In Their Footsteps: The situational lefthander

He’s like a good punter.  The effective situational left-hander can quietly carve out a career that spans more than a decade, even if just as often as not he began his pro career as a relatively anonymous arrival.  Tony Fossas, round 12.  Ed Vande Berg, round 13.  Graeme Lloyd, undrafted.

There have been a number of really good southpaw specialists in Rangers history, but the best was arguably Mike Venafro, a social sciences and economics major from James Madison University who went undrafted as a junior before Texas landed him as a senior in the 29th round of the 1995 draft.  Often that type of pick is a guy you hope provides some stability and leadership on a short-season farm club full of younger players, with an upside of maybe reaching the upper levels of the system, where, if he has some success, he has a shot at a cup of coffee in the big leagues or can be used as a sweetener to complete a trade.

Venafro defied the odds, and wasted no time in doing it.

In 1999, just four years into his pro career, Venafro was not only in the big leagues but posted the best ERA (3.29) of any left-handed reliever in the American League.  He was a key member of what was the Rangers’ last playoff team, a club that won 95 games with one of baseball’s deepest bullpens.  He may have exceeded any expectations that Texas had for him when the club made him the 794th player drafted in 1995, but it was clear from the day he signed that he was being groomed for the precise role he would ultimately flourish in.

Venafro made 307 Major League appearances in a career that lasted through 2007, and 424 appearances on the farm.  Not once did he start a game.  

The slight lefthander averaged less than an inning per appearance in his seven big league seasons with Texas, Oakland, Tampa Bay, the Dodgers, and Colorado, but it’s not because he wasn’t effective (his career 4.09 ERA was markedly better than the league average 4.50 over that span).  It’s because Venafro was often called on to get the opposition’s best left-handed hitter out in a key situation between the sixth and eighth innings, and often that’s all he was asked to do.  

While left-handed hitters accounted for 41.9 percent of the league’s at-bats during Venafro’s big league seasons, he faced them 47.3 percent of the time, and fared extremely well, holding them to a .239 batting average and .309 slugging percentage.  As solid as those lifetime numbers are, they pale in comparison to what Venafro accomplished in his brilliant rookie season alone, when he and Jeff Zimmerman set John Wetteland up in what might have been the Rangers’ best-ever late relief trio.  In that playoff season, lefties hit just .193 off Venafro, slugging an impotent .219.  In 114 at-bats by lefthanders, he allowed just one extra-base hit, a Darren Fletcher solo home run on August 8.

It’s not as if Venafro developed a mid-90s fastball that he rode from the New York-Penn League to Arlington.  It was all about deception, as it often is for the left-handed specialist.  Never a strikeout pitcher, Venafro used a pronounced sidearm slot to induce an extraordinary 4.09 groundouts for every flyout in his career, including an otherworldly 5.54 rate in 1999.

Reid Nichols was in his first season as Rangers director of player development when Venafro was drafted, and remained in that position throughout Venafro’s quick ascent to the Major Leagues.  “We knew Mike had a chance even though the velocity wasn’t there,” said Nichols.  “He had such an unorthodox delivery that we thought he had an opportunity to get guys out at the highest level.”

Venafro was nearly as effective in the big leagues (4.09 ERA) as he was on the farm (4.02), and even though he never again quite matched the incredible success he had as a rookie, he carved out a solid seven seasons in the Major Leagues, a notable accomplishment for a pitcher without formidable stuff that lasted until the 29th round of the draft.

The type of success that Venafro and others like him have had as situational lefthanders in the big leagues might serve as an inspiration for 23-year-old Ryan Falcon, who like Venafro was drafted by Texas as a college senior – also in the 29th round.  

Falcon’s slot is a more conventional three-quarters, and he’s not a groundball artist, but the six-footer has thrived with tremendous command of a fastball that doesn’t touch 90, and with deception and the ability to change speeds, perhaps succeeding 2006 45th-rounder Danny Ray Herrera (traded over the winter to Cincinnati in the Josh Hamilton deal) as the Rangers farmhand most likely to be groomed into a situational lefthander if he continues to pitch like he did in his pro debut in 2007.  

Falcon, who had Tommy John surgery as a University of North Carolina-Greensboro sophomore in 2005, put up video game numbers with Short-Season Class A Spokane once he signed last summer.  In 47 innings of work, he scattered 39 hits and just six walks, setting an impressive 62 Northwest Leaguers down on strikes while posting a 2.68 ERA.  Left-handed hitters were especially inept, hitting just .175, slugging .246, and managing only two extra-base hits while striking out 27 times in 57 at-bats.

Asked to make a two-level jump in 2008, Falcon is off to a solid start for High A Bakersfield, posting a 2.13 ERA through six relief appearances, yielding just seven hits and three walks in 12.2 innings, and fanning eight.  Lefties have three hits in 11 at-bats against him.  

Given the nature of attrition in minor league baseball, you rarely look at a club’s pick in round 29 and predict more than a couple years on the farm.  But sometimes, with situational lefthanders, if they locate and deceive and do their specific job well, draft position becomes irrelevant.  There may be no other role on a baseball team in which you would be less surprised to see a guy still earning a big league paycheck 10 or 12 years down the road, entrusted with the job to get hitters out who earn 10 or 12 times as much to play the game.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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