Venters strong as ever in second year
Reliever received helpful advice from the retired Billy Wagner
Each day last summer, the two left-handers would sit together in the Braves bullpen, one a veteran in the final year of an outstanding Major League career, the other a rookie, taking his first tentative steps in the minefield of relief pitching.
Billy Wagner, equipped with 422 saves, gave daily guidance to Jonny Venters, who listened and learned soaking up the wisdom.
"Watch this guy," Wagner would advise clubhouse visitors. "He's going to be a good one."
"It was an education," Venters said of the nightly sessions with Wagner. "He was special to hang with and to learn from. It was a great time having him down there. It was something I'll never forget."
So what did they talk about?
"How to set up hitters," Venters said. "How to get hitters out. Last year was my first time in the bullpen. He showed me how to warm up, how not to throw too much and leave your best stuff down there before you get into the game. He was a constant help. He made a big difference for me."
Wagner's wisdom made a significant impact. Venters burst on the big league scene with a brilliant first season, posting a 1.95 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 24 holds in 79 games in 2010. And he has kept up the pace this year as the workhorse of a brilliant Braves bullpen, leading the Majors with 60 appearances while posting five wins and a 1.24 ERA through the first week in August.
Venters was working on his third streak of 15 or more consecutive scoreless innings this season including a stretch of 22 scoreless innings, the longest for a Braves reliever since Kent Mercker had a streak of 25 2/3 scoreless innings in 1992.
Through early August, he had allowed just two home runs in his two Major League seasons. His ERA was a microscopic 0.56 before one bad inning in which he surrendered four runs to the Padres on June 26. It was the only speed bump in what has been a spectacular second season, setting up for rookie closer Craig Kimbrel. After that San Diego game, he sped through July, allowing just three hits in 14 appearances that month.
Venters says he's still learning about the tightrope that is relief pitching.
"I relieved here and there in the Minors, but never full time," he said. In fact, he was a full-time starter in 2009, starting 29 games in the Minors. His 156 2/3 innings pitched topped all Braves Minor Leaguers that year. When he got to Atlanta, though, he was sent straight to the bullpen, where Wagner was waiting.
"It takes a different mindset to be a reliever," Venters said. "As a starter, I could never figure out how to pace myself. As a reliever, you come in, throw hard and get out of there.
"I can go one, two, three days in a row. Then I might need a day off. I'm only throwing an inning or two. And if I get beat, tomorrow is a new day. Failure happens sometimes. You just go out the next time and throw up some zeroes."
Venters' out pitch is a hard sinker that touches 95 miles per hour. That produced a near 70 percent ground-ball rate last season, tops among all Major League qualifying pitchers. He mixes in a tight slider as a changeup and often leaves hitters flailing.
The left-hander was selected for his first All-Star team this year and used four pitches to retire each of the two batters he faced in the eighth inning on a grounder and a strikeout.
He continues to refine the lessons he learned from Wagner and misses those nightly bullpen discussions now that his mentor has retired to become a gentleman farmer in Virginia.
"Sometimes," Venters said, "I wish I had his phone number."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.