It’s not exactly a complicated idea. Leveraging relievers means using your best arms in the most important situations. It is the idea that has led to so many grumbles and groans regarding the closer’s role and how much they should be valued in the market.
It is those situations when a manager throws out every arm under the sun in an attempt to hold a slim lead in the seventh inning, yet he never goes to the closer because it isn’t the ninth inning, therefore the team gives up the lead while the best arm rots in the bullpen. This is a drastic example, but it happens more than people realize, and managers still don’t understand that it’s not illegal in all 50 states to use your closer before the ninth.
Enter the pair of young relievers for the Atlanta Braves. Jonny Venters is coming off a rookie season where he posted a 1.95 ERA, 2.69 FIP and 3.10 xFIP in 83 innings. He recorded a BB/9 of 4.23 and K/9 of 10.08 while allowing just one home run. He also recorded a groundball percentage of 68.4% compared to a line drive rate of 15%.
Craig Kimbrel posted a 0.44 ERA, 1.53 FIP and 2.59 xFIP in 20.2 innings. He did walk 16, but he also recorded a major-league-record 40 strikeouts. He has maintained strikeout rates above 13 per nine throughout his minor league career, but he has also had walk rates ranging from two per nine to nine per nine. It is no secret that Kimbrel’s weakness is control.
Braves fans know what the team has in Kimbrel and Venters. Kimbrel touches 100 mph with a deadly slider and is capable of league-leading strikeout numbers from a reliever along with high walk rates. Venters has one of the most effective power sinkers in the game and is equally tough against both sides.
So how should they be used?
Beginning in the seventh or eighth, put them in the situation that calls for it the most. Venters had a 1.97 FIP and 14.79 K/9 against left-handed batters in 2010, so he should most definitely be in for those at bats. However, he also had a 3.06 FIP against RHB, so the Braves aren’t limited in what they can do with Venters. If Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are due up in the ninth, Fredi Gonzalez will go to Venters for the save and Kimbrel will pitch the eighth. If Howard and Utley are due up in the eighth, Kimbrel will have the save opportunity.
This is a major step toward leveraging relievers to their best use. The Braves are fortunate to have the opportunity to do this because very few teams have a reliever from both sides who is capable of closing. This is why they received so much attention this offseason. It is something that should be fun to watch this season.
It may not even last a full season if one steps up more or one falters, but I will enjoy it while it lasts. This is putting your players to use in the best way possible.