Baseball nerds (hi!) love relief pitchers. LOVE them. High strikeout, max-effort relief pitchers are catnip for people who spend an inordinate amount of time watching baseball. For too long, players like this eluded the limelight while other, inferior pitchers cashed big paychecks for snapping up saves.

The Braves bullpen is the perfect storm of exciting relievers as Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel hold down the back of the the best pen in baseball. Kimbrel’s legendary strikeout numbers and complete domination of everything in his path give the Braves a decided edge as they roll toward the Wild Card. Until this week, when the mighty Braves duo showed their first signs of mortality.

There is a growing concern among Braves fans and impartial watchers that Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez leans too heavily on his young duo. Are their recent struggles the product of being overworked? Did Fredi wear out his two best options before even reaching the playoffs?

The list of Fredi Gonzalez’s managing atrocities is very long. Hitting Jason Heyward too far down in the lineup, not playing Jason Heyward, bunting, bunting again, bunting the same pitch twice. Bunting in post-game interviews. Bunting. More bunting. And, finally, abusing Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. Some enterprising fan — by way of Peter from the essential Capital Avenue Club — created this rather amazing flowchart of Fredi’s bullpen decisions.

Clearly, Fredi has his favorites. He goes to the them again and again, on back-to-back days and as frequently as need be. Below are usage charts from Baseball Reference, indicated Jonny Venters has pitched on consecutive days (0 days of rest) 33 times this season. 28 for closer Craig Kimbrel.

Jonny Venters – Usage

0 Days,GR 33 135 8 17 1 0 1 17 37 2.18 .153 .280 .189 .469 .216
1 Day,GR 25 93 1 14 0 1 0 9 24 2.67 .173 .264 .198 .461 .246
2 Days,GR 9 44 1 6 1 0 0 4 10 2.50 .150 .227 .175 .402 .200
3 Days,GR 11 58 7 13 2 0 0 10 20 2.00 .283 .411 .326 .737 .500
4 Days,GR 2 7 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0.00 .000 .143 .000 .143 .000
6+ Days,GR 2 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/20/2011.

Craig Kimbrel – Usage

0 Days,GR 28 102 8 16 1 1 2 10 43 4.30 .174 .255 .272 .527 .298
1 Day,GR 23 91 6 16 1 0 1 9 31 3.44 .198 .275 .247 .522 .300
2 Days,GR 12 50 3 7 2 0 0 6 21 3.50 .167 .286 .214 .500 .333
3 Days,GR 8 27 0 4 0 0 0 2 13 6.50 .160 .222 .160 .382 .333
4 Days,GR 3 15 1 2 0 0 0 1 10 10.00 .143 .200 .143 .343 .500
6+ Days,GR 3 11 0 1 0 0 0 1 6 6.00 .100 .182 .100 .282 .250
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/20/2011.

As Peter notes today on Capital Avenue Club (and Dave Cameron noted for ESPN [$] last week) the volume of work by Venters and Kimbrel isn`t out of the ordinary. My contention is the frequency of their work – the repeat uses on consecutive days – is part of the problem.

“Part” of the problem because a considerable portion of their recent “struggles” is just a plain old, boring bad outing. No pitcher is perfect and not even two of the finest relievers in the game are immune to the odd long ball. Ignoring the intensity of workload is reckless, I fear.

In the last five seasons, Venters 33 appearances on no rest ranks as the sixth highest in baseball, behind fellow Brave (pre-dating Fredi Gonzalez, it should be noted) Peter Moylan’s 2010.

Fredi’s use of Kimbrel and Venters on consecutive days has stayed consistent all season long – they went the most frequently on no rest in May, with 7 back-to-backs each. Venters pulled seven days of double-duty in June as well. With six already in September and the condensed playoff schedule providing fewer days off than ever before, Venters could rack up many more instances of pitching tired before the season ends.

As Hjort and Cameron point out earlier, this level of “abuse” isn’t uncommon or even the sole explanation for Kimbrel and Venters struggles of late. Which doesn’t free Gonzalez of any guilt. The Wild Card has been firmly in the Braves grasp for most of the second half. Buying a little bit of extra rest with an eye to the playoffs certainly couldn’t hurt, though the game-to-game scrutiny might increase slightly. Considering the way he calls for bunts, that isn’t a major concern of Fredi’s at the worst of times.

Comments (8)

  1. The Braves were up by 9 1/2 games on the Giants on August 25. The Cardinals were 10 1/2 games back. #BlameFredi

  2. They’ve each pitched 7 (!) days in a row on at least one occasion? I’m all for running your best guys out in high leverage situations, but Jesus Christ.

  3. Sorry if that isn’t clear: they’ve pitched on back to back days on seven separate occasions.

  4. Hitting Heyward down in the order during the first few months of the season was an odd choice, given that he was their best hitter last year, but as the season’s worn on its become clear that Heyward hasn’t deserved to hit any higher than 6th. He’s been putrid this year.

    • Given Fredi’s reasoning for batting Nate McClouth second to start the season “building his confidence”, who is to say Heyward was adversely affected by batting 6th to start the year. Of course, this is all Fredi Gonzalez’s reasoning and I believe if I had to spend more than a day in that brain I would just kill myself and be done with it.

    • The worst thing about Gonzalez’s usage of Heyward was his benching him in favor of expert infield singles hitter George Constanza. The guy benched the future of the franchise for a 27 year old weak hitting (and that’s being generous) career minor league who’s one defining attribute is that he runs fast.

      Yes, Heyward has struggled. But so has Prado and Uggla and Freeman at times this year and Gonzalez didn’t bench them. Heyward is as important, if not more important than all of them.

  5. Thanks for the insight. Frequent use on consecutive days could take a toll on hard throwers.

    Is it also possible that making large numbers of appearances in multiple seasons could wear a guy out? Moylan was used in 80+ games two straight years and then had TJ surgery. The next season, he came back with 80+ and spent plenty of time on the DL this year with back (and now shoulder) troubles. His velocity was also down quite a bit this year from what I recall.

    Is there a decent sample size of relievers who have made 70+ appearances over several consecutive seasons? If so, how have they fared?

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