into one of the better 'pens in the NL.

Jay BruceThomas Campbell/US PresswireStretch! Jay Bruce reached as high as he could, but no dice. That one's gone.