Jonny Venters was, by most measures, one of the very best relievers in baseball over the past three years. A groundball-inducing machine, Venters produced between 3 and 4 Wins Above Replacement (depending on your flavour) and allowing basically no home runs. None. Well..three. That is still very good over 171 innings.

His 73 shutdowns tie him with Daniel Bard of the Red Sox for the most over those two seasons, though Venters has a slight edge by only melting down 19 times. Venters pitched more frequently than any other reliever in baseball across 2010 and 2011, an invaluable skill for a relief pitcher. Giving his manager(s) the option to call on him basically every other day is a luxury of which all skippers can be jealous.

In 2012, Jonny Venters has not been himself. He has been poor. Bad, even. Call him overworked or just figured out, Jonny Venters is putting up dismal numbers by his own high standard. Perhaps the insane workload finally caught up with the young left-hander, as the Braves announced today he is headed to the disabled list.

Judging by that DOB Boner tweet and follow-up column, this might be more of a case of “left arm shittiness” than an actual injury to the nerves or tendons, unless the Braves and their hurler kept the injury hidden from view. Something might just be up, considering the incredible leap in Venters home run rate.

Consider his home run per fly ball rate per year, via Fangraphs:

Year HR/FB%
2010 2.9%
2011 7.1%
2012 42.9%

Umm, what? FORTY-TWO POINT NINE PERCENT! That can’t be possible! Sadly, it is. While Venters’ legendary ground ball rate is down from his last two seasons, it is still an unbelievably high 60%. Venters sinker is one of the best in the business, earning him the burned worms all pitchers covet (or should, anyway.)

If that sinker is flat – look out. The gopher balls will fly and, so far this year, they certainly have. Already Venters allowed double his career number of home runs in 2012, with line drives and extra base hits chasing them around the diamond.

It is really easy to chalk Venters poor performance to overuse though it doesn’t just explain his troubles away. I mean, look at the image at the top of this post. Doing THAT even once could cause impingements in every bone in a man’s body.

Venters control this year is not what it once was, allowing more pitches to get bigger pieces of the plate. The home runs and overall slugging is up, despite missing his usual large number of bats and striking out hitters in bulk. His sinker isn’t diving away from righties and onto the shoetops of left-handed batters, should any have the misfortune of stepping against Venters.

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

Baseball Prospectus covered some of the early season bad luck that plagued Venters but, in the subsequent weeks, we’ve seen bad luck turn into simply bad outings. Venters isn’t himself. If it is an injury, overwork is the lazy culprit. It could just be that relief pitchers are volatile and all pitchers, even the most babied and kid-gloved, get hurt? Maybe his head isn’t where it needs to be, who knows?

Venters is a thrill to watch and an invaluable member of the Braves pen. If he is lost for any amount of time…they’ll survive. He is just a relief pitcher after all. The Braves chances hinge on their ability to solidify their starting rotation a lot more than absorbing the innings of a pitcher, great as he is, throughout the bullpen as a whole.

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