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

Split G PA R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
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 Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/20/2011.

Craig Kimbrel – Usage

Split G PA R H 2B 3B HR BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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.