During the middle of the 2018 season, the Braves re-acquired fan favorite and formerly-devastating reliever Jonny Venters to assist in their stretch run. Venters had just made it back to the majors after a five-plus year hiatus (including three years of not pitching in a professional game altogether), and was faring well as a relief option for the Rays when the Braves snatched him up. Venters did basically what he was expected to down the 2018 stretch: 87 ERA-, 80 FIP-, 95 xFIP-, dominating lefties while faring much worse against righties (of whom he faced far too many — 47 of 87 batters he faced as a Brave in 2018 had the platoon advantage over him). For his massive troubles and past Tommy John Surgeries endured, Venters won the NL Comeback Player of the Year award. “Comeback” was putting it lightly.
The Braves did not have a very settled bullpen picture coming into 2019, and committed $2.25 million to Venters in December to reprise his relief role.
What were the expectations?
Venters’ 2019 forecast was a hard one to pin down. Rare is the player who makes a triumphant return to retiring major league hitters effectively after missing half a decade of playing time; said player being a reliever makes any attempt at prognostication even murkier. The various projection systems were therefore split on exactly what Venters would be in 2019 — he could be an average, okay-ish reliever, someone not worth rostering, or perhaps, even... good?
All that aside, the Braves expected him to contribute at least somewhat, given his modest-but-not-league-minimum commitment. That’s not really what happened.
What went right in 2019?
Honestly, basically nothing. At best, you can point to Venters’ April 8 outing as the highlight of his season. With the Braves holding a narrow two-run lead at Coors Field, Venters was summoned out of the bullpen after Luke Jackson (who had thrown a 1-2-3 sixth) allowed a leadoff single to Ian Desmond to start the seventh. Charlie Blackmon rolled Venters’ fifth pitch into a double play, and while Venters would then allow a single to Raimel Tapia, the Braves would get out of the inning when Chad Sobotka got a flyout off Nolan Arenado’s bat.
That’s all I got, really.
What went wrong in 2019?
Honestly, basically everything. Venters made six appearances in the team’s first 15 games and had this pitching triple-slash to show for it: 20.25 ERA / 14.84 FIP / 7.33 xFIP. Only one of those six outings was clean (and in it, he faced just one batter), he allowed runs in three of six outings, he failed to retire 11 of the 18 batters he faced, and he had as many walks (five) as strikeouts. He also allowed two homers in those six games, after allowing just one in all of 2018. He then went on the 10-day IL with a calf strain.
Following his return from the IL, the Braves gave him three more opportunities across seven games. Those three outings weren’t any better: 13.50 ERA / 12.21 FIP / 9.69 xFIP. He faced 13 batters, retired only seven of them, allowed more walks (three) than strikeouts (two), and gave up another homer to boot. In his final outing with the team, he allowed four unearned runs. He was released by Atlanta the next day.
Across all of these struggles, his worst outing was his second of the year, on April 3, though it spoke somewhat more to the team’s inability to always use him to his strengths than anything else. Venters was the first man out of the bullpen following Julio Teheran’s five innings of one-run ball against the Cubs. Holding a one-run lead, he issued a leadoff walk to Kyle Schwarber, but was inexplicably left in to face Willson Contreras. Yes, that Willson Contreras, with the 136 wRC+ against lefties for his career, and who would go on to post a wRC+ north of 160 against southpaws over the whole of 2019. Predictably, Contreras destroyed a pitch that badly missed its target and was as grooved as can be for a massive go-ahead homer.
Venters would be left in to face three more batters. He struck out the first, then issued a walk to Jon Lester and then a single to Jason Heyward before being pulled. Wes Parsons put out the fire, and the Braves would put together a four-run eighth inning to walk away 6-4 winners in the end.
Venters’ final 2019 line as a Brave: -0.4 fWAR in 4 2⁄3 innings, 391 ERA-, 315 FIP-, 189 xFIP-, -.36 WPA (again, in under five innings!). After his release, he caught on with the Nationals, a team whose bullpen problem was generally as big as the Braves’. Venters made three unsuccessful appearances wearing the curly “W” and then hit the shelf again, where he stayed for the rest of the year.
What to expect in 2020?
Far be it from me to count out Venters latching on somewhere in 2020 and contributing. He’s already made a scintillating return to effectiveness once. I imagine the Braves will look elsewhere, though. It’s kind of a shame, because Venters is one of my favorite historical Braves. On the other hand, those memories are just memories at this point. Venters might be back in the bigs, but time has a way of eroding everything.
Also, for some reason, commentariat member calcheyup wanted to see this. This is his fault, not mine. Jeez, what a laser.
Obvious bonus note: In his second stint with the Braves (2018-2019), Venters faced 118 batters. Of those 118, 58, or just a smidge under 50 percent, were left-handed. Sometimes you just scratch your head, I guess.