Venters is a star in waiting for Braves
Jonny Venters of the Atlanta Braves is the best closer in baseball who isn't a closer.
Well, not yet.
Keep watching, though, because Venters will rank as The Man with The Smoke and The Saves someday for somebody.
As for now, Venters has a tendency to flash wide eyes whenever somebody suggests he is on the verge of becoming at least the game's Next Great Reliever. If you combine his humility with the fact that he officially is "just" a set-up guy these days, he gets lost in the massive shadows of closers such as Mariano Rivera and Brian Wilson.
You also can place Craig Kimbrel in that elite mix since he actually is the closer for the Braves. All Kimbrel has done this season is match the NL rookie record for most saves before the All-Star Break with 16, which means Venters is Robin to Kimbrel's Batman.
Or is Venters the Cape Crusader in double disguise?
Earlier this season, Braves catcher Brian McCann told ESPN.com the following about Venters' ability in his second Major League season to zip pitches with his left hand: "His sinker is probably the toughest ball I've ever had to catch. That's a 96-97 mile-an-hour bowling ball that just falls off the table. I've never caught a sinker like that.
"He throws a 97 mile-an-hour sinker that legitimately looks like a right-handed slider. I can't tell you how many guys last year faced him for the first time, looked at me and said, 'Where'd you get THIS guy from?'"
Then there was Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker shaking his head with a grin the other day when asked about Venters.
"Nasty, man. He's one of the nastiest guys around," said Baker, who compared Venters with other left-handed speed pitchers in history such as Dave Righetti, Steve Howe and Sparky Lyle. Added Baker, "The game plan against (Venters) is always to have the lead when he normally would come into the game."
To which Venters said ...
Actually, he didn't respond for a few seconds after he was told of such compliments. That's because he was speechless. He really was, but then he forced a laugh.
"I never really looked at myself as an intimidating type of player, but I appreciate somebody like (Dusty) saying that," Venters said, almost embarrassed by it all. "I guess there's no secret about what I'm going to do to hitters. I'm going to go right at them with heaters and try to get some swings. They know what I have. It's a battle. It's me versus them, but I never thought of having anybody go to the plate intimidated."
No offense, Jonny, but when you and your frame of 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds are 60 feet, six inches away from home plate, more than a few hitters shake in the batter's box.
They know your statistics are as outrageous as your pitches.
Venters' 0.52 ERA, opponents' .164 slugging percentage and .391 OPS are the best among relievers with a minimum of 15 appearances. Plus, his opponent's batting average of .136 is the second lowest in the Major Leagues. He also has allowed just four hits to left-handed batters in 34 plate appearances.
And how about this: Just like Venters' rookie season of last year, he doesn't mind throwing and throwing some more. His 34 2/3 innings pitched this season lead all relievers, and his 12 holds are tied for the most in baseball among relievers with 31 appearances.
He throws hard, too. And to hear the 26-year-old Venters tell it, his ability to make his pitches wiggle and sizzle came out of nowhere.
Like in 2010.
"This was something new for me, when I moved to the bullpen last season, and gradually, my velocity got better and better," said Venters, who was groomed as a starter for the Braves during his five years in the Minor Leagues. He missed all of the 2006 season due to Tommy John surgery, and he actually began throwing harder in the aftermath. He went from the low 90s to his blurs of today.
Added Venters, "I've always been the kind of a guy whose tried to throw as hard as I can, and I think the move to the bullpen just helped my velocity, because you have the adrenaline going, and you know you're only going to be out there for a short period of time.
"I still think it's kind of cool (to look at the scoreboard) and see (how fast I'm throwing), and it's like, 'Man.' But as long as I'm getting people out, I don't care if it's 86 mph."
That would be un-Randy Johnson like, though. While growing up in Florida after spending his childhood days in his birthplace of Pikeville, Ky., Johnson was Venters' primary obsession as a fellow lefty.
Johnson and Kirby Puckett.
And Barry Larkin, too.
"Since I was born in Kentucky, all of my family were Reds fans, so I was a Reds fan growing up, and Barry was one of the better players on the team, so I always liked him," Venters said. "And Kirby Puckett, it was because he hit so hard, and he just seemed like a cool guy and a good player. Later, when we moved to Florida, I started liking the Braves, because they were winning championships (during the 1990s)."
Those Braves had flame-throwers, ranging from John Smoltz to Mark Wohlers to John Rocker, but Venters' favorite Braves player was soft-throwing lefty Tom Glavine. Said Venters, "Since I was a starter growing up, you envision yourself being one of the better starters in the game, but I could never hone my skills the way (Glavine) did."
So the Braves had other plans for Venters, and his conversion to the bullpen was so successful last season that he earned a spot on Baseball America's All-Rookie Team. As a result, with the retirement during the off-season of Braves closer Billy Wagner, Venters began this season with the possibility of at least sharing the closer's role with Kimbrel.
Instead, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has opted to use Venters and then Kimbrel as his definitive late-game combination to finish games, and Venters hasn't a problem with the situation.
Neither does Venters relish starting again.
"You know what, man? I don't think about those kind of things," Venters said. "I want to do whatever I need to do to stay in the big leagues -- whether it's getting a left-hander out in the seventh or eighth inning or whatever. It doesn't matter. I just want to help my team win."
He's helping a lot.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.