Watching the exploits of Atlanta’s dynamic duo – Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel – reminds me of another former 1-2 punch that was dominating during its time. Duane Ward and Tom Henke ruled high-leverage situations for the Toronto Blue Jays, and it was their success that helped the club win back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and 1993.
The run of dominance began in 1985 when the Jays organization acquired Henke, who had yet to play a full season in the Majors, at age 27. Henke was a former fourth round pick of the Rangers who had also previously been a first-round selection of the Chicago Cubs. He settled into his closer’s role that season and continued through the ’92 season. After the club’s first World Series victory, Henke left via free agency and joined his original club, the Texas Rangers. Ward joined Henke in Toronto in ’86 when the former first round pick of the Atlanta Braves (1982) was traded to the Canadian club for veteran starter Doyle Alexander. Ward, just 22, did not secure a full-time role in Toronto’s ‘pen until ’88. Despite that fact, the two relievers saved a combined 338 games for Toronto over a nine-year span (Henke 217, Ward 121), which is an average of 37.5 games a season between the two players.
According to WAR, the duo’s most dominating season was 1989 when Toronto finished first in the American League East with an 89-73 record under managers Jimmy Williams (who was fired after a 12-24 start to the year) and Cito Gaston (77-49). Combined, Henke (who stood 6’5”) and Ward (6’4”) produced a WAR of 6.6. Henke posted a FIP of 1.80 with 20 saves in 89.0 innings of work. His strikeout rate sat at a dominating 11.73 K/9, while his walk rate was just 2.53 BB/9. Ward, in the setup role, saved 15 games with a FIP of 2.72. His control was not as sharp and his walk rate sat at 4.55 BB/9, but he posted a strikeout rate of 9.58 K/9 in 114.2 innings.
Ward’s workload in early on in his career likely caught up with him at age 30. He threw more than 100.0 innings of relief for five straight seasons between 1988-1992. He then threw just 71.2 innings in ’93 while saving 45 games after Henke left for Texas. Ward then missed almost all of the ’95 and ’96 seasons with injuries and his career was over at age 31 (although he did try to come back with the Chicago Cubs organization but pitched in just eight minor league games). Henke spent two seasons pitching for the Rangers and saved 55 games in two seasons. He then moved on to St. Louis for one year and saved 36 games while posting a 2.81 FIP. He shocked a lot of people by retiring while still one of the top closers in baseball after the ’95 season at the age of 37.
Unlike the Jays’ pair both Venters and Kimbrel are homegrown talent, which makes their development all the more impressive. Venters is an example of great scouting by the organization as he was a (now defunct) draft-and-follow out of a community college in Florida. He was a 30th round pick in 2003 and spent parts of six years honing his craft in the minors. In his rookie season with Atlanta in ’10, Venters posted a 2.68 FIP in 83.0 innings, along with an eye-popping ground-ball rate of 68.4% and a strikeout rate of 10.08 K/9. The southpaw utilizes a heavy 94 mph fastball and plus slider.
Kimbrel, 22, is another community college find, although he was more highly regarded as an amateur and cost the Braves a third round draft pick. Despite standing less than 6’0” tall, the right-hander is a hard-thrower who dominates hitters with a 95 mph fastball and wipe-out slider. Effectively wild early in his career like Ward, Kimbrel made 21 appearances in his debut season in ’10 and posted a walk rate of 6.97 BB/9, but over-matched hitters when he found the strike zone: 17.42 K/9 and 1.53 FIP. Although he’s much more of a fly-ball pitcher (28.1 GB% in ’10) than Venters, Kimbrel has yet to allow a big league homer in 33 appearances to date.
Clearly, Kimbrel and Venters have the potential to dominate for as long – if not longer – than Henke and Ward. The Braves’ duo is younger and arguably just as talented as the two best relievers in the history of the Blue Jays franchise. What Atlanta will need to do, though, is avoid the urge to over-work the youngsters. Henke held up fine during with a lesser workload than Ward during his time with Toronto but his teammate threw a lot of innings (562.2 in five years) and had his career cut short as a result. The Altanta Braves club, as a whole, reminds me of the early years of the Toronto Blue Jays during the organizations run of excellence that started in 1984 and ended with the World Series title in ’93. The Braves club has a ridiculously good young core of players (Venters, Kimbrel, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy, Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman) augmented with a strong veteran presence.
Although the club is not that far removed from its own run of dominance – 1991-2005 – it is set up well to once again over-power not just the National League East division, but the entire National League, and, quite possibly, the Majors.