April 04, 2013

Jonny Venters’ Injury: Cutting the Braves Some Slack

On last week’s podcast Steve, Ham and Curt discussed the Jonny Venters injury, whether he was overused over the previous 2-3 seasons and whether teams should be more willing to perhaps overuse pitchers and risk injuries when they have a legitimate shot to win a World Series.

First of all the Braves probably used Venters in too many games in which they didn’t need to.  There is little doubt in my mind that they overused him in that regard and for that management deserves at least some criticism.  Just to be clear I don’t want to argue that the Braves organization is free from blame for at least increasing the risk, however mildly, of a Venters injury.

But I’m not sure how much blame Braves management truly deserves, not that anyone is trying to put a precise percentage on the different factors on which to place blame.  If the Braves could have done something differently, they probably should have.  The Braves are a major league organization and they should have a clear understanding of win probabilities and when it is or isn’t appropriate to bring in a pitcher like Venters.  And I would assume they have read or perhaps done their own research on pitcher injuries and usage.

I do want to cut the Braves some slack.  Given the context, we can and should forgive them at least some for using Jonny Venters as much as they did.  In 2010, Venters’ first season, and 2011 the Braves were in tight playoff races and every run prevented and every potential run prevented may have been huge and could have been significant in leading the Braves to the postseason.

Remember also in 2010 the Braves were coming off a 2009 season in which they missed the playoffs by a mere 6 games, finishing second to the Rockies, and much was made of keeping Tommy Hanson down in the minors until June for what was viewed as service-time reasons.  Presumably the Braves wanted to keep him from free agency and arbitration another season.  Remember this was given as a reason Jason Heyward was in the majors from Day 1 of the 2010 season.

Venters was called up early in the 2010 season and once the Braves realized what they had, they relied on him heavily throughout the 2010 season.  After winning the Wild Card by one game in 2010, they used him in more games than any team used any reliever in 2011.  You could sense the Braves were ready to get back to relevance around 2009-2010 and they pulled out all the stops, even it it meant using and perhaps overusing their top relievers.  Does that mean the team always used Venters appropriately?  No.  But maybe we should forgive them some for throwing caution into the wind and taking a risk by using pitchers like Venters as often as they did.

But it’s not just about the closeness of playoff races or games.  There’s also the fact that even in a season in which Venters led the league in games, he pitched in 88 innings.  Granted that’s a lot for a reliever but it’s very possible that a pitcher who can’t hold up after an 88-inning season is bound to face injury issues regardless of whether the workload is 60 innings or 88 innings.  Venters missed the 2006 minor league season because of Tommy John surgery.  The attrition rate for relievers is pretty high.  It may be safe to assume the Braves realized Venters’ time as a great pitcher wasn’t likely to last and they wanted to get as many bullets as they could out of him while he was on their staff and while they had a chance to make the playoffs and possibly reach the World Series.

On the Atlanta Baseball Talk message board I made the comment, and Curt addressed it in last week’s podcast, that if the Cubs had won the World Series in 2003, maybe it was worth the risk to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood’s careers.  This may have come across a little colder and harsher than intended.  I’m definitely not for carelessly blowing pitchers’ arms out in hopes of winning.  I agree with Curt that a team should be responsible with a human being’s career and for the future of the franchise.  But I do think that in some context it may be wise to take risks in order to win.

There is a balancing act and no team should be completely foolish.  But there are situations in which maybe you let a young pitcher pitch more because you have a legitimate shot at winning big.  I do believe this is especially true with hard-throwing relievers, particular relievers with injury histories, because they may only have 3-4 years of dominance if they are lucky no matter how cautious a team is with such pitchers.  What makes all this even more fuzzy is that no one seems to know how to keep pitchers healthy and how much is too much usage.  So there is this balancing act between risk and reward on which it is impossible to get a firm grasp.  There is no specific formula.  In some cases perhaps taking a bit of a somewhat calculated risk with a pitcher’s career is worth going for it.

In the Cubs’ case, the stakes were of course their first World Series appearance since 1945 and their first World Series win since 1908.  The stakes weren’t quite that high for Venters and the Braves, the franchise having won a World Series in 1995.  But you never know when that opportunity will present itself again.

Twitter: @PayneBall



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