Jonny Venters: Canary in a coal mine

Kevin C. Cox

The Braves' reliever has followed up two years of heavy usage with two years of injury, undergoing the second Tommy John surgery of his career on Thursday. His pain may mean nothing, or it could suggest that managers are still trying to figure out a reliever's ideal workload.

Like the dodo, the passenger pigeon, and the Carolina parakeet before them, in 2006 a rare breed of bird became extinct. On October 1, Scott Proctor threw his last inning of the campaign, giving him 102-1/3 on the season. After years in decline, the 100-inning reliever was no more.

On Thursday, Atlanta Braves left-hander Jonny Venters underwent the second Tommy John surgery of his career. When it comes to pitching injuries, we can never find an exact moment of causation, specify with any certainty the exact pitch or appearance that shredded an elbow. What we can say is that from 2010-2011, Venters made more appearances (164) than any pitcher in baseball and pitched the second-most innings (171) of any pure reliever in baseball -- only Tyler Clippard had more innings out of the bullpen.

As Clippard's continued health shows, heavy usage doesn't necessarily kill a pitcher. Still, the trend has been away from "everyday" relievers to specialists as managers let platoon matchups dictate their thinking. The result has been a continual downward trend in innings totals.

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When managers first discovered relief pitching, they tended to ride one arm as much as possible. This was because they recognized bench players as necessary to winning games and you couldn't carry more than 10 pitchers without sacrificing flexibility. As such, some relievers were pitching nearly as much as a back-end starter. These are the top 10 single-season innings totals for pure relievers:



YEAR

IP

G

1

Mike Marshall

1974

208.1

106

2

Mike Marshall

1973

179

92

3

Bob Stanley

1982

168.1

48

4

Bill Campbell

1976

167.2

78

5

Eddie Fisher

1965

165

82

6

Hoyt Wilhelm

1952

159

71

T7

Mark Eichhorn

1986

157

69

T7

Dick Radatz

1964

157

79

9

Jim Konstanty

1950

152

74

10

John Hiller

1974

150

59


Some of these pitchers were able to carry the workload. Others burnt out fairly quickly. There is no real pattern to it, but if you had to generalize it's probably safe to say that the pitchers with the heaviest usage did decline. Thus the workload was spread to more pitchers, but teams still didn't want to carry more than 10 relievers, so the pitchers who worked the middle innings tended to pick up a large part of the load during the 1990s.

YEAR

IP

G

SV

1

Duane Ward

1990

127.2

73

11

2

Greg Harris

1990

117.1

73

9

3

Scott Sullivan

1999

113.2

79

3

4

Greg Harris

1993

112.1

80

8

T5

Doug Jones

1992

111.2

80

36

T5

Jeremy Hernandez

1993

111.2

70

8

7

Joe Boever

1992

111.1

81

2

T8

Xavier Hernandez

1992

111

77

7

T8

Danny Graves

1999

111

75

27

10

Derek Lowe

1999

109.1

74

15


The nearly simultaneous inventions of the one-inning closer and the one-batter lefty in the early 1990s forced the expansion of bullpens beyond the traditional 10-man limit, a trend that was exacerbated by the decline of the high-pitch outing in the early part of this century. If starters were going to pitch fewer innings, closers were no longer going to be "firemen," coming into the game whenever there was an emergency and pitching one to three innings, you were also going to carry a pitcher who was going to appear in 50 games but only pitch 30 innings*, and you were no longer going to ask your middle men to pitch 120 innings a year, someone had to pick up the excess.

*Tony La Russa often gets credit for inventing the LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy, a term that was first coined, I believe, by my SBN colleague John Sickels) with his usage of Rick Honeycutt, but a look at the record suggests that the LOOGY was a case of convergent evolution, with several managers going to the spot-relief model at once. For example, in 1991 Tommy Lasorda used John Candelaria to get one batter 24 times; he made 59 appearances and pitched 33-2/3 innings. That same year, Honeycutt made only three one-batter appearances. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Rob Murphy, who Pete Rose and Joe Morgan had used as a 100-inning reliever, was being repositioned as a spot reliever by Jim Lefebvre.

The question of who discovered the LOOGY reminds me of a line in Disney's "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier," a favorite film of mine when I was a child. When Crockett arrives at the Alamo, he's introduced to the defenders, including Colonel Jim Bowie. Crockett is impressed; he's heard of the guy. "You're Jim Bowie," he says, "inventor of the knife?" Bowie replies in the affirmative. This always perplexed me. The Battle of the Alamo took place in 1836. Clearly the knife had been invented long before that -- after all, Rome did not conquer the world with spoons and medieval knights did not have pillow fights. It was only later that what Crockett was saying was, "You're Jim Bowie, inventor of [the eponymously-named, large customized] knife [that you are famous for using?]

Similarly, in "1776," the musical play and film about the Declaration of Independence, John Adams introduces Benjamin Franklin to someone by saying, "Have you met Dr. Franklin, inventor of the stove?" Whenever I hear that line, I think, "That's not quite accurate; he invented a stove, not the stove.

By the beginning of this century, the 100-inning guys were starting to disappear. Their innings totals were coming down, and the closers had largely vanished from the list. Also, your name had to be some variation of "Scott" for managers to notice you:

YEAR

IP

G

SV

1

Steve Sparks

2003

107

51

2

2

Scott Sullivan

2000

106.1

79

3

3

Scot Shields

2004

105.1

60

4

4

Guillermo Mota

2003

105

76

1

5

Scott Sullivan

2001

103.1

79

0

6

Scott Proctor

2006

102.1

83

1

7

Rick White

2000

99.2

66

3

8

Matt Herges

2001

99.1

75

1

9

Byung-Hyun Kim

2001

98

78

19

10

Vladimir Nunez

2002

97.2

77

20

Doug Pensinger

Since the Reign of the Scot(t)s came to an end, the upper limit of relief work has been lowered still further, as the list of pure relievers with the highest innings-pitched totals shows:

YEAR

IP GS

G

SV

1

Heath Bell

2007

93.2

81

2

2

Saul Rivera

2007

93

85

3

3

Matt Belisle

2010

92

76

1

T4

Tyler Clippard

2010

91

78

1

T4

Jim Johnson

2011

91

69

9

6

Peter Moylan

2007

90

80

1

T7

J.P. Howell

2008

89.1

64

3

T7

Josh Rupe

2008

89.1

46

0

9

Josh Roenicke

2012

88.2

63

1

T10

Craig Stammen

2012

88.1

59

1

T10

Tyler Clippard

2011

88.1

72

0


Venters' 88 innings in 2011 just misses the top 10. Relievers are inherently volatile, rising and falling with the speed of anthills, so it's unsurprising that so many of the pitchers on the 2007-2012 list no longer enjoy the same place of prominence. Still, it seems reasonable to wonder if their usage contributed. Let's go back to Venters' 2010-2011 peak one last time and see how the pitches with the highest innings-pitched totals have changed:

IP

G

STATUS

NOTES

1

T. Clippard

179.1

150

2

J. Venters

171

164

INJ


3

M. Belisle

164

150


4

C. Marmol

151.2

152


5

S. Marshall

150.1

158

Just off the DL after shoulder tendinitis.

6

D. Bard

147.2

143

Lost at sea.

7

N. Masset

147

157

INJ

Recovering from surgery.

8

E. Mujica

145.2

126

Now closing for the Cardinals.

9

F. Cordero

142.1

143

Gone.

T10

M. Adams

140.1

146


T10

M. Albers

140.1

118

Pitching poorly in Cleveland.

T10

B. League

140.1

135

Closing for the Dodgers.


As the old song goes, correlation doesn't necessarily imply causality, if the above even shows correlation. All we can say is that baseball has been involved in a great unplanned experiment since the 1970s, trying to find out the ideal usage pattern for talented pitchers like Venters, trying to extract the greatest value from them while simultaneously not breaking them. As much as workloads have been reduced, it's possible that they should be reduced still further. A liberalization of roster rules in which pitchers are limited to 10 spots on the roster on any given day, but teams can designate a taxi squad from which it can pick pitchers on any given day (as is being considered for September's 40-man roster period) would simultaneously allow for the rebirth of pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, and defensive substitutes and also further spread out the increasing number of bullpen innings.

It is probably also true that pitchers will continue to get hurt regardless of whether they pitch one inning or 100, and until real-time bio-monitoring makes it possible for trainers to look at the interior of a pitcher's arm as he throws pitch after pitch, the causes are going to be something of a mystery. As such, Jonny Venters is a canary in a coal mine, alright, but it's hard to say which coal mine, or what the canary is trying to say.

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