Kimbrel vs Venters: Who’s the Closer?

There seem to be more question marks at the closer position heading into 2011 than I can remember in any recent season. At this point in mid-January, there are still a handful of storylines that won’t play themselves out until sometime during spring training. In Atlanta, one of the big questions (especially for fantasy GM’s) is who will be the closer in 2011? Left-hander Jonny Venters was their breakout reliever of 2010, posting a 1.95 ERA and 2.69 FIP. Then, there was strikeout machine Craig Kimbrel, who burst onto the scene later in the season only to post a 0.44 ERA, 1.53 FIP and fan 40 batters in a mere 20.2 innings.

Who gets the job in 2011? I happen to think the choice is quite clear.

Name AGE K/9 BB/9 K/BB Whiff%
Venters 25/26 10.08 4.23 2.38 34.4%
Kimbrel 22/23 17.42 6.97 2.5 34.9%

The difference in K/BB rate between Venters and Kimbrel is not so significant, but the huge gap in strikeout rate is. Kimbrel has a proven track record of top-notch strikeout ability with 242 strikeouts in 151 minor league innings (14.4 K/9). Venters, on the other hand, was a starter in the minors and only converted to the bullpen last season.

The difference in R/L splits is a bit more tellng.

Split K/9 BB/9 FIP
vs RHB 7.69 4.75 3.03
vs LHB 14.79 3.21 1.97
Split K/9 BB/9 FIP
vs RHB 17.47 6.75 2.50
vs LHB 17.36 7.15 2.66

Before I get too crazy with these numbers, I must point out that Venters pitched in 83 major league innings while Kimbrel pitched in only 20.2 major league innings. However, Kimbrel did post a 13.07 K/9 and 4.34 BB/9 against lefties at triple-A Gwinnett in 24.1 innings. In all likelihood, Both pitchers could see their strikeout rates regress, especially Kimbrel. It’s not that he can’t be an elite strikeout reliever, but in the last three years, only Carlos Marmol has posted a K/9 over 14 (minimum 40 IP).

As you can see from the split stats, Venters was not nearly as affective against right-handed batters as he was against left-handed batters. That will be what holds him out of the majority of save chances in 2011.

Managers tend to go with the right-handed option as a closer. Part of this is due to the fact that shut-down lefties are harder to find and usually require use earlier in the game in a high-leverage situation. This puts Venters at a disadvantage from the get-go. Kimbrel’s walk rate is a bit worisome, but as Carlos Marmol has proven throughout the last few years, elite strikeout pitchers can get away with a high walk rate.

We might not get the official word on who will be Atlanta’s new closer until the very end of spring training, but signs are pointing toward Kimbrel. Even former Braves closer Billy Wagner was impressed by Kimbrel going back to last spring.

“I like him,” said Wagner, who’s the same size – about 5-9 or 5-10 – as Kimbrel. “He just needs the experience, the reps, going out and pitching and pitching in situations. Stuff-wise, it’s better than most of the guys in our bullpen, and probably most of the guys in the big leagues.” (source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

While there is some rumblings that Venters and Kimbrel will both pitch in the ninth based on the situation, it should be Kimbrel that gets the lion’s share of save chances. If Kimbrel is the every-day closer, he is an easy top 10 option. If he is eased into the role in a mixed-and-match situation with Venters, he could still break the top 15 or even top 10 due to a high strikeout total.

Keeper league GM’s shouldn’t worry about what happens in 2010. Kimbrel will get his share of saves no matter what and should serve as the Braves closer (and possible top five fantasy closer annually) for years to come.