It was believed this preseason that the Atlanta Braves bullpen was one of, if not the best bullpen in Major League Baseball heading into the season.
Only two weeks into the schedule, it would be hard to make that argument anymore given the loss of Arodys Vizcaino and, more disappointingly, the additions of Livan Hernandez and Chad Durbin.
What the Braves can still claim is having the best bullpen duo in baseball with the lefty-righty combo of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.
Venters is most noted for throwing a 94-95 mph sinking fastball that enabled him to produce a major league leading ground-ball rate of 72.5 percent last year.
His “other” pitch also grades as a plus-offering, but with the effectiveness of the sinker, he only threw the slider 20.2 percent of the time even though it is more of a swing-and-miss pitch. Through his first five games this season, he seems to be relying on the slider more often (29.6 percent) as it is considered by many as the best in baseball.
Excluding last September, he only allowed runners to score in six of his first 72 appearances. He has yet to allow a run through 4.2 innings in his first five games this season.
Venters has been nothing but reliable since joining the Braves in 2010 posting a 1.84 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and he has been tough to hit allowing only a .190 average against.
With the eighth inning locked down, the Braves turn to reigning National League Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel to close out what seems like every win given the offenses recent inability to score enough runs to enter the ninth with a comfortable lead.
Case in point, Kimbrel has already saved four of Atlanta’s six wins thus far in 2012.
He hasn’t been as sharp in the early going as expected, allowing at least one base runner in each of his four appearances, but has escaped unscathed due to a fastball/slider combo that frequently misses bats.
In fact, his breaking ball was described in a FanGraphs column this offseason as being a power curveball that he throws so hard (86.3 mph) it is often called a slider. Combine that with a 96-98 mph fastball that routinely touches triple digits and it’s easy to understand why some have labeled Kimbrel the “most intimidating” reliever in the game.
Last season he set a major league record for saves by a rookie with 46. He also struck out an amazing 127 batters in 77 innings while also compiling a 2.10 ERA and 1.04 WHIP.
Not to rehash last season’s workload issues, but the concern is not without merit.
In an effort to better prepare for the rigors of another season, both players altered their offseason workout routines to include more conditioning and less throwing during the winter.
Regardless of the new workout, the best cure for last season’s workload problems comes down to a more effective offense and the re-addition of Kris Medlen into the bullpen.
Tuesday night’s contest against the New York Mets is a perfect example of the offense jumping out to an early lead and then allowing Medlen to throw multiple innings eventually bridging the gap to Eric O’Flaherty.
More games like that will allow manager Fredi Gonzalez to rest Venters and Kimbrel with the hope they will be more effective in September when a playoff run is to be made.
There are obviously other late-inning combo’s that could rival the Braves duo, but when giving out the moniker of “best bullpen duo in baseball” no one locks down the back-end of game like Venters and Kimbrel.