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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Atlanta Braves May Have Best 8-9 Relievers in Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters

While team like the Chicago White Sox have a struggling bullpen that’s giving Ozzie Guillen stress issues, other teams actually have a solid relief crew. You can look at the Yankees who have the unhittable Mariano Rivera and setup man Rafael Soriano, the Indians have the Perezes and Tony Sipp who have yet to allow a run, and the Padres have been pretty tough the past two years. But the team that stands out to me is the Atlanta Braves, who despite losing Billy Wagner, may have the best 8th and 9th inning combination in baseball.

Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are the 9th and 8th inning pitchers for the Braves, and they’re both second year flame-throwing youngsters from the South. Kimbrel was a 3rd-round pick by the Braves in 2008 out of Wallace State Community College. The Huntsville Alabama native spent time at all levels of the minor leagues and gave up just 40 runs in 151 career minor league innings. He averaged over 14 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors, whiffing 242 batters while closing 51 games. After mowing down batters in Triple-A last year, he was called up to the Braves where he gave up just two runs in 20.2 innings, striking out 40 batters.

This year it’s been more of the same.

Through his first six appearances, Kimbrel has allowed just three hits and one walk while striking out 10. He’s been blowing his fastball by most hitters, averaging just over 95 mph on his pitches while mixing in his 85 mph slider about a quarter of the time. He may lose velocity on his fastball as the season goes on, but until that point he’s going to be extremely tough to hit.

Jonny Venters is not far behind and could be considered the left-handed version of Kimbrel. Venters is taller at 6’3″ and throws a hair slower than Kimbrel. He’s been in pro ball since 2004 when he was drafted in the 30th round by the Braves out of Indian River State College. Venters was actually a starting pitcher throughout the minor leagues but he was brought up by the Braves to boost the bullpen last season and he was a revelation. The southpaw struck out 93 batters in a whopping 83 innings of work, surrendering 30 runs (18 of which were earned). He averages about 94 mph on his fastball, and he mixes in a slider along with an occasional change up. He was thought to be in the running for the closer job in spring training, but with Kimbrel dominating he’s remained in his setup role. In eight appearances this season, Venters has pitched eight innings and only allowed one run and two hits while striking out seven.

These two awesome arms for Atlanta have done their job to preserve leads and keep opposing teams from scoring late in games. They’ve combined to pitch 14 innings while only allowing one run. I’m not saying Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters will be approaching Trevor Hoffman’s saves record in 15 years, but I challenge you to find a stronger 8-9 inning combination in the league.

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