MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Relievers, Part 4

Kenley Jansen (K+)
2.85 ERA, 1.74 FIP, 16.10 K/9, 4.36 BB/9

Let’s start with the obvious: that 16.10 K/9 isn’t a typo. At 23, Jansen set a new MLB record for the highest K/9 rate ever, minimum 50 innings pitched. For someone in just his second full year of pitching after being converted from catching, that’s simply stunning.

Of course, there’s a lot more to Jansen’s year than simply whiffing every batter he saw, especially when it started out so poorly in his season debut:

Particularly troubling was Jansen’s disastrous sixth inning. After issuing a walk to Brandon Belt, his outing went RBI double, popout, walk, single (which could have easily been an error on Aaron Miles), RBI single, RBI single, strikeout, strikeout. It took him 42 pitches to get three outs, and he walks away with an ERA of 54. As I noted on Twitter at the time, because relievers generally don’t throw a ton of innings, it’ll take him weeks – if not months – to get that ERA down to a more palatable number, so even if he’s totally perfect from here on out, people will still see that high ERA on their TV graphics and think that he’s lousy. Hooray, ineffective statistics!

That’s exactly what happened, because thanks to that game and another disaster on April 19, Jansen’s ERA didn’t sink below 5 until July. Despite that, he still had a 22/8 K/BB in 13.1 innings through the first month of the season, making his demotion to the minors on May 1 somewhat shocking:

Since allowing four earned runs to the Giants on April 2, Jansen’s pitched in 12.1 innings over 10 games. In that time, he’s struck out 20 against 6 walks, allowing a line of .196/.288/.391. He did have a meltdown on April 19 against the Braves, giving up five earned runs in the 9th inning of a game that the Dodgers were already losing, but has been excellent in the three games since: 9 strikeouts and 2 walks in 4.2 innings, without a hit.

Yet Lance Cormier, who’s pitched just once in the last two weeks, and only once has made it through an appearance without giving up a run, remains. I assume that this falls under Ned Colletti’s usual m.o. of keeping control over as many players as possible, and I guess it’s not the worst thing in the world for Jansen to get more experience in a lower-pressure environment, but with the bullpen struggling as much as it has been, it certainly seems like an odd choice to send down the guy who’s striking out 14.85 men per nine innings. That’s the highest rate of anyone in baseball this year with at least 13 innings pitched, and it’s the 8th best seasonal rate in major league history (obviously, in a tiny sample size).

Jansen will be back soon, and Cormier, most likely, won’t be. So this isn’t a fatal, crushing mistake. It’s just an unexpected choice to look at your bullpen full of guys who don’t miss bats – like Matt Guerrier, Cormier, and lately Jonathan Broxton – and send down the one guy who really does.

It seemed like an odd choice at the time, and knowing what we do now about Cormier, looks even worse in retrospect. Of course, it lasted just five days, as Jansen was forced to return on May 6 when Hong-Chih Kuo went on the disabled list. He didn’t allow a run in his first seven outings of the month, but then he allowed three runs while blowing a save in Houston in what might have been the lowest point of the season on May 23. After another tough outing against Florida five days later, he was placed on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation.

To that point in the season, Jansen had a 6.43 ERA thanks to three disaster games, had been optioned out once and was now dealing with arm soreness. Though he’d clearly shown flashes of what he could do (35 K in 21 IP), he hadn’t quite been able to put it all together, inconsistency that we chalked up to his inexperience on the mound. That may have been so, but everything changed when he returned to the club on June 18. In 16 innings from then until the end of July, Jansen was basically unhittable, striking out 26 while allowing just three singles to the 58 batters he faced.

But after closing out a game against Colorado on July 26, we received the harrowing news that Jansen had been sent to a local hospital thanks to an irregular heartbeat; three days later, he was on the disabled list and taking blood thinners. While we initially worried about the impact this could have on his life outside of baseball, he was back with the team a month later and picked up right where he left off: in 16.2 innings after August 26, he struck out 35 of the 62 batters he faced, allowing just seven hits. Over the rest of the season after returning from his shoulder soreness on June 18, he had a 61/12 K/BB while holding opponents to a miniscule .094/.192/.104 line while becoming the team’s primary setup man.

Before the season, Jansen noted that he was doing his best to imitate his idol Mariano Rivera. It wasn’t always smooth, but Jansen arguably had a more dominating season than the great Rivera has ever had. Just 24 next season and still learning how to pitch, there’s few words for Jansen’s ascent to stardom, though there’s still a feeling that this story is one that isn’t receiving the national attention it deserves, mainly because Jansen wasn’t given the chance to rack up the saves that a contemporary like Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel has. Though Javy Guerra is almost certain to start 2012 as the closer, he’ll have to be on his game from the start to hold off Jansen.

Hong-Chih Kuo (F)
9.00 ERA, 5.06 FIP, 12.00 K/9, 7.67 BB/9

If you could have paired 2010 Kuo with 2011 Jansen, the Dodgers might have had the most dominating left/right combo in baseball history, and if you don’t buy that, just go back and remember how great Kuo was in 2010. Unfortunately, Kuo never got untracked, sidetracked by issues both physical and emotional.

It was clear that Kuo wasn’t right straight from the start, as he walked four in his first 2.2 innings and just didn’t look right doing it. On April 16, he was placed on the disabled list with back soreness, which at least allowed us the small relief of not having to worry about his arm again. (For the moment, anyway.) He returned on May 1, but after he’d struggled in his minor league rehab outings, I worried that it was too soon:

Though Blake Hawksworth was solid in contributing two scoreless innings, much more disturbing was Hong-Chih Kuo‘s seemingly premature return from the disabled list. Kuo threw 25 pitches, but just 14 for strikes while allowing four men to reach in a 9th inning he couldn’t complete. His velocity was in the low 90s, but his control was all over the place; he was finally yanked after hitting Will Venable with a big, looping curveball, one of several breaking pitches he had no command of. Mike MacDougal followed by allowing a run to score on a sacrifice fly, and two more on a Chase Headley double.

Kuo lasted just four more games before leaving the team again on May 11, a move which at the time was mostly notable for the shroud of mystery it was wrapped in, as no one associated with the team was able to publicly state the reason. We later found out that it was due to “anxiety issues”, or a relapse of the “yips” which had previously plagued him.

Kuo missed about six weeks, returning in late June, and the results were mixed; particularly troubling was a five-game stretch in late July and early August where he allowed nine earned runs while walking eight. He improved, though, slowly, since over the last two months he had an 18/7 K/BB while allowing only a .178/.302/.333 line. Unfortunately, any positive feelings that might have allowed him to carry over into 2012 disappeared when we learned the disappointing news that he would need yet another surgery on his left elbow, his fifth total.

Despite reports that Kuo may considering retirement, his agent insists that he’ll attempt to return to MLB in 2012. The surgery makes him an almost certain non-tender, shocking to think just a year after his phenomenal 2010, though that might actually make him more likely to return to the Dodgers, if his familiarity with the team’s medical staff makes him more amenable to coming back on a low guaranteed salary. I hope he does, but regardless of where he lands, I think we all just hope he can finally stay happy and healthy, after everything he’s been through.

Lance Cormier (F-)
9.88 ERA, 6.90 FIP, 4.61 K/9, 3.29 BB/9

If you’re wondering why Cormier’s card clearly displays one of the staged pictures from spring training photo day rather than game action like everyone else, it’s because Cormier was hardly ever allowed to even pitch. When he was signed, we had incredibly low expectations…

Getting back to Lance Cormier, an initial look at his baseball-reference page shows that maybe this guy isn’t so bad, as he pitched in at least 45 games in each of the last three years, with ERA of 4.02, 3.26, and 3.92. That could be useful, right?

But then I look over to the right column, and see that he’s walked less than 4.3 per 9 exactly once in his career, and for a guy who doesn’t strike out all that many, that seems brutal. It was even worse in 2010, since he actually walked more (4.9/9) than he struck out (4.4/9). Not good.

The brain doesn’t stop there, though. Seeing that K/BB mark made me think that, “hey, didn’t I write about this guy already?” Indeed I did, back on December 3, when I was looking at the players who were non-tendered by other teams:

Cormier comes up because he had a 3.92 ERA this year. He also had a 1.648 WHIP and walked four more guys than he struck out. Uh, no thanks. PASS.

Yep. Gross.

…and he still managed to under-perform them. Cormier pitched in just nine games as a Dodger, allowing earned runs in seven of them. Looking at his game log, it was clear that Don Mattingly had zero confidence in him, since he was only allowed to enter games that were completely out of hand. Only once did Cormier get a chance to pitch in a game that had anything on the line, on May 19 against the Giants after the Dodgers had come back from a 4-0 deficit to tie. Yeah, about that

Having exhausted all his pitchers, Don Mattingly was forced to use his “break glass in case of emergency” pitcher, Lance Cormier in a tie game in the 9th. Even before this game, Cormier had been completely putrid, but at least he’d done so in the lowest of low-leverage situations. Of the seven games he’d entered before yesterday, only one ended up being even as close as a four run game. I will absolutely support Tony Jackson’s premise that Cormier’s extremely rare usage (he hadn’t pitched in eight days, and just twice since April 22 – nearly a month) contributed to his poor performance last night, but that doesn’t change the fact that he hasn’t gotten the job done all season. Predictably, Cormier couldn’t get through the inning when it actually mattered, allowing two singles before a three-run blast by Cody Ross put the game away.

Honestly, the fact that Cormier lasted as long as he did counts as some sort of minor miracle, though he’ll at least be the answer to a fun trivia question: who was cut loose to make room for Rubby De La Rosa? After returning to Tampa’s AAA club, the results weren’t much better, allowing 62 hits in 47.1 innings. I think I’ll be pretty happy if this is the last time I ever have to think about Lance Cormier existing on this planet.


Next! Don Mattingly overcomes our doubts! Ned Colletti, doing Ned Colletti things! It’s the final review of 2011: management!