The Braves brought in an old friend during 2018, as they reacquired Jonny Venters from the Tampa Bay Rays. We all know Venters’ story: an elite arm that was used a ton early in his career, which likely lead to significant injuries that cost him years of playing time. In his first three-year stretch with the Braves, Venters appeared in 230 (!!!) games, pitched 229.2 innings and had a 2.23 ERA with a 10.1 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9 rate. He often outpitched his FIP, something that is completely understandable given the amount of sink he generates on his pitches and the weak contact straight into the ground that results.
Venters spent the next several seasons after 2012 getting surgery and rehabbing while trying to make a return to the mound. Unfortunately, no such return happened until 2017, when Venters appeared in 24 games in the Tampa Bay organization across four minor league levels with a 2.28 ERA and .185 batting average against. The Rays liked what they saw so much that they brought him back in 2018 where he made seven appearances in the minors before making his illustrious return to the majors.
After 22 games with Tampa Bay in 2018, the Braves traded for Venters on July 27th in return for international slot money (which the Braves really had no use for). After four surgeries (3.5 Tommy John Surgeries), Venters returned to the organization that drafted him in the 30th round of the 2003 MLB draft.
Bottom line, what did he do in 2018? Venters appeared in 22 games for the Rays, pitching 14 innings and compiling a 3.86 ERA, 1.214 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, and 3.9 BB/9 rate. After the trade Venters appeared in 28 games for the Braves, pitching 20 and a third innings and compiling a 3.54 ERA, 3.21 FIP, and 1.230 WHIP. Across both of his teams, his performance was enough for a 0.3 fWAR season.
Interestingly, his 85 FIP- on the year was lower than what he managed in his final season before his spate of injuries (85). However, his xFIPs were pretty similar during his first three major league years (76, 75, 78 on a minus basis), but rose to 92 this year. 2018 was also the first year in which he did not substantially out pitch his FIP: while he was still getting around 70 percent grounders, he allowed a lot more hard contact in 2018 than at any time earlier.
Will he be on the 2019 roster? This is a tough one, given his injury history, but all signs point to yes. As possibly the only case of someone who made his debut over eight years ago but still has fewer than six years of service time, Venters is going to be arbitration eligible for a final time and is projected to earn $1.5 million. That could be a decent investment for a risky relief option who nonetheless pitched effectively in his return from injury and managed left-handed hitting to a 2.93 FIP and 3.13 xFIP.
What will he do next season? The walk rate is still high but if his arm feels good there’s no reason to believe he can’t have a typical Venters season, albeit much fewer games, ~ mid 3.00s ERA, 7-8 K/9 rate, and an 0.5-1.0 fWAR season. The fewer righties he faces, the better those stats will likely be.
Highlight of 2018: Venters played a big part of the day when everything aligned for the Braves and they won their first division title in five seasons. A combination of Mike Foltynewicz, Jesse Biddle, and Brad Brach turned a 4-0 lead in the top of the eighth into a 4-3 game with the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first. Venters was brought on to face the lefty-hitting Odubel Herrera, but Phillies manager Gabe Kapler countered (as he usually did) with the righty-hitting Aaron Altherr.
However, Venters survived the adverse matchup, getting Altherr to line out to left. He then got switch-hitter Carlos Santana to pull a sinker darting away from him on the ground for an easy out, stifling the rally and setting up the division-clinching outs minutes later.
Lowlight of 2018: One of the Venters’ worst outings of the season came in seasonal garbage time (September 29), against the Phillies. He entered into a 0-0 tie game and ended up issuing three walks (one intentional) and misplaying a bunted grounder, as well as allowing a two-run single and a run-scoring fielder’s choice.
In terms of games that actually mattered, one of his worst in a Braves uniform came against his former team and was a case of textbook mismanagement. After entering in the seventh with the tying run on second to face lefty-hitting Jake Bauers (he stranded the runner), he was allowed to go back out for the eighth, even though righties were due up as two of the next three batters. The two righties he faced (Tommy Pham, Willy Adames) singled around a sacrifice bunt from the lefty he faced, and Venters gave up the lead. He was pulled after allowing another single for Brad Brach, who retired an upcoming righty to end the frame. The Braves ended up scoring four runs in the next inning and cruising to an easy win the ninth, but it wasn’t a great moment nonetheless.