Anytime the Atlanta Braves trail early and lose, as they did the past two nights against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, there is a silver lining: On those nights, they won’t have to use ace relievers Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, whose workloads this season have teetered on the line between “high” and “alarming.”
Despite the fact neither has pitched since Saturday, Venters, the Braves’ 26-year-old lefty set-up man, has appeared in a major-league-leading 59 games this season (entering Wednesday’s series finale at Nationals Park), putting him on pace for 86 appearances, while Kimbrel, their rookie closer, ranks tied for fourth in the majors with 54 appearances.
It’s easy to see why the Braves are riding Venters and Kimbrel so hard. Venters may be the single most dominant reliever in the game, having held opposing batters to a .458 OPS this season. (That ranks fourth in the majors, but none of three pitchers ahead of him has handled anywhere close to Venters’s workload.) Meantime, Kimbrel has an ERA of 2.04 and hasn’t allowed a run since June 11, a span of 21 straight scoreless outings. With the Braves locked in a pennant race, Manager Fredi Gonzalez is doing what he needs to do to win games.
“We’re relief pitchers,” Kimbrel shrugged when asked about workloads. “We’re made to pitch four or five times a week.”
However, there is a danger in riding relievers too hard. Recent history is littered with examples of relievers who went from lock-down workhorses to ragged-armed mop-up men – or worse – in short order. To cite a few examples:
*Last year, lefty Pedro Feliciano led all relievers with 92 appearances. This year, he is out for the year with a shoulder injury. (To be fair, Feliciano also led the majors in appearances in 2009 and 2008.)
*In 2007, lefty Jamie Walker tied for the American League lead with 81 appearances. The next year, his ERA doubled (from 3.23 to 6.87), and the year after that he was out of baseball.
*That same year, Nationals right-hander Saul Rivera finished second in the majors with 85 appearances, and posted a 3.68 ERA. The next two seasons, his ERA rose to 3.96, then 6.10, and he last pitched in the majors in June 2010 for Arizona.
*In 2006 and 2007, right-hander Scott Proctor had back-to-back seasons of 83 appearances, with ERAs of 3.52 and 3.65, respectively. By 2008, his ERA was over 6, and in 2009 he missed the entire season with elbow surgery. He is now in the same Braves bullpen as Venters and Kimbrel, but pitching mostly in mop-up duty.
Mindful of that history, the Braves made a decision earlier this season not to use Venters or Kimbrel when the team is trailing – and to use them only when they are tied or leading by a slim margin.
“It’s tempting to use them [when you are] one run down. You feel like you’re in it,” Gonzalez said. “But we decided that, unless they haven’t pitched in awhile, we’re only going to use them if we’re ahead or tied.”
Indeed, Venters entered with the Braves trailing three times in April and twice more in May, but has done so only twice since then. Kimbrel has been deployed five times with the Braves trailing, but none since mid-June.
But even within those parameters, Venters and Kimbrel are bound to get plenty of work. The Braves lead the majors in extra-inning games this season, with 20, and only five teams in the majors have won more one-run games (19).
The trick, of course, is balancing the pressure to win every game possible this season with the desire to have Venters and Kimbrel anchoring the bullpen for years to come. Somewhere, there is middle ground, and the Braves may have found it.