They were strange, the things that happened after Jonny Venters threw that pitch on the afternoon of June 29 in Seattle. The delivery itself, to Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley, was not so different from the 709 pitches Venters threw before it in 2011, or from the 429 he had thrown after it through Sunday. It was a sinker, like more than three quarters of the pitches the 26-year-old lefthander has thrown in his second major league season, and it was hard, 92 miles per hour. Even that, though, is three miles per hour slower than Venters's average sinker, and perhaps that explained the pitch's odd outcome. The first strange thing was that Ackley made solid contact. Ackley bats lefthanded, and lefthanded hitters have mustered just nine hits, seven of them singles, against Venters this season, for an average of .127.
The second strange thing was that Ackley hit the ball in the air. Venters's sinker is singular in its production of ground balls. At week's end 75.3% of the balls hit fair against Venters this season were grounders, the highest rate for any pitcher since FanGraphs.com began tracking such a thing 10 years ago. "Can't remember any pitcher ever throwing 96-, 97-mile-an-hour sinkers that fall off the table like his," says Brian McCann, the Braves' catcher. (Asked to explain the source of his miraculous sinker, Venters pleads ignorance. "I got little girly hands," he says. "I don't know if that does anything.")
The strangest thing, though, was where the ball went: just over the short metal fence that tops the wall in rightfield at Safeco Field. As Ackley began to trot, Venters turned and smiled a little, as if bemused. His teammates were stunned. "Completely shocked," says David Ross, McCann's veteran backup. "I was so shocked that I was almost mad at Jonny—like, how'd you let that guy take you deep?"
It is, of course, not rare for a major leaguer to hit a home run. But although Venters had made 74 appearances at week's end, more than any other pitcher in baseball, Ackley's poke was the only one of those homers hit against him. More remarkable still is that Venters is not uniquely skilled in the Braves bullpen. Flamethrowing closer Craig Kimbrel, the 23-year-old probable National League Rookie of the Year, is fourth in the majors in appearances and on Aug. 31 set the alltime rookie record with his 41st save. He too had allowed but a single home run.
September 11, 2011
Among the 3,174 pitchers in big league history who have made at least 80 career appearances, Kimbrel—who pitched in 21 games as a call-up late last season—is tied with two others for the fewest home runs allowed: one. Venters, who allowed a single homer in 79 games as a rookie in 2010, is tied for fourth, with two. Their value to the Braves, however, is far greater than their ability to keep the ball in the yard. Only 68 men have had seasons in which they have pitched in 60 or more games with an ERA of 1.70 or less. One is Venters, whose ERA as of Sunday stood at 1.39. Another is Kimbrel. His ERA was 1.57.
The eighth-and-ninth-inning combination of Venters and Kimbrel would be intimidating enough to any team preparing to face Atlanta in a playoff series. (The Braves were 82--57 at week's end, with an 8½-game lead in the NL wild-card race.) Scarier still is that the Atlanta bullpen also features a third member of that rarefied list of 68 pitchers: 26-year-old lefty Eric O'Flaherty, who is usually called upon to pitch the seventh inning and had an ERA of 1.15. "O'Flaherty," says Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, "is kind of the unsung hero."
Before this season, O'Flaherty was known as a lefty specialist—a LOOGY, for Lefthanded One Out Guy. "Oh, man, that's a tag I've wanted to shake for so long," he says. He has shaken it. While O'Flaherty has stifled lefthanded batters, holding them to an average of .195 and an OPS of .517, he had faced twice as many righties. They were hitting .230 against him, with an OPS of .615. He had turned them, as a group, into the equivalent of light-hitting Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan. In one way O'Flaherty is inferior to Kimbrel and Venters. He had allowed two home runs in 2011. "I can't keep up with these guys," he says.
O'Flaherty, Kimbrel and Venters have, seemingly out of the ether, become one of the most dominant game-shortening trios ever. They also work in perfect symbiosis. Gonzalez initially intended for Venters to share ninth-inning duties with Kimbrel this season, but the lefty quickly became the regular setup man. ("There was no rhyme or reason to that, other than it's working," says Gonzalez.) That's exactly how the mild-mannered Venters prefers it. "That's his style: Come in, have a five-pitch eighth, then have Welcome to the Jungle come on and have everyone go nuts for Craig," says O'Flaherty, who relishes his own duties. "In the seventh I feel like if I can put up a zero, the game's over, because these guys are so filthy."
The triumvirate is more than filthy. They are nasty, in a manner similar to that of the famous Nasty Boys—the Reds' relief trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers, who in 1990 posted a combined ERA of 2.28 and carried Cincinnati to a world championship. O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel are in most ways outpacing that group—their combined ERA this year is 1.63—but they fall short in one: branding. While Venters is ironically known in his clubhouse as Jonny Badass (thanks to a July 2010 ejection for beaning the Brewers' Prince Fielder), O'Flaherty's nickname is the much blander "O." Kimbrel's is still less creative: "Everyone calls me Craig," he says. "That, or Dips---."
No one has come up with anything more evocative for them as a trio. "The Nasty Boys is pretty cool sounding," says O'Flaherty, the most extroverted of the three. "We need something like that." A Braves radio announcer proposed Sit Down, Shut Up and Go Home, but that's a lot of words to print on a T-shirt. For now they are known, simply, as O'Ventbrel. "We need something tougher than that going forward," says O'Flaherty.
Whatever their nickname, says Ross, "they're three of the best, and they're all three on our team." That development has many sources—from the players' talent, to Atlanta's scouting department, to the tutelage of the club's pitching coach, Roger McDowell, himself a successful reliever for a dozen years. But everyone agrees that a significant influence came from a man who spent just one of his 16 major league seasons in Atlanta, but whose impact is poised to extend far longer.
In the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 2 of the 2010 NLDS, the Giants' Andres Torres laid down a sacrifice bunt. Billy Wagner, the Braves' 39-year-old closer who is fifth alltime with 422 saves, fielded the ball and whirled to throw to first. No one knew it immediately, but a new era for the Braves had begun. Wagner strained an oblique muscle. He wouldn't pitch again in the series, and after Atlanta lost it in four games, he retired.
The day after his injury, Wagner approached Kimbrel in batting practice. "He said, 'You're going to get your chance,'" Kimbrel recalls. The 5'10" Wagner saw a lot of himself in the 5'11" Kimbrel, another pitcher with a blazing fastball that belied his short stature. He also saw himself in O'Flaherty and Venters, lefties like him. All three pitchers were, like Wagner, from humble, blue-collar backgrounds. Kimbrel, from Huntsville, Ala., is the son of an electrician. Venters, a native of the Orlando area, is the son of a warehouse manager. O'Flaherty's father retired last year from his job as a mailman in Walla Walla, Wash. And all three had to overcome significant hurdles to wind up in a major league bullpen—as had Wagner, who grew up poor in Virginia and threw 84 miles per hour as a high school senior.
In the summer of 2006, when Kimbrel was 18 and two weeks from starting at Alabama's Wallace State Community College, he was helping his father install wire in a house that was under construction when 800 pounds of sheetrock fell on his left foot, snapping it nearly in half. "Only bone that didn't break was my pinky toe," Kimbrel says. For the next six months Kimbrel was forced to throw from his knees. He became so proficient at it that he could cover the length of a football field. "It really strengthened his lower back muscles and his arm," says Wallace State's longtime coach Randy Putman. By the time he was again upright, Kimbrel's fastball had improved from the high 80s to the mid-90s, and he was on his way to being a third-round draft pick in 2008. "Breaking my foot was probably one of the best things to ever happen to me," he says.
As a starter in rookie ball in 2004, Venters, a 30th-round pick out of high school by the Braves in '03, was 1--6 with an ERA of 5.74; as recently as 2009 he had an ERA in the minors of 4.42. O'Flaherty, in seven games as a Mariners reliever three years ago, had an ERA of 20.25. He suffered the indignity of being cut that off-season by the team that had drafted him (in the sixth round in '03). The Braves claimed him off waivers, and when Wagner arrived in Atlanta's camp two springs ago, he found a trio that was talented but unfinished. So he finished them. "When I came up, I didn't have closers coming up to me trying to help," says Wagner. "I tried to help them out as much as possible because it only made the team better."
With Kimbrel, Wagner stressed the importance of deploying his heat more intelligently. "Understanding that if you have a better chance of getting the guy behind the current hitter out, you don't have to go right at the current guy," Kimbrel explains. That lesson has paid off. While Kimbrel's strikeout rate has plummeted from 17.4 batters per nine innings last season—the highest single-season mark ever for a pitcher with more than 20 appearances—to 14.8 per nine this year, that rate still ranks sixth alltime, and he has cut his walk rate nearly in half.
For Venters, Wagner's lessons concerned resource management. "Once I got the ball in my hand, I used to just go out there and blow it out for as long as I could go," says Venters. That mind-set doomed him as a starter and initially hampered him as a reliever, as he was known to throw as many as 50 warmup pitches in the bullpen. "Billy would tell me, 'You can't do that. You can't pitch on a nightly basis and throw 50 warmups,'" Venters says. Wagner encouraged O'Flaherty to make better use of his tailing sinker, which has particularly helped him against righties.
"You have to start with special arms, but I really believe that the time they had last year with Billy goes a long way in explaining why they're doing what they're doing now," says Braves G.M. Frank Wren. The result is that even though the Braves sustained key losses to their bullpen for the second straight off-season—Wagner last winter, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez the winter before—they have an elite relief corps. Atlanta relievers have a cumulative ERA of 2.93, two spots behind the Padres' major league--best 2.90.
Since June 1 Atlanta is 20--2 in games in which Kimbrel, O'Flaherty and Venters have all appeared. The only question is whether their workload might catch up with them all at once, making it tougher to shorten games in the postseason. Each of the three ranks in the majors' top eight in appearances. Even so, none has any complaint about his usage ("We want that bullpen phone to ring, man," says O'Flaherty), and Gonzalez has become vigilant about calling for them only when necessary. O'Flaherty threw fewer innings in August than in any other month. Venters matched his lowest monthly total; Kimbrel had his third-lowest.
They will be needed more than ever in the most important month, as the Braves' offense has begun to sputter (it scored 115 runs in August, 24th in the majors) and their ace, righthander Tommy Hanson, hasn't pitched since Aug. 6 due to shoulder soreness. Even if their nickname needs work—Cerberus, after the three-headed dog that in Greek mythology guards the gates of hell, has been floated—O'Ventbrel seems primed to do for the Braves what the Nasty Boys did for the Reds two decades ago. "You know if you get into the seventh inning and have a lead, your percentage of winning is probably pretty high, which is not something we take for granted," says McDowell. "But it sure is nice."
THE POWER OF THREE
The Braves' late-inning lockdown artists form the latest in a line of nasty bullpen triumvirates. Here are three others that made games painfully short for opponents.
The Nasty Boys—(from left) Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton—blew away the A's (combined 8 2/3 scoreless innings) to help the Reds upset Oakland in the World Series.
Mariano Rivera (middle) took away the ninth, and Jeff Nelson (left) and Mike Stanton (right) handled the seventh and eighth. That formula helped the Yankees win three straight Series.
L.A. didn't make the postseason, but (from left) Paul Quantrill, Eric Gagne and Guillermo Mota all had ERAs under 2.00; only two pens since 1970 have held opponents to a lower BA (.207).
When Atlanta gets an early lead, manager Fredi Gonzalez trots out O'Flaherty (right) for the seventh, Venters (left) for the eighth and Kimbrel (middle) in the ninth.