MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Relievers, Part 3

Kenley Jansen (A+)
0.67 ERA, 1.82 FIP, 13.7 K/9, 5.0 BB/9, 1.3 WAR

I didn’t really talk about Kenley Jansen much entering the season; though we all knew about his arm and conversion from catching, it didn’t figure that a guy who’d thrown just 11.2 innings in his life would figure that much into the big league club until at least 2012.

Uh, yeah. About that.

Jansen started out the year with High A Inland Empire, and made the overmatched kids look ridiculous – how’s a 14.0 K/9 ratio strike you? After just 11 games with the 66ers, he was promoted to AA Chattanooga and somehow struck out even more, pumping his K/9 up to an unreal 16.7 (that’s 50 K in 27.0 IP). That his walk rate rose to 5.7 in AA was worrisome, but when you’re only allowing 4.7 hits per nine and striking out people at that rate, you can live with it a little more easily.

So after 45 minor league innings this season, and only 56.2 total, Jansen was called up to the big leagues in late July. Lest you think he’d be eased into the back of the bullpen against lesser opponents, Jansen instead made his mark right away. The first six batters he faced were Angel Pagan, David Wright, & Carlos Beltran (7th inning, July 24), and Beltran, Jason Bay, and Ike Davis (9th inning of a 1-0 game, July 25). None reached, four struck out, and Jansen had picked up a save in just his second big league game – the first Dodger to do so since Alejandro Pena in 1981.

It didn’t stop there, and there’s few words to describe how jaw-dropping Jansen’s debut season really was. In 27 IP over 45 games, Jansen allowed just 2 ER while striking out 41. Batters managed only a .422 OPS against him, and his 13.67 K rate not only was 2nd in the majors (min. 25 IP), it was the 10th highest rate since 1900 among those who pitched as much as he did. Think about where he came from, and think about that.

The really scary part, though? Jansen did all that while relying almost exclusively on his fastball, which he threw nearly 87% of the time. He’s spending time in Arizona this offseason working with Ken Howell on developing another pitch and refining the other aspects of pitching, and I think this quote will inspire some confidence:

Howell said Jansen is working on holding runners, pickoff throws and refining secondary pitches, the slider and changeup. Another task is to get a better handle on managing the game, and he’s using a logical role model.

“Kenley’s favorite pitcher is Mariano Rivera, and I wanted Kenley to see how Rivera manages his business,” Howell said. “He never comes off the mound. He’s always ready to go. I picked Rivera because it’s somebody that will hold Kenley’s interest. I like the way he’s calm during the game; he controls his emotions and his mound presence.”

“I didn’t think I would be this good this fast, but I’m not there yet,” said Jansen, who had only 56 2/3 Minor League innings when he was called up to the Majors. “I’m working on throwing over to first, getting a slide step. I respect the hitters. They will adjust to me, and I have to adjust to them to stay ahead. That’s why I’m here. I want to get stronger, get in better shape, learn from Kenny on how to control the game.”

Hell and yes. Barring injury, the only concern for Jansen going forward is managing expectations. Could he be the closer next year? Could he be the next Rivera? Sure, why not. Just remember that he’s only 23 and barely one year into pitching. It’s important not to set your sights too high – at least not yet.

James McDonald (inc.)
8.22 ERA, 4.90 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 5.9 BB/9, -0.4 WAR

Obviously, there’s only one thing anyone wants to talk about regarding James McDonald‘s 2010, and that’s the horrendous and unnecessary trade that sent McDonald and Andrew Lambo to Pittsburgh. But McDonald had no control over that, and I’m going to save my disgust with that move for Ned Colletti’s review. Let’s focus on McDonald’s actual accomplishments here.

McDonald entered the year in the running for the #5 starter, but a poor spring first cost him a chance at the rotation, and then threatened to cost him a spot on the team entirely:

Yet at some point, you have to realize that James McDonald is rocking a 20.25 ERA – having allowed 19 runners in just 5.1 innings - and wonder how much of that stat line can be dismissed. When McDonald was knocked out of the 5th starter competition the other day, it didn’t bother me all that much; with the issues the bullpen is having and the limited number of starts the last rotation member gets, you could make the case he’d be needed more in the bullpen. But too many outings like yesterday’s…

…and you wonder whether he’s even going to make the roster at all. Remember, despite his failure as a starter last year, McDonald was excellent out of the bullpen (2.72 ERA, 48/20 K/BB ratio) so his inclusion on this year’s squad should have been a foregone conclusion. But McDonald has been so bad this spring (nothing is more troubling than the 2/5 K/BB ratio) and there’s so many other pitchers impressing that it’s going to be hard to look past his otherwise meaningless spring line.

That’s exactly what happened; McDonald started the year in the ABQ rotation, but missed time in April with a broken fingernail, had a 5.77 ERA as late as May 20, and missed much of June with a hamstring pull. Still, with the Dodger rotation in need, he was called up for a start in mid-July:

Let’s start off with the rotation, where James McDonald appears likely to get the Monday start in John Ely‘s place, and while that’s not confirmed, McDonald was scratched from his start today. McDonald missed over a month with a hamstring pull, and his three starts since his return have been mixed. Four shutout innings on July 1 was a nice start, but then he allowed four earned runs in 6.2 IP at Iowa on July 6. Then on the 11th, he allowed just one run over 6.1 at Omaha, but did so while walking four and striking out just two, so it’s hard to say what to expect. I’m not convinced that he’s any better than Ely is right now, but I’m glad to see him get a chance – and fortunately for him he gets to face the Giants.

The start wasn’t much to write home about – 4 ER in 5 IP – and he was sent to the bullpen for the rest of the month with Carlos Monasterios returning to the rotation. When I noted his new role on July 23, I made this chilling-in-retrospect statement:

At the very least, it’s the last time we’ll have to see him start, since we all know that by this time next week, the Dodgers will have traded Dee Gordon, Jerry Sands, & Kenley Jansen for Paul Maholm & Octavio Dotel.

Dotel, of course, did come to LA in the last seconds before the deadline for McDonald and Lambo. As I said, I’m not going to focus too much on that here, but as you remember, I hated it at the time, and it didn’t get better when I looked at national and Pittsburgh reactions.

The deal only looked worse when McDonald finally got a chance to pitch regularly in Pittsburgh and was immediately effective. He struck out 8 over 6 scoreless in his debut, had back-to-back scoreless outings of 7 and 8 IP in August, and ended the year by throwing 6 one-run innings in St. Louis. It wasn’t all domination, of course, but he ended up with a 3.52 ERA and a .678 OPS in 11 Pirate starts.

As McDonald excelled and Dotel imploded, it only twisted the knife further:

Just when you thought you couldn’t hate the James McDonald (and Andrew Lambo) for Octavio Dotel deal any more, McDonald tosses out yet another quality start for the Pirates, this time going eight shutout innings in New York. Needless to say, the internet is all over it…

Jon Weisman at Dodger Thoughts:

The fact remains, the Dodgers parted with their two-time minor league pitcher of the year and an effective member of their 2009 bullpen, earning a minimum salary, in order to acquire Octavio Dotel. They nurtured McDonald through eight years in the organization, and then gave up too soon.

Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

It appears to be an outstanding trade by Neal Huntington, even at this early stage, given that it will not take any time to know what the Dodgers have in Octavio Dotel at this stage of his career. James McDonald has been very good, and Andrew Lambo has shown promise while playing around that nagging shoulder injury.

Jack Moore at Fangraphs:

McDonald’s peripheral numbers are actually quite similar to those of hard throwing left handed pitcher David Price of the Rays. Both have K/9 rates around 8.0 and walk rates around 3.5. McDonald has allowed fewer HRs this year in his small sample, but that’s unlikely to continue, as Price has a ground ball percentage in the mid-40s. McDonald’s fastball averages 92.5 MPH to Price’s 94.5, and Price’s arsenal contains a slider whereas McDonald relies on the curveball and changeup as his offspeed pitches. Both draw similar amounts of swinging strikes, with Price at 9.0% on his career and McDonald at 8.8%

Eight starts is nowhere near enough to say that McDonald can be an ace or that he’s the next David Price. Still, he’s shown tremendous potential and has a minor league track record to back it up. The Pirates haven’t seen much in the way of starting pitching talent in a long time. It’s looking like James McDonald will be the first step for the Pirates in their quest to put together a playoff-quality starting rotation.

Meanwhile, Dotel has walked 5.6/9 as a Dodger before shuffling off into free agency, and right now, the #4 and #5 starters in the 2011 Dodger rotation appear to be Charlie Haeger and Orel Hershisher. Great trade.

After that post, Dotel was traded to Colorado for a player to be named. He didn’t even last two months as a Dodger. Great trade, indeed.

Jeff Weaver (D)
6.09 ERA, 4.79 FIP, 5.3 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, -0.8 WAR

In 2009, Jeff Weaver was a feel-good story, as a former Dodger who’d seen his career stall out only to return on a minor-league deal and offer value as a spot starter and bullpen arm.

That wasn’t enough to get him more than another non-roster invite for 2010, and it’s not looking great for a third go-round in 2011. That’s what tends to happen when your strikeout rate drops from 7.3 to 5.3, your walk rate increases from 3.8 to 4.1, and you’re constantly fighting injuries.

Weaver got off to a good enough start, allowing an earned run in just two of his first nine appearances. That was good enough to make him one of the more reliable relievers in the early going, but with a Joe Torre-run club, being a reliable bullpen arm is almost a curse:

I hate to ask, but I have to – particularly because I did on Twitter before it happened. Why, when you’re up 7 runs in a laugher of a game, did Joe Torre need to bring in Jeff Weaver in the 8th? Carlos Monasterios hadn’t pitched since Saturday, and it’s the perfect opportunity to allow him to eat up some low-pressure innings. But no, Torre had to go to Weaver for approximately the billionth time (okay, 9th), and Weaver made it through exactly one batter before straining what looked to be his hamstring. I get that managers don’t like Rule 5 picks, and prefer to avoid them at all costs, but if a 7-run lead in the 8th inning isn’t good enough, what is?

Weaver hit the DL for a few weeks, and was reasonably effective upon his return in May and June, allowing five earned runs in 18 innings. But things went downhill in July and August, where he had a 9.22 ERA in that time, culminating in a lousy 5 ER over 2 IP disaster against San Diego. That was the last we’d see of Weaver for weeks, and I’ll bet you’ve never heard a Dodger say this before:

Jeff Weaver was placed on the DL with left knee tendinitis, and – stop me if you’ve heard this before – had concealed the injury from coaches for about two weeks, which I’m sure had nothing to do with his allowing ten earned runs in his last five games.

When does that ever work? He returned in September, but was horrendous, particularly in allowing 6 ER in 1 IP against the Rockies on the 18th. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he picks up another NRI next year, but I have to think you can do better.


Next! George Sherrill falls apart! Ramon Troncoso gets worked to death! And Travis Schlichting gets a shot! It’s relievers, part 4!



  1. [...] Pirates beyond this season has been the performance of James McDonald (27), who came over after a wacky 2010 with the Dodgers in a trade. After a less-than-awesome 2011 with Pittsburgh, he has easily been [...]