From the third week of May to the All-Star Break, when the Atlanta Braves were rolling, Billy Wagner was one of the best closers in baseball.
Over that approximate two month stretch, the 39-year-old southpaw was 16-for-17 in save opportunities while collecting one win in a total of 23 appearances.
However, since the dawn of the second half, Wagner has blown four saves in 13 chances (and given up a go-ahead, solo homer in a non-save situation–a game the Braves would lose).
But, hey everybody goes through rough stretches, right?
Well, there is reason to believe that might not be the case here.
When you consider the fact that Wagner blew a grand total three saves in the season’s first three-and-a-half months, you have to wonder if fatigue could be catching up with him.
And when you consider further that all of his, if you will, chokes have come either pitching on either zero or only one day’s rest (and the one day came after a high-stress BS in Florida), fatigue definitely looks as if it could be the culprit in this sudden drop-off.
Now, when the Braves assembled the 2010 club, the solution to this problem was simple: give Wags the day off and let Takashi Saito close out the game
But, now that option is, essentially, out the window.
After suffering a hamstring injury in Los Angeles earlier in the season, the Braves have used the 40-year-old Japanese righty sparingly, at best, and almost never in back-to-back contests.
And if the issue with Wagner is going to be going to be going in back-to-back games, it simply doesn’t make sense to run Wagner-Saito-Wagner-Saito when save situations, hypothetically, in four straight games (or maybe that’s just me–I just am not fond of a straight-up closer rotation since you’d basically be losing one reliever every night).
So, I am proposing a sort-of John Axford-like solution with 25-year-old phenom lefty Jonny Venters.
If you don’t know who that is, I’ll offer this explanation: he’s the dude that essentially took Trevor Hoffman’s job in Milwaukee.
Venters, who has a 1.09 ERA and 17 holds in 57.2 innings out of the Braves’ ‘pen (and only one homer allowed, to boot), has been one of the best relievers in baseball against both lefties (.183 BAA) and righties (.163 BAA) as he has worked batters over his 96 mph sinker and late-breaking slider in late-and-(usually) close situations to the tune of 65 strikeouts (to 25 BB).
While he lacks closing experience, his arsenal definitely reeks of closer stuff.
And even though Venters (who has gone back-to-back games too many times to count) has been a key cog in the middle-relief role in Atlanta, until Wagner (who has sang Venters’ praises–that’s why I think he’d be at least somewhat cool with this sort of set-up) shows the ability to become a consistent threat to slam the door on nightly basis, Venters needs to get chances in the ninth.
By sliding Wagner down into seventh- and eighth-inning roles (when the game won’t be put out of reach if he gets shaken up) to work on his ability to go back-to-back/rest up and giving Venters the near-every night job of shutting the door, the Braves, in my eyes, are giving themselves a better shot at finishing games unscathed.
That doesn’t mean Wagner gets completely kicked to the curb, though.
He would get to spell Venters occasionally and would be given the opportunity to get his job back if he performs well in set-up work (which should be the case if he gets fired up over this sort of demotion).
And if he does win the closing job back, his batteries should be re-charged from what would almost surely be a reduced workload.
Granted, the lack of “adrenaline” could make Wagner a liability any earlier than the ninth.
But even that doesn’t seem to be doing the trick for ol’ No. 13 right now.
For me, it’s an experiment worth taking a stab at–you really lose nothing by inserting a younger, equally dynamic arm into the ninth inning fold.
And if Wagner gets pissy, hey, he’s retiring after this season, anyway, right?
Shifting the load at the back of the ‘pen, on paper, makes the Braves a better team–simple as that
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