Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2011 [Print without images]

Thursday, June 16, 2011
Handcuff Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

To think, three short months ago, questions abounded in the Atlanta Braves' bullpen: Who would replace Billy Wagner, No. 5 all time in saves (422) and fantasy baseball's No. 1 reliever in 2010 per our Player Rater, as the closer?

Relief Efforts

Not only have the Braves found one answer since then but they've found two.

Remarkable as this stat is, it's true: Two members of the Braves' bullpen reside in the Player Rater top 10 among relief pitchers, Jonny Venters (No. 3) and Craig Kimbrel (No. 9). So, when it became clear this past week that there's once again a "closer controversy" in ATL, understand that it's much more of a positive than the one that bullpen endured in spring training.

Yes, this is a controversy for which you want a piece of the action.

Kimbrel's "problems" -- the quotes signifying that fantasy owners should hardly find a problem with 18 saves and 49 strikeouts, those ranking fifth and second among relievers -- date back to shaky back-to-back innings in April 29-30 games versus the St. Louis Cardinals. After blowing a save in the first contest, surrendering singles to Yadier Molina and Ryan Theriot and a sacrifice fly to Daniel Descalso, he absorbed the loss in the second, affording a Matt Holliday single and Gerald Laird RBI triple. At the time, questions again emerged about whether the Braves might return to a co-closership between rookie Kimbrel and sophomore Venters, which was manager Fredi Gonzalez's announced plan exiting spring training.

Kimbrel had been mostly stellar in his next 19 appearances, converting 12 of 14 save chances with a 2.95 ERA and 29 K's in 18 1/3 innings, but after he blew his fifth save of the season on June 8, those questions returned.

They all go something like this: How can the Braves, who fancy themselves contenders, continue to use Kimbrel to close over a guy such as Venters, who is the majors' leading reliever in ERA (0.44) and ranks second in WHIP (0.74) and fifth in opponents' batting average (.141)?

It's a fair inquiry because if save chances were always doled out to the most effective pitcher, there's no doubt Venters deserves the ball in the ninth. He's also highly ranked in some other categories of note: He's first among relievers in ground ball rate (80.4 percent), second in swing-and-miss percentage (38.2), third in holds (14, and tied for first in saves-plus-holds with 17) and eighth in well-hit average (.099). Looking at Venters' year-to-date stats, there's little doubt that he has been one of the best relievers -- and arguably the best -- in baseball. He also has a fastball that averages 94.4 mph and a filthy slider that, since the beginning of 2010, has limited opponents to .067/.102/.077 rates and has generated a 67.0 percent swing-and-miss rate, second-best among relievers in that time.

At the same time, Kimbrel possesses filthy stuff of his own: a fastball that averages 95.7 mph and a slider that has held opposing hitters to .154/.195/.179 rates. Like Venters, Kimbrel misses a slew of bats -- his 34.7 percent overall swing-and-miss rate ranking seventh among relievers -- and he's the one most scouts projected as the Braves' long-term answer at closer.

He's also the one the Braves appear more comfortable using in one-inning, full-inning situations -- which is what a modern closer tends to be -- as opposed to deploying at any moment, even in critical men-on-base spots. To that end, Kimbrel has, in his 55 career appearances, entered a game with men on only three times; he has entered in a no-out, none-on situation every other time. Venters, meanwhile, has entered with men on base in 23 of his 116 career appearances, 16 of those with men already in scoring position and, on five other occasions, mid-inning (meaning one or two outs). That could explain why Gonzalez was so bold as to throw a rookie into the fire initially despite his plan for a co-closership.

That co-closership appears to be the current arrangement, providing a healthy, open competition for the role looking forward. As Jason Grey wrote on Monday -- and an opinion with which I agree -- both remain worth owning, and handcuffing them is mandatory at this point.

But if I'm to make a gut call on who will save more games from today forward, I'm sticking with my preseason prediction: It's Venters. Invest in the skills.

The return of Joakim Soria

One week was all he needed.

Joakim Soria, one of fantasy baseball's most valuable closers the past three seasons, was reinstated as Kansas City Royals closer June 7 and, in three appearances in the role since then, has three shutout innings and five strikeouts and is 3-for-3 in save chances.

His abandoning the cutter -- a pitch he threw 53.4 percent of the time before losing his job -- is a significant reason for the turnaround. In six appearances since June 1, Soria has thrown a cutter on only 16 of his 125 pitches (12.8 percent of the time), and only three of his past 63 pitches (4.8 percent) have been cutters. Soria afforded hitters .385/.489/.564 rates through May 30 in the 50 plate appearances that ended with a cutter, and his overuse of the pitch also made his fastball more predictable and his overall command less sharp.

Soria's elevated walk rate -- 3.60 per nine this season, 2.25 in his past six outings -- is still a slight concern, and it's the one thing keeping him outside the top 10. Judging by the adjustments he has made, however, it's once again safe to hop aboard his bandwagon.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.