The so-called ‘major’ baseball awards have been passed out already, but let’s not overlook this one, for it was 5 years in the making.
The Atlanta Braves have certainly done well in terms of off-season trophies. Obviously, baseball isn’t about the trophies – it’s about winning. However, there’s one trophy that was announced today that will be tough to match.
Braves’ relief pitcher Jonny Venters made the comeback to end all comebacks in 2018. He returned to pitching. He returned to the majors. He returned to the Braves – the place it all started for him. He also returned to being effective against top competition.
And that doesn’t even tell half the story for the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year.
A long and tortuous road
Look: as advanced as ulnar collateral replacement surgical techniques are today as pioneered by Dr. Gordon Mackay and refined to an art form by Dr. James Andrews, the surgery isn’t foolproof.
Pitchers use their arms as an unnatural whip in the process of generating velocity while on the mound. Many arms simply can’t take that abuse, and ligaments tear away from their intended places.
While a fix can be done, the rehabilitation process is arduous and lengthy – requiring anywhere between a year to year-and-a-half to fully heal.
So imagine having to go through that twice. Add in a couple of Platelet Rich Plasma injections in the hope of preserving the prior work. It didn’t.
Now imagine a third time through the major elbow surgery. Oh, and after that there was another elbow problem in the meantime, with the remedy termed a ‘half Tommy John‘ procedure.
All the while… he’s not pitching (of course).
Prime Time meant no time
Venters’ stat chart looks like there’s something missing… and there is: it’s the prime of his career.
In 2012, Jonny threw nearly 59 innings in 66 appearances. He was 27 years old then.
Since then, here’s what happened on the mound:
- 2016… 4 years later… 4 innings in High-A ball
- 2017… 5 innings in Rookie ball
- 2017… 10 innings in High A
- 2017… 7.2 innings in AA
- 2017… A single inning in AAA
- 2018… 2 innings in High A
- 2018… 5.2 innings in AAAA
All of this was with the Tampa Bay Rays, were effectively became his rehab team… over and over again.
But this Spring, those innings looked promising. He struck out 3 in his short A+ ball stint. He K’d a lot in AAA, too… but also walked a lot of hitters.
Still, the Rays decided that the wait was over. The pitcher with the crazy sinker was brought back to the major leagues on April 25th. He faced one batter in the 6th inning of a Rays 8-4 win over Baltimore. Chris Davis was hitting. He grounded out on 4 pitches… 3 recorded as strikes.
But it was a beginning. A new beginning. Venters had finally returned.
Near the trade deadline, the Rays were gracious enough to allow Venters to move back to his original team – the Braves. At this point, he’s now 33 years old.
Venters’ inaugural appearance for Atlanta came against the Dodgers on July 27th: 4 batters over an inning with 1 hitter reaching on a walk.
The next day – his 4th appearance in 5 days – Venters also faced 4 batters, but struck out two of them.
For the season, he recorded a 3.67 ERA. He walked a few more than you’d like and struck out a few less than you might prefer, but that really wasn’t the most important part of his year.
The important part was that he came back… and that he finished healthy.
Many have expressed this sentiment today. When the Sporting News gave their version of that award to Matt Kemp back in mid-October, more than one incredulous eyebrow was raised. It was ridiculous decision.
Happily, the correct call was made today.
Welcome back, Jonny Venters. Your perseverance has been rewarded.