Career Profile: Jonny Venters, LHP, Atlanta Braves
Per reader request, here is a Career Profile of Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Jonny Venters.
Venters was drafted by the Braves in the 30th round in 2003, from high school in Altamonte Springs, Florida. He was obscure enough that his name was misspelled "Benters" on some draft lists. He didn't sign right away, but went off to Indian River Community College, then signed as a draft-and-follow in the spring of '04. He was hit hard in rookie ball, giving up 53 hits in 43 innings with a 5.74 ERA. However, he made enough progress that he posted a 3.93 ERA in 103 innings for Low-A Rome in '05, although a weak 66/52 K/BB ratio was unimpressive.
His career came to a screeching halt when he blew out his elbow and missed all of 2006 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He recovered enough to post a 3.39 ERA with a 64/38 K/BB in 80 innings for High-A Myrtle Beach in '07, but more elbow problems limited him to just 35 innings at three levels in 2008.
However, during his recovery he began developing a sinker by using a two-seam grip on his fastball. Working with the pitch, he posted a 2.76 ERA in 2009 in 65 Double-A innings, with a 40/35 K/BB and 60 hits. He had problems in Triple-A (5.62 ERA, 58/42 K/BB in 91 innings, 103 hits) but he at least stayed healthy all year and showed an improved slider to go with the sinker. Still, he was just a Grade C type prospect entering 2010.
As you know, he unexpectedly earned a role in the bullpen last year, posting a 1.95 ERA in 83 innings with a 93/39 K/BB and a 3.08 GO/AO. This year he's been even better, with a 1.59 ERA in 51 innings, a 54/18 K/BB, and a 4.47 GO/AO. He is death on left-handed hitters, holding them to a .128 average this year, and right-handers aren't much better off at .185.
Venters' combination of a high strikeout rate with an extreme ground ball ratio is quite special, and it isn't some sort of statistical fluke. He succeeds with a 93-96 MPH sinker, a very rare pitch indeed. His slider is a solid second pitch, but the fastball has such movement that hitters seem helpless against it.
Looking at just the numbers, Venters' major league career is just 134 innings in length so far, and obviously lots of things could still go wrong. His minor league career profile does NOT support major league success of this magnitude. Nevertheless, he's certainly not doing this with smoke-and-mirrors, the major league stats are excellent, and pitchers can sometimes take unexpectedly large steps forward if they sharpen their command or learn a new pitch, as seems to be the case with Venters.