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Big League Stew

We’re Going Streaking! Jonny Venters is baseball’s best reliever

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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The Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.

Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves

The Naked Truth: 4-0, 2 SVs, 0.47 ERA, 38 2/3 IP, FIP, 0.724 WHIP, 3.64 K/BB

Having a nice little Saturday: The best reliever in baseball is currently the setup man to a rookie closer who has blown five saves. Craig Kimbrel is still having a fine year, but Venters has been otherworldly. And he hasn't kept his success to himself, either, having taught his two-seam fastball grip to his teammate, major league ERA leader Jair Jurrjens. He strikes out more than a man an inning, he gets so many more grounders than every other pitcher in baseball that it looks like a misprint, and he's leading all relievers in appearances and innings pitched. If anything, he's been too good for his own good — he's appeared in more than half of the Braves' games, and in 71 percent of the Braves' wins this season, 25 of 35. The Braves can't afford to let him break down, but they don't seem particularly able to win without him. He's not just their ace in the hole, he's also the king, queen and jack. {YSP:MORE}

You're my boy, Blue!: Over his past 18 appearances, Venters is working on a 21-inning scoreless streak, and he has only allowed two runs all year. Fifteen of his 35 appearances have been perfect, with no baserunners allowed by hit, walk, or error. How has he been so devastating? It all starts with his sinker. Roughly 80 percent of Venters's balls in play have been on the ground, which is insane: No one has come within 10 percent of that since Cla Meredith posted a 72 percent ground-ball rate in 2007. We only have ground-ball rates going back the past 10 seasons, and other than Meredith, Jason Grimsley in 2004 (70.4 percent) is the only other pitcher who has ever managed a ground-ball rate above 70 percent in at least 50 innings of work. Venters led the league last year with a ground-ball rate of 68.4 percent, and right now he's poised to blow past the modern record.

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That hard sinker keeps his BABIP low — .259 in his 121 2/3 career innings last year and this year — and induces ground balls, as he leads all relievers with seven ground-ball double plays. It also makes him one of the hardest pitchers in the league to hit a homer off, a task no batter has yet managed this year. He has only allowed one home run in his entire career thus far.

As Fangraphs' Jack Moore wrote on Thursday:

It's unclear if the 26-year-old Venters can keep things up at quite this rate, but I wouldn't bet on him losing his effectiveness any time soon. Venters is one of the best in the league at combining a strong ground ball pitch with strikeouts (9.3 per nine innings) and control (2.6 walks per nine innings). As such, not only does his 0.48 ERA lead the league, but his 1.98 FIP does as well.

Think KFC will still be open?: Venters may not have the prestige position in his bullpen, but he's arguably been the team MVP of the first two months, along with the aforementioned Jurrjens. By baseball-reference's rWAR, Venters has already been worth 2.5 Wins Above Replacement, better than all other relievers and all but 11 starting pitchers in baseball, including Jurrjens, who's at 2.8. (Roy Halladay leads the world, of course, with 3.8.) And though he's just in his sophomore season, he's already 26 after having spent five seasons on the farm with the Braves, mostly as a starting pitcher, so his arm isn't quite as delicate as it might be if he were in his early 20s. Still, being handed the ball every other game takes a toll on any pitcher. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and his offense will need to find ways of winning, like scoring more than the 3.2 runs a game they've averaged over the past month, if they want Venters to be healthy and available down the stretch.

What other players are currently streaking?

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers 7-3, 2.89 ERA, 102 2/3 IP, 3.15 FIP, 0.94 WHIP, 3.72 K/BB
Justin Verlander isn't exactly a "forgotten" ace, but until his no-hitter, his name wasn't mentioned as often as Roy Halladay or Felix Hernandez. Since the no-hitter, though, he's continued to dominate, with a 4-0 record in six starts, allowing just 13 runs in 45 2/3 innings with 38 strikeouts against just seven walks. He's leading the major leagues in starts and innings pitched. He also has the lowest walk rate, lowest WHIP, and second-best K/BB of his career, and he has the second-fastest average fastball in baseball despite being the oldest pitcher in the top 14. There are two points of caution, however: Despite his great velocity, he's not striking out as many batters as he has in the last two years as his K/9 has declined from 10.1 to 8.8 to 8.2 this year. He's also benefiting from a way-too-low BABIP of .228, 64 points lower than his career average. So he's likely to regress somewhat, as his FIP indicates, a quarter of a run higher than his ERA. But as long as the improvement in his control is legitimate, and his velocity remains, it's hard to imagine Verlander as anything but one of the nastiest pitchers in the league.

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Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers .301/.404/.607, 17 HR, 55 RBIs, 33 BB/31 K
No meat? No problem. Prince Fielder is leading the majors in RBIs, just as he did in 2009, and he's gone nuts this month. In eight games, he's hit six homers, 13 RBIs, with a .407 batting average and a 1.663 OPS. He won't keep going yard in three-quarters of his contests, but otherwise, there's no reason he can't keep doing what he's doing. The most remarkable thing about Fielder this year is that he's substantially cut his strikeouts (from a career rate of 18.6 percent of plate appearances to a current rate of 11.5 percent) while maintaining his power. Even last year, when he led the majors with 114 walks, he still had 138 strikeouts; this year, he actually has more walks than whiffs. He also has a BABIP 11 points lower than his career average, so he isn't getting lucky on that front. Fielder really isn't doing anything this year that he didn't do in 2009, when his triple slash was an eerily similar .299/.412/.602, and if the improvement in the walk rate holds, he could do even better. He has never hit .300 in a full season. This could be the year.

Jose Reyes, New York Mets .335/.384/.506, 1 HR, 23 RBIs, 20 SBs, 4 CS, 21 BB/23 K
It's been a tough couple of years for Jose Reyes. He played just over a season's worth of games in 2009 and 2010, and with 2011 being Reyes' contract year, Mets owner Fred Wilpon denigrated his chances for a big payday: "He's had everything wrong with him. He won't get it." But this year Reyes is hitting out of his mind. In just 59 games, he's already amassed 3.4 fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement), nearly equal to the 3.6 fWAR he managed in 169 games in 2009-2010. Reyes's 3.4 fWAR are actually second in all of baseball to only Jose Bautista. He's been benefiting from a .363 BABIP, 51 points higher than his career average, but he's also been victimized by a much lower-than-usual homer per fly-ball rate, just 0.9 percent — 80 percent lower than his career rate of 4.5 percent. So even if his batting average comes down, his power might improve. And his stolen base total is especially good to see, as it indicates that Reyes' leg problems have not sapped his speed. Reyes is currently having a classic walk year, one that will probably price himself out of the Mets' plans. But it's hard not to root for the return to full strength of one of the most exciting players in baseball.

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