Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves celebrates after defeating the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Last year, Craig Kimbrel blew three saves in late September and his Braves blew a big lead in the Wild Card standings. This year, Kimbrel and the Braves' other top relievers' workloads are way down. Is it smart, though?
Or it's not working. Or maybe it will work. Or maybe nobody will ever know anything.
Oh. Sorry. You don't know what the meaning of "it" is. Apologies.
Exactly 11 months ago, the Atlanta Braves enjoyed a HUGE LEAD in the National League's Wild Card standings. They were 8 games ahead of the Giants, and 9 ahead of the Cardinals. As you'll recall, the Braves ultimately blew all of that huge lead, losing the Wild Card on the last day of the season.
Now, it should be stressed that this didn't happen all of the sudden. It was steady, but slow. A two-game losing streak here, a three-game losing streak there, sure. But it wasn't until their last five games of the season that the Braves lost five straight games. And their defeat had many causes; it would be terribly unfair to attribute the Braves' fall to one player or two players, or three players or four.
But of course, scapegoats must be identified. And so they were. In no particular order:
Kimbrel and Venters were, for most of the season, the greatest one-two relief tandem in the majors. But down the stretch, not so much.
In Kimbrel's last eight appearances, he blew three saves. The Braves lost all three of those games, including the season finale. Before that, he'd been phenomenal, giving up just one home run in 69⅔ innings while posting a 1.55 ERA. But in those three blown saves, he gave up two home runs. He also walked a bunch of guys in those last eight appearances. He just looked, statistically anyway, like a different pitcher.
Venters' problems started earlier. Through the 22nd of August, Venters was practically untouchable: in 73⅔ innings, he'd allowed just one homer while posting a 1.10 ERA. Then he started getting roughed up occasionally, with a 5.65 ERA the rest of the way, his strikeout-to-walk ratio going to hell.
The thing is, nobody really blamed those guys. Instead they blamed Gonzalez, their manager. See, Venters led the National League in relief appearances, and Kimbrel tied for second. They pitched a lot, and they struggled down the stretch, so they obviously were overworked. Ipso facto.
Oh, and right behind Kimbrel on that list? Eric O'Flaherty, another Brave bullpenner. More on him in a moment.
A lot of people believed that Venters and Kimbrel were worked too hard. It was an easy thing to believe. You know, because ipso facto. It sure seems like Fredi Gonzalez believed it, too. Because none of those guys are getting worked as hard this season.
Last season, Venters pitched 88 innings in 85 games; this year he's heading for 60 innings in 69 games.
Last season, Kimbrel pitched 77 innings in 79 games; this year he's heading for 61 innings in 62 games.
Last season, O'Flaherty pitched 74 innings in 79 games; this year he's heading for 59 innings in 66 games.
In the aggregate, that's a HUGE DROP in innings for the Braves' top three relievers: 25 percent from last year to this year, if the projections hold.
Is Fred Gonzalez's new-found restraint "working"?
It's too early to say. Kimbrel has been brilliant, O'Flaherty has been great, and Venters has been pretty good (he's given up six home runs this season, compared to only two last season). But that's not really the point. If all three of those guys pitch brilliantly in September, this experiment of sorts will be seen as a success.
Should it be, though?
Kimbrel's issues last season lasted exactly 7⅓ innings. They happened to be his last 7⅓ innings, so they're eye-popping. But if Kimbrel had pitched another 7⅓ innings, do we know he wouldn't have been brilliant? No, we do not.
Venters declined down the stretch, no question about it. And his decline lasted longer than Kimbrel's. Even during that stretch, his strikeout rate was fine and (as noted earlier) he gave up just one home run. He simply walked roughly four more batters than usual, and gave up two or three more hits than usual. We're talking, in the cases of both Venters and Kimbrel, exceptionally small sample sizes.
Oh, and O'Flaherty? Despite a workload fundamentally the same as Kimbrel's and Venters', O'Flaherty did not struggle down the stretch. In fact, "The Pride of Walla Walla" gave up one run in July, three runs in August ... and none at all in September. O'Flaherty thrived with the heavy workload.
Nevertheless, his workload's been cut this season just as extremely as Kimbrel's and Venters'.
It's difficult to argue with the results. The Braves are 17-11 in one-run games. Their 2.98 relief ERA ranks second in the National League, down just one notch from last season. A lot of the innings that last year went to Venters or O'Flaherty have gone this year to Kris Medlen, who was brilliant before joining the starting rotation a month ago. And while the Braves don't have the big lead in the Wild Card standings they had a year ago, they're in real good shape.
One wonders where this all ends, though. Are we approaching a point where baseball's best relief pitchers are limited to around 60 innings per season? And what if a few 60-inning guys struggle down the stretch in high-profile scenarios? Will managers shift to 55 innings? Fifty?