Jonny Venters was one of the most dominant relievers from 2010-2011, posting FIPs of 2.69 and 2.78 over 171 innings. Over that time, he lead all of baseball in relief appearances and was 2nd in relief innings. 2012 has not been as kind to Venters, as he has a 4.86 FIP and a bum elbow.
The first thing you notice when you look at his numbers, is that he is giving up a ton of homers. In fact, 42.9% of the fly-balls he has given up have turned into homers, including his most recent to Jeff Baker:
Jeff Baker is not a power hitter. As you can see on the picture, he has just 2 homers on the season. In 500 MLB games, he has homered about 1% of the time, well below league average. His Isolated Slugging is also below league average at .168. Something has to go pretty wrong for a pitcher to give up a homer to Jeff Baker. This is not the normal Jonny Venters we are used to seeing. In 2010, he gave up .11 HR/9IP and in 2011 he gave up .20 HR/9IP. This year, he is giving up 1.67 HR/9IP. At no stop in the minors (with a minimum of 10 innings pitched) did he give up more than .69 HR/9IP. So what is exactly wrong with Venters? According to some statistics, nothing. He has a career high strikeout rate at 11.97 per 9 innings, which is absurdly good. Because of this, his SIERA is 2.77. However, something is clearly wrong. Not only is he giving up line drives almost 10% more of the time than last year, his ground-ball/fly-ball rate (while still excellent) is also down. Perhaps more concerning, his velocity has been dropping as well.
His fastball has dropped 1.2 MPH on average and his sinker a full 1 MPH. His slider has lost velocity while his changeup has actually gained velocity. His Pitch Values have (according to Fangraphs) all dropped (other than his changeup) rather significantly. In fact, his fastball is rated just above Blake Beavan’s and Manny Acosta’s, who are both in the minors now. As mentioned above, he has thrown a lot of innings. Have the innings worn him down? To find out, I decided to look at all the relievers who have thrown more than 80 innings in a season since the Pitch F/X era (2007) started.
In 2011, he was joined by Jim Johnson, who has seen some regression, all though not nearly as big:
2011: 95 MPH, 3.22 FIP
2012: 94.4 MPH, 3.82 FIP
Who else threw 80 relief innings in 2011? Jeff Samardzija is a starter now, so it doesn’t make sense to compare his numbers from 2011 to 2012. Daniel McCutchen is in AAA, and hasn’t thrown a MLB inning all year. Alfredo Aceves actually has better velocity, but decreased effectiveness (according to ERA and FIP, his xFIP and SIERA are better this year). Guillermo Mota is out of baseball and failed a steroid test, while Tyler Clippard has strangely gotten better each year with increased velocity.
In 2010, the only 4 relievers that threw 80 innings were Matt Belisle, Venters, Clippard, and Tony Pena. Pena threw 20.1 innings in 2011 and is out of baseball. Belisle watched his ERA/FIP/xFIP/SIERA all rise and his velo drop in 2011. After 72 innings last year, he has even better numbers than his 2010 numbers but his velo has really dropped and he already had 45.2 innings pitched as of Sunday.
In 2009, the relievers that threw over 80 innings were Aceves, Andrew Bailey, D.J. Carrasco, Todd Coffey, Ramon Tronscoso, Jeff Fulchino, and Brian Bass. Bass threw 7.1 big league innings in 2010, and has spent 2011 and 2012 in AAA. Bailey threw under 50 innings in 2010, then under 50 again in 2011 and hasn’t pitched in 2012 yet. While keeping his FIPs under 3, they were slightly worse, and his velocity dropped nearly a full MPH. Carrasco was basically just as effective the next year, throwing just under 80 innings. His velocity dropped though, and he spent time in the minors and was terrible in 2011 and then DFA’d in 2012. Coffey wasn’t near as effective in 2010, and saw a drop in his velocity. He was good in 2011, but his velocity has absolutely eroded and he injured his elbow in 2012. Tronscoso wasn’t near as effective the next year, and ended up pitching quite a bit in AAA. He saw a huge drop in his velocity. In 2008, he averaged 93 MPH on his fastball. By 2011, it was down to 86.7 MPH. He has spent all of 2012 in the minors. Fulchino saw a big drop in innings and effectiveness the next year, although he maintained his velocity. He never regained the effectiveness though, and is out of baseball.
In 2008, 9 relievers threw over 80 innings. J.P. Howell really hasn’t been the same sense, velocity wise or FIP wise. Carlos Marmol has had incredibly inconsistent years with velocity and FIP since then. At times he has been better, at other times he has been absolutely awful. Saul Rivera had a 6.20 FIP in the Mexican League in 2011. He threw 41 MLB innings after 2008 and accumulated a -.8 WAR in that time and saw a slight decrease in velocity. ’08 was actually his 2nd year in a row to throw more than 80 innings. Ryan Madson has been better since that year, although never throwing that many innings again. He actually gained velocity as well. He had Tommy John this year, but there is nothing to suggest that 2008 had anything to do with it. Chad Durbin never really saw a velocity decrease and is still in the Majors. However, he has been terrible since that season. Jamey Wright hasn’t been quite as effective, but is still in the Majors and didn’t see a real velocity decrease. Jeff Bennett threw just 46.2 MLB innings after 2008 and was terrible, despite seeing a velocity increase. Joel Hanrahan was really good until 2012, well after the 2008 season. He lost some velocity in 2009 but built it back up. It has since been lost again. Josh Rupe has thrown just 28.2 innings in the majors since 2008 and is out of baseball. He was horrible and inconsistent with his velocity.
In 2007, 15 relievers threw over 80 innings. 8 (if you count Matt Guerrier) still pitch in the big leagues, Aaron Heilman and Peter Moylan (rehab assignment) are pitching in the minors, and Scott Proctor is having success in Korea (although he wasn’t very good in his last couple of years in the Majors). 2007 certainly bucks the trend of what we have seen since then. It is also when 80 inning relievers were slightly more common. So why the difference now? It could be small sample size, or it could disprove the idea that 80 + innings usually adversely affect relievers futures. It does seem that other than 2007, the track record for relievers that throw 80 innings is not good at all.
What does this mean for Venters? It is hard to tell. Each player, and each arm is different. Some pitchers, for whatever reason (perhaps mechanics or build), are able to handle a plethora of innings out of the bullpen. Others seem to be adversely affected by such usage. A lot of it could do with age, and typical aging curves, but Venters is a young pitcher at 27 years old. This is supposed to be his prime, and instead, he is on the DL after not being able to keep the ball in the ballpark and losing velocity quicker than the 2008 Detroit Lions. Will Venters ever regain it again? Again, history provides a mixed record, but it has to be on the mind of not only the Braves, but the Cubs (Carlos Marmol), and the Mariners (Brandon League) as well.