Sunday Notes: Jonny Venters Returns to Kill More Worms

Jonny Venters was in the news this week after becoming the first pitcher to appear in a big-league game after undergoing three Tommy John surgeries. The 33-year-old veteran worked one-third-of-an-inning for the Tampa Bay Rays after having last pitched for the Atlanta Braves in the 2012 postseason. It’s a great story, worthy of the attention it’s garnered (and will continue to garner; colleague Jay Jaffe will have more on Venters in the coming days).

On Friday, I approached Venters to discuss a tangentially-related subject: the worm-killing sinker that made him an effective setup man before his elbow became stubbornly uncooperative. Since the stat began being tabulated, no pitcher with at least 125 career innings under his belt has had a higher ground-ball rate than the 68.4% mark put up by the come-backing left-hander.

Venters transitioned to a sinker-ball pitcher in 2009 when he was a starter with the Double-A Mississippi Braves. He’d been primarily a four-seam guy, but the organization asked him to put that pitch in his back pocket and begin prioritizing his two-seam. Helped initially by the tutelage of pitching coach Marty Reed, it eventually became his go-to.

Success wasn’t instantaneous.

“It wasn’t good right away,” admitted Venters, who throws the pitch with a traditional two-seam grip. “I really struggled when I got to Triple-A. It was ball one, ball two, and then I’d get hit hard. It took me awhile to figure out how to get it over the plate, but they made me throw it over and over until I did.”

Not surprisingly, Venters has lost both velocity on his sinker thanks to his long layoff. Sitting 94-96 in his prime, he’s now hovering between 90-92. He’s also lost some downward movement, which he hopes to get back with tighter mechanics and more reps.

As for his higher-than-anybody’s ground-ball rate, Venters claimed not to have been aware of the fact prior to my mentioning it. The personable southpaw’s take on that particular piece of notoriety?

“It’s cool,” said Venters. “Anytime I can go out there and get swings and ground balls early in the count… that’s definitely what I’ve always tried to do. It’s still what I want to do.”

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Max Fried wasn’t particularly thrilled with his 2017 season. The now-24-year-old left-hander logged a 3.81 ERA in 26 innings with the Atlanta Braves, but his minor-league numbers were a less-than-stellar 2-11, 5.54 in 92-and-two-thirds. Allowing his mental wheels to spin too rapidly contributed to his occasional struggles.

“I might have been overthinking at times last year,” admitted Fried. “I would be analyzing different situations instead of just competing and having fun. I’d also get too mechanical. Sometimes when you lose it a little, you kind of overcorrect. I’d try to get back into my mechanics rather than just going after the hitter. This year I’m focusing on keeping things simple.”

Fried, who is back with the Braves after beginning the year with Triple-A Gwinnett, is doing so with a clear-minded purpose.

“I’ve gotten into a lot of meditation,” the southpaw shared with me last weekend. “I’m focusing on quieting my mind. I’ll do some meditation techniques before I go out to pitch — usually about an hour and a half before — and try to collect myself and get into the most focused and relaxed mindset I can. Breathing is the main thing. Sometimes I can get a little quick, and focusing on my breath helps slow me down.”

A sports psychologist in the Atlanta organization made the suggestion while Fried was in the minors, but it wasn’t a new idea for the Santa Monica, California product. He’d meditated in high school and in his early years of pro ball with the Padres, only to fall away from the discipline after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2014. (He’s also done some yoga.) It was a matter of getting back into it, which was only a matter of time. As Fried explained, “I feel my best, and in my most clear mind, afterwards, so I decided I should do it.”

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Staying with the psychological side of the game, Baltimore’s Chris Davis offered the following take in a 2017 conversation about game preparation:

“Every time you get a chance to face a David Price or a Chris Sale — whomever it may be — if you haven’t had success against him you look at it as an opportunity to change the storyline,” the Orioles slugger told me. “Maybe you’ve seen something and feel that you can make an adjustment and have a little different outcome. That’s part of the enjoyment of the game, part of the competition. Going out there thinking, ‘This guy owns me’ and not putting up a battle wouldn’t be doing myself, or my teammates, justice.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Barry Bonds went 7 for 40 against David Cone.

Cal Ripken went 4 for 37 against Dennis Eckersley.

Chipper Jones went 2 for 35 against Hideo Nomo.

Ted Simmons went 2 for 32 against Frank Tanana.

Ken Phelps went 1 for 31 against Jack Morris.

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Nick Plummer, who was featured in last Sunday’s column, grew up in the Detroit area rooting for Michigan sports teams. His favorite player was Curtis Granderson, who played for the Tigers from 2004-2009.

“I just liked the way he plays,” explained the 21-year-old St. Louis Cardinals outfield prospect. “I still do. I like the aura he gives off. He’s known as a really good clubhouse guy and he makes fans smile. He makes the game fun. His number was 28 when he played in Detroit, and that was my first number.“

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If you’re not a baseball historian, you probably don’t know that Billy Southworth is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Here is snapshot look at the former outfielder and manager, who was posthumously voted in by the Veterans’ Committee in 2008.

Playing for five teams from 1913-1929, Southworth slashed .297/.359/.415, and along the way he helped the St. Louis Cardinals capture a World Series title in 1926. In seven games against the Ruth-Gehrig-era New York Yankees, Southworth went 10 for 29 with a team-best six runs scored.

In 13 seasons as a manager (the first as a player-manager), Southworth won a pair of World Series titles, both with the Cardinals, and four pennants. His .597 regular winning percentage ranks fourth-highest all time among managers with at 10-or-more seasons.

Perhaps ironically, Southworth was traded to the New York Giants in the 1923 deal that sent Casey Stengel to the Boston Braves.

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Quiz time: Al Simmons has the highest batting average (.356) in Philadelphia/Oakland Athletics franchise history (minimum 900 plate appearances). Who has the second-highest batting average? The answer can be found below.

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APRIL NOTABLES

MLB batters have combined for 6,564 hits and 6,908 strikeouts so far this season. Last year they combined for 42,215 hits and 40,104 strikeouts.

Aaron Judge is batting .330 with a .455 BABiP. Didi Gregorius is batting .356 with a .306 BABiP.

Miguel Cabrera is slashing .333/.422/.540 with three home runs in 102 plate appearances with the Detroit Tigers.

Jabari Blash is slashing .403/.493/.984 with nine home runs in 73 plate appearances for the Salt Lake Bees, Anaheim’s Triple-A affiliate.

Felix Pie is slashing .378/.432/.694 with eight home runs in 125 plate appearances for Bravos de Leon in the Mexican League.

Nick Martinez is 3-2 with a 1.88 ERA in five starts for the Nippon-Ham Fighters.

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The answer to the quiz is Ty Cobb. After playing his first 22 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Cobb spent 1927 and 1928 with the Athletics and batted .343 over 967 plate appearances.

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Mallex Smith is making the most of his latest opportunity. Getting regular playing time in the Tampa Bay outfield with Kevin Kiermaier on the disabled list, the 24-year-old speedster is slashing a heady .333/.400/.431. Those numbers — augmented by a pair of triples and three steals — have come in 81 plate appearances, a large enough sample size to suggest that the slap-hitting Smith is no flash in the pan with the bat.

Kiermaier thinks highly of his younger teammate’s ability. That much was evident when I asked what advice he’d give him — a question prompted by Kiermaier having jump-started his own career by casting aside a Mallex-like approach and adopting more of a drive-the-ball mentality.

“He knows what he’s doing; he’s a grown man,” Kiermaier told me earlier this month. “He’s proved that he can handle his business. When I got hurt last year, he hit (.270), so my advice would be for him to keep doing what got him here. He’s not a power hitter. He’s a speed guy who likes to bunt and hit the ball on the ground to the left side. His game is to get on base, create havoc, and score runs.”

While there are similarities to their skill sets, Kiermaier sees sees meaningful differences as well.

“I’m a little bit bigger,” Kiermaier pointed out. “He probably weighs 180 pounds and I weigh 215. I hit a lot of home runs in college and showed that I could hit for some power —nothing crazy — in the minors. Mallex can drive the ball, too — I’m not taking away from his ability — but his game is line drives and singles. He’s not up there trying to do a lot, which is why he’s so good at high contact rates and getting on base. And he loves to steal bases. He’s more of a speed guy than I am. That’s his bread and butter. He stole (88) bags in the minors one year. I never came close to that.”

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Sticking with the Rays, Brad Miller is helping keep his teammates out of the E column with his scooping ability. According to Tampa Bay bench coach Charlie Montoyo, the former middle infielder has “probably saved 7-10 throwing errors already this year” by digging errant throws out of the dirt. Montoyo told me that he considers the skill “absolutely underrated, adding that, “a first baseman who can do that is the shortstop and third baseman’s best friend.”

Another member of the Tampa Bay coaching staff has been playing an invaluable role in Miller’s emergent asset.

Rocco (Baldelli) is paying the price for it,”said a smiling Montoyo. “We’ve had Rocco throwing balls at him in the dirt from third, short, and second base, probably 20-25 every day. And (Miller) has become outstanding at handling them.”

Asked about other first basemen who stand out for their scooping, Montoyo said that Eric Hosmer, Mitch Moreland, and Logan Morrison are the first names that came to mind. He opined that Hosmer is “probably the best,” and Baldelli, who was standing nearby, agreed.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The National Pastime Museum, Mark Armour looked at the 1971 trade that sent future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan from the Houston Astros to the Cincinnati Reds.

Where will MLB’s first woman GM come from? Christina Kahrl explored that question at ESPN.

MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy penned an appreciation of former big-league infielder, coach, and broadcaster Dave Nelson, who succumbed to cancer last weekend.

Over at The Deseret News, Dirk Facer wrote about Steve Klauke, who earlier this week called his 3,500th game as the radio voice of the Pacific Coast League’s Salt Lake Bees.

In the words of Carlos Gomez, “If enjoying and having fun in baseball is bad, I’m guilty.” Marc Topkin wrote about the bat-flipping Rays outfielder at The Tampa Bay Times.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

At 5-20 (through Thursday) the Cincinnati Reds established a franchise record for the fewest number of wins in the season’s first 25 games.

Of the 30 MLB managers currently in place, only Jim Riggleman was hired in the month of April. The majority were hired in either October (10) or November (11).

Sixteen of the 30 managers have been hired since 2015. Only Mike Scioscia (1999) and Bruce Bochy (2006) have been on the job for 10-or-more seasons.

CC Sabathia leads all active pitchers with 38 complete games. Bob Feller had 58 complete games through age 20.

On this date in 1931, Cleveland Indians right-hander Wes Ferrell doubled, homered, and drove in four runs while throwing a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns. On the season, Ferrell went 22-12, 3.75, with a .319 batting average and nine home runs.

Luis Aloma, who pitched for the Chicago White Sox from 1950-1953, had a career record of 18-3 with 5 saves. The Cuban righty hurled a complete game shutout in his only start.

Terry Felton pitched in 55 games for the Minnesota Twins from 1979-1982 and finished his career with a record of 0-16.

Rafael Palmeiro leads all Cuban-born players in games played (2,831), hits (3,020), doubles (585), home runs (569), runs scored (1,663) and RBIs (1,835).

Luis Tiant leads all Cuban-born pitchers in games started (484), innings (3,486.1), wins (229), shutouts (49), and strikeouts (2,416).

A non-baseball fact of interest: Most hoops fans know that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named Lew Alcindor prior to converting to Islam early in his career. Less well known is the fact that the NBA legend’s given name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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A basketball curveball! He’s also a big fan of film noir and connoisseur of Dashiell Hammett novels.