Atlanta has been rolling in the month of June, thanks in large part to their stellar pitching staff.
Starters have been reliable and dominant and the bullpen has been light-out in the late innings. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has few problems in the pitching department, but there is one big question mark: Who should fill the closer role?
Both Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters have been impressive, but who is the best choice for the ninth inning?
Keeping Kimbrel as the closer is the obvious and most likely choice, but is it the right one?
Kimbrel has already surpassed the pre All-Star rookie saves record with 18 and has been quite dominant in most of his appearances. His hard upper-90s fastball has blown away batters for 48 strikeouts over 32 innings, and his biting slider keeps even seasoned hitters guessing. He has already been compared to mentor Billy Wagner and looks to be a bright young star in the Braves bullpen.
Waiting in the wings is Jonny Venters, the current Atlanta setup man. Along with a league-leading 22 straight scoreless innings, Venters has a microscopic 0.45 ERA.
The young lefty is arguably the toughest reliever in the National League, but receives little credit or glory pitching in the eighth inning. Venters has been almost unhittable most of the season, allowing only 18 hits and 11 walks in his 36 appearances. It's no surprise that Venters' outstanding numbers are leading many fans to suggest a promotion.
Both young relievers are having good seasons, but Kimbrel's occasional struggles combined with Venters' success could usher in a change at closer.
The overwhelming fastball, which has given Kimbrel most of his punch-outs, has also been dangerously wild at times. His 15 walks have often been to leadoff batters—a cardinal sin of the closer role. His fastball can sometimes reach upwards of 99 mph, but often lands up in the zone. Early walks and a location issues have led to Kimbrel's five blown saves.
All of Kimbrel's problems are most likely due to his youth and inexperience, but make Venters' look like a possible replacement.
So, why not Venters?
Although he has equally dominant stuff and an extraordinary ERA, Venters is relatively untested in the closer role. Apart from occasional saves to give Kimbrel a rest, Venters has never been the true closer in Atlanta. Venters is a dominant reliever, but the stress of save situations could affect his mindset; a nervous Venters might overthrow, underthrow or fail to locate.
Kimbrel could also suffer if moved to a setup role. Consistent routine and rhythm are crucial to bullpen pitchers, and who knows how a switch might affect both pitchers.
Only time will tell if Gonzalez makes a move in the ninth, but with such great options, it's a fortunate problem to have.