Braves need eighth-inning help in pen

Jonny Venters entered Tuesday night's game in Atlanta with a 4-0 lead, a runner on first and one out. Here's what happened:

  • Curtis Granderson: slider in dirt; fastball called strike; fastball inside; fastball, slow grounder into the hole between third and short for a hit.

  • Mark Teixeira: fastball in dirt; fastball away; fastball in; fastball for a called strike; fastball that went about 59 feet for ball four.

  • Alex Rodriguez: fastball in dirt; slider in dirt; fastball in dirt; called strike; low and in fastball popped foul; low and in fastball fouled off foot; low fastball down the middle lined to left for a grand slam home run.

  • Robinson Cano: slider way outside; fastball in for ball; fastball, soft liner to center for a base hit.

Four batters, four bad results, four runs and then the loss when Nick Swisher greeted Cory Gearrin with a two-run homer. (Where was Craig Kimbrel, you ask? Nowhere to be found, of course. Closers can't pitch in the eighth or be forced to get five outs.)

A year ago, Venters posted a 1.84 ERA, held hitters to a .176 average and went 6-3 with five saves. This year, he's 3-3 with a 4.50 ERA and .330 opponents' average.

Ben Duronio of our Capitol Avenue Club blog on the Braves wrote a post today saying Venters is just fine. In fact, he titled the post "Jonny Venters is just fine." Ben writes, "Venters currently has a BABIP of .439 compared to a .288 career average, with a HR/FB rate of 33.3% compared to a career rate of 9.5%. If you think those rates will continue, I do not know what to tell you."

I went back and watched Tuesday's performance. While neither Granderson or Cano hit the ball hard, it's also true that Venters was horrible, falling behind all four hitters and throwing six of his 19 pitches in the dirt. The ball A-Rod hit for the slam was the third straight fastball in the same general location. With Venters not trusting his slider with the bases loaded, A-Rod was able to sit on the fastball.

That's just one game. Ben has been watching Venters all year and it's true that his strikeout and walk percentages are pretty much the same as last year. With the movement he gets on both his hard sinker and slider, he's always going to walk his share of hitters, so control is never going to be a strong suit. And while the Granderson and Cano hits are good examples of soft singles, it's all also true Venters is not throwing to the same location as consistently as last year.

Here are the heat maps of all his pitches in 2011 and 2012. They don't look the same to me.

I'm with Ben in that Venters is likely to improve moving forward. But I'm also not sure he's going to be a reliable eighth-inning guy. His approach in the A-Rod at-bat was also terrible. Last year, he probably gets A-Rod to strike out or ground out on a 3-2 slider. This year, he falls behind and A-Rod knows the fastball is coming.

As my friend MK the Braves fan told me, "And without fail, I wake up weeping the morning after he pitches."

What do the Braves do? Kris Medlen has been getting stretched out as a starter in the minors. He may return as a starter (although Mike Minor pitched well on Tuesday) or maybe he just goes back to the pen. Eric O'Flaherty, also so good a year ago, has a sore elbow and has been unavailable for a few days. He hasn't pitched as well as last season either. Maybe Fredi Gonzalez turns the eighth inning over to Cristhian Martinez, who has been solid as the team's middle guy.

Or, less likely, Kimbrel could also be brought in on occasion with runners on base. But Kimbrel hasn't pitched in the eighth inning all year, so that doesn't seem to be in Gonzalez's playbook. Maybe Kimbrel's arm will fall off if he has to get more than three outs.

Regardless, with the Braves' rotation just 12th in ERA in the National League, they need more than just Kimbrel to be effective at the end of games.