Serious injuries are an (occasional) unfortunate reality in professional sports. Many athletes have had their playing time cut short by career-altering injury, leaving the athlete heart-broken and fans to wonder what could have been. No one understands that harsh reality or embodies the persona of a “never say quit” attitude than Tampa Bay Rays LHP Jonny Venters.
Once one of the most dominant pitchers in all of Major League Baseball, Venters saw his own career derailed multiple times. Now, after three Tommy John Surgeries and a fourth elbow procedure, Venters is back in the big leagues. His first appearance since 2012 came on April 25 when he used four pitches to record an out. And while he may not resemble that dominant reliever from 2010-2011, there’s no denying he is one of the best stories in baseball this season.
Jonny Venters is the Comeback Player of the Year Candidate Baseball Needs
Venters was selected in the 30th round of the 2003 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves. He made his minor league debut in 2004 with very mixed results. While Venters did strikeout 54 batters in 42.1 innings, he still surrendered 27 earned runs for a 5.74 ERA.
It quickly became clear throughout his time in MiLB that Venters had a knack for strikeouts but also battled occasional control problems. Venters would stay in the minors until after the start of the 2010 season, but it would not take him long to leave an impression.
Venters was called up to Atlanta shortly after the start of the 2010 season and quickly found his role as the setup man to closer Billy Wagner. Remarkably, Venters was called into 79 games as a rookie and posted an incredible 1.95 ERA. Even more impressive, he allowed just one home run in 83.0 innings pitched and struck out 93 batters.
What made Venters so effective? Well, his raw stuff was the sort of nasty you only expect to see in video games. He utilized a sinker that was so devastating it was once labeled the best pitch in baseball by SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee. Venters threw his sinker at 95 mph with the ability to touch 97 mph while getting incredible movement out of the pitch. He complemented that pitch with an impressive knuckle curve that is often mistaken for a slider. Either way, it worked to perfection with his No. 1 pitch and put him on the map as one of the elite relievers in all of baseball.
After debuting in 2010, Venters embarked on what would be an impressive All-Star campaign. He appeared in 85 games with a 1.84 ERA and two home runs allowed in 88 innings pitched. What made Atlanta’s bullpen so fierce in 2011 is the fact that Venters would often be setting the table for another All-Star and future Rookie of the Year.
Craig Kimbrel combined with Venters to form a terrifying duo for opposing managers. Any lead Atlanta had late in a game seemed safe with these two relievers lurking in the bullpen. In 2011, the two combined for 223 strikeouts and 51 saves over 165 innings pitched. Additionally, opponents hit just five total home runs off of the All-Star duo.
Injuries Pile Up
Unfortunately, it did not take long to notice something was not quite right with Venters over the course of the 2012 season. He was still striking out hitters, but his velocity was down, and more and more hitters were starting to get hard hits off the lefty. He saw his ERA balloon to 3.22 with six home runs allowed despite being limited to 66 innings pitched.
Venters began the 2013 season on the disabled list with elbow issues and eventually succumbed to Tommy John Surgery for the second time in his career. (The first operation occurred in 2005 when he was a prospect.) After missing all of the 2013 season while recovering, Venters and the Braves were hoping he could rehab and rejoin the team sometime during the 2014 season. Unfortunately, he tore his UCL again in August and underwent his third Tommy John Surgery.
Transition to Tampa Bay
Venters did not pitch in the minors or MLB from 2013-2015. However, Tampa Bay took a chance and signed him to a two-year deal in 2015. The team understood he would not be able to pitch in 2015 while recovering from his third operation, but they did believe he could potentially help the team in 2016.
The entire story to this point is unthinkable. Unfortunately, the bad news continued as Venters re-injured his elbow after just five appearances in 2016. He was able to avoid Tommy John Surgery this time and instead underwent a ligament reattachment. Though this was good news, Venters was still sidelined for the rest of 2016.
Return to Baseball
Venters did return to pitching in 2017 and performed well across four levels for the Rays. He appeared in 24 games with a 2.28 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 23.2 innings pitched. Venters began 2018 in Triple-A and pitched well enough to get the call-up in April.
Venters would later call his successful season debut “An amazing experience…It was a special thing that I’ll never forget the rest of my life.” What is even more amazing is how effective Venters has been this season. He does have one poor outing, an unusual appearance as a starter against the Nationals, but he has been remarkable in his natural role out of the bullpen.
In 16 appearances as a reliever, Venters is 1-0 with a save, a 0.77 ERA, and seven strikeouts in 11.2 innings pitched. He has understandably lost a few ticks on his sinker, sitting around 90-91 MPH with it so far this season. His off-speed pitch still plays well and he is able to throw it consistently for strikes when needed. While he likely will never look like the same guy from 2011, it is truly unbelievable that Venters is showing he can be effective in MLB.
Comeback Player of the Year
The Comeback Player of the Year Award is one of the most interesting in baseball and traditionally recognizes players who miss time the previous year due to injury. Buster Posey and Greg Holland are just a few of the past recipients who won the award after coming battling back from injuries, but neither was close to the same level as the battle that Venters has waged since 2013.
Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, there is really only one true candidate for the award this year. In my eyes, it’s the unbelievable southpaw out of Pikeville, Kentucky. Here’s hoping he goes out on his terms this time around.
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