Reminder: Kenley Jansen Is Still Awesome

jansen_2013nlds_game5I’m not afraid to admit that it got a little nerve-wracking watching Kenley Jansen try to close out the Cardinals in Game 5. Handed a 6-2 lead from Zack Greinke and Brian Wilson, Jansen allowed four hits for the first time all season, allowed the lead to be cut in half,  and even let the winning run come to the plate. Though he did strike out the side, it wasn’t fun to watch.

It also generated about a million tweets like these:

And while I know a lot of that is just the usual Twitter steam-blowing, there’s a lot of fans who actually, truly think that way. (Like whatever the hell this is.) So I think we’re going to need to set them straight.

First and foremost, the “four hits” thing is total garbage, because if you remember, the first batter he faced was Matt Holliday, who “doubled” to right, by which I of course mean, “hit a soft fly to right field that is caught 99.999% of the time, except when Yasiel Puig loses it in the sun.” If you think Holliday reaching second is on Jansen, then you’re wrong. There’s no gray area here.

Jansen followed that by allowing Matt Adams to stroke what was an admittedly well-hit ball to right center:

Though as we discussed earlier, Adams generally does very well against righty pitching. (And also, no pitcher should ever be expected to be perfect.)

After striking out Yadier Molina — this is going to be a trend — Jon Jay hit a grounder to the right side. A few feet in either direction, that’s a double play, and that placement is something the pitcher has zero control over. Yes, I’m basically describing BABIP, and no, you don’t need to subscribe to advanced statistics for the common sense there to apply.

Jansen then struck out David Freese — again with the whiffness — and, after A.J. Ellis went out to remind Jansen that he is, in fact, greatPete Kozma put a ball into right field that was also more well-placed than hit particularly hard.

With two men on, Jansen struck out pinch-hitter Adron Chambers to end the game. So what we have here is a defensive misplay, a seeing-eye grounder, a hard liner, and a bloop hit, as well as three strikeouts.

What we also have here is one of the elite closers in baseball, and yes, I’m aware that Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman and Greg Holland exist. Over the last two seasons, he’s got the fourth-highest K/9 among all relievers; he has the most valuable fastball around, and it’s not even close. We talk about the team taking off when Puig & Hanley Ramirez got hot, and that’s true, but it’s not a coincidence that Jansen took over the ninth inning around the same time, too.

You can either whine that Jansen “has a 4.15 ERA in the playoffs!”, willfully pretending that ERA for relievers in tiny samples or saves actually mean anything, or you can realize that of the 20 hitters he’s faced in October, he’s struck out ten. He’s walked one, and if Puig doesn’t blow that ball, we’re probably not even having this conversation. Including the playoffs, in 2013, he’s struck out 121, and walked 19. That’s insane. Yet people complain.

I will of course admit that Wilson has performed exceptionally well, giving us much more than we could have hoped for. But Jansen has proven himself time again, through the Javy Guerras and the Brandon Leagues, that he’s outstanding, among the elite. His only sin appears to be being a closer, and far too many suffer under the insane delusion that closers ought to be perfect, never ever allowing a hit or a run or — *gasp* — blowing a game.

Jansen’s not perfect. He can’t be; he’s human. But as far as closers go, he’s damn close to being so. And he’s good enough to help this team get a ring. That’s all you can ask for.

Braves 3, Dodgers 1: The Wrath of Kenley

kenley_jansen_april2013_vs_piratesI did not, in the interest of full disclosure, watch tonight’s game, opting to take in the new Star Trek movie instead. (Spoiler alert: it is awesome.) That picture of Kenley Jansen above isn’t even from tonight, obviously, and it appears I chose my evening’s entertainment well.

Well, I say “obviously” because it clearly taken at Dodger Stadium earlier this season, rather than in Atlanta tonight, but I may as well be saying it because you don’t see him allowing back-to-back homers in it, do you? I won’t pretend to offer any analysis of a game I did not watch, other than to offer this: whenever the topic of Brandon League losing his job has come up, one of the counter arguments has always been, “even Jansen isn’t perfect.” He’s one of the best relievers in the game, nearly unhittable at times, but he’s still human.

To expect perfection from any reliever, even including the great Mariano Rivera, well, it’s just not realistic, and it’s why those calling for Jansen’s head now are misinformed at best. Besides, when the sum total of your offensive output is a few hits by Tim Federowicz & Skip Schumaker and a few walks — even the one run looks like it only scored because of a Justin Upton error — does it really end up mattering that much? If anything, it’s just disappointing for Chris Capuano, who was excellent. But if there’s anything this team should know about by now, it’s disappointment.

Saturday in Peoria, Featuring Future Dodgers Franklin Gutierrez & Casper Wells

It’s a damn shame that today’s game in Peoria against the Mariners isn’t televised — it can be heard on 570 AM — because in addition to a lineup that features four regulars and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers are rolling with an actual big league pitching staff. Chris Capuano gets the start, with Chad Billingsley, Ronald Belisario, Brandon League, Kenley Jansen, & J.P. Howell lined up behind him. (No, nothing should be read into Billingsley pitching in relief; with so many starters, that’s inevitable, and as long as the work gets in, it doesn’t really matter when.)

Dodgers
Mariners
SS
Ramirez
CF
Gutierrez
RF
Ethier
3B
Seager
DH
Gonzalez
LF
Ibanez
3B
Cruz
1B
Smoak
CF
Herrera
RF
Wells
C
Federowicz
DH
Paulino
2B
Sellers
C
Zunino
LF
Puig
SS
Andino
1B
Barden
2B
Triunfel

It’s fun that League & Jansen are both pitching today, because that’s the topic of my latest piece at ESPN, which went up this morning. Almost nobody liked giving League three guaranteed years and $22.5m (with $10m in incentives possible), and fewer liked the idea of insisting that he’ll be the closer rather than Jansen. But when you look deeper into League’s performance in high-leverage situations and Jansen’s ability to strike out anyone at any time, it’s a defensible decision. If, of course, Don Mattingly uses them properly, which, who knows.

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There’s been a lot of consternation in the last 24 hours about the status of Carl Crawford, who has been shut down for a week with what’s being called “minor nerve irritation”. Unless it turns into something more serious, it’s not really that bothersome to me just yet. From what we know, this isn’t a completely uncommon setback during recovery from Tommy John surgery, and it’s important to remember that he only went under the knife in August. It’d be nice if he could be ready for Opening Day — a goal which is now definitely in question — but honestly I’d rather have him healthy on April 15 or May 15 if that what it takes rather than trying to have him push it just to be ready for April 1. Besides, between Skip Schumaker, Jerry Hairston, & Alex Castellanos you can cobble together some semblance of a left fielder for a few weeks. It’s a win for Castellanos, anyway, since Crawford opening the season on the disabled list (if that’s what happens) opens up an otherwise difficult to obtain roster spot.

One man who is absolutely not in that mix no matter how much fans want to think he is is Puig. That doesn’t mean we can’t marvel at his skills though, like the strong throwing arm he showed off when he nailed Angel Luis Rodriguez at third yesterday:

Yeah, I could get used to that.

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Hey, anyone terrified Ned Colletti will try to sign Vladimir Guerrero?

 

2012 Dodgers in Review #48: RP Kenley Jansen

2.35 ERA 2.40 FIP 65.0 IP 13.71 K/9 3.05 BB/9 1.7 fWAR A

2012 in brief: As expected, took over closer’s job from Javy Guerra and was outstanding before being sidelined once again by recurrence of cardiac issue that required October surgery.

2013 status: Will make the minimum for one more year before becoming arbitration-eligible. Won’t start the season as closer thanks to the new contract bestowed upon Brandon League, but it’s not hard to see him finishing it there.

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I’m pretty sure we saw Kenley Jansen taking the closer role away from Javy Guerra as such a given all winter that it was practically treated as a running joke. For example, on the very first day of camp:

* Javy Guerra starts camp as the closer. (Hernandez) Again, no surprise here, because Guerra took hold of the job last year after no one else could and did little to force the team to make a move. If he can be effective again this year, then fantastic, because Kenley Jansen is arguably more valuable as a “fireman” type who can come in and dominate when the situation dictates, rather than tether him to the 9th inning. Still, I see Jansen moving into the 9th inning at some point this year.

It didn’t take long. After a rough outing in the first game of the season, Jansen blew through the rest of April, putting up a 23/7 K/BB in 13.2 innings, allowing just four hits. That line looks even more dominating when you realize it includes a poor performance against the Padres on April 13, where he gave up a game-tying homer (in a game the Dodgers ended up winning anyway, and it’s not like getting beat by Chase Headley is embarrassing) and made us shake our heads at the ridiculous reaction he received from Dodger fans.

By the end of April, Guerra had predictably lost his hold on the job, and Jansen moved in. I’d like to offer more analysis than “he was great,” but… he was great. Between May 1 and the All-Star break, Jansen pitched 24.2 innings over 25 games. He allowed eleven hits and had a 39/6 K/BB. Think about that for a second. What can I really do to make that seem more impressive than that already looks?

That’s not to say he was perfect, because no closer ever is. On May 18, he blew a save by allowing Lance Berkman to hit a game-tying homer – the Dodgers won anyway – and then again on June 13 against the Angels, pitching for the third day in a row. Those are minor quibbles, because again, it’s not realistic to expect any player to be 100% perfect all of the time. If there was really anything to ding him on, it was his second appearance after the break, in which… oh, that:

There’s a lot of things I love about baseball, and one of them is that you absolutely never ever know what you’re going to see on a given night. Maybe you’ll see a no-hitter, or four homers in a row, or a pinch-hit dinger on a player’s own bobblehead night. Those are all rare and wonderful things, but they exist within the plane of reality; I’m not sure I can say that having two runners steal home on the same play with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning falls under that category.

I barely even know how to talk about it. Sure, it was a gut punch. But we’ve seen blown saves and tough losses before. We know how to get over those. This? This… was on a level I’ve never seen before. The worst part is, Kenley Jansen had battled through a tough inning to get to two strikes and two outs on Alexi Amarista, before turning his back on Everth Cabrera, allowing the tying run to score, and making a poor throw to the plate, allowing the go-ahead run to score. I don’t want to hear a damn word about how Jansen doesn’t know how to close out games – over his last nine games, he had allowed exactly zero hits while striking out 14, making him one of the most dominant closers in the game – but the mental error in a situation like that is just shocking. Given that Jansen threw 26 pitches tonight after 15 yesterday, I’m sure he’ll have a day or two to think about it.

Awful as that was, it didn’t slow Jansen down at all. Over the next month, he pitched 14.2 innings over 14 games, and continued to cruise, putting up a 21/5 K/BB ratio with only two earned runs. There was some concern over the fact that his velocity was down somewhat from 2011 – and more on that in a second – but since his performance hadn’t suffered at all, little was made of it.

But as we all know, it didn’t quite end that way. Jansen came into a game the Dodgers were already getting crushed in against Colorado on August 27 and allowed four runs in 2/3 of an inning, an outing which single-handedly increased his ERA from 1.93 to 2.54. At the time, it seemed like a blip from a rusty reliever in a non-save situation; two days later, we were told that Jansen was dealing with a recurrence of the heart condition which had cost him a month of 2011. At the time, the concern was more for Jansen’s health than anything baseball-related.

Jansen missed nearly a month, and when he returned on September 20, things had changed. Brandon League, new and improved off his recent mechanical changes, had taken over the ninth inning, and Don Mattingly – understandably, in a playoff push – didn’t want to fix what was working, especially after Jansen’s missed time. Jansen got into 8.1 innings over 9 games before the season ended and once again was dominant: 13/3 K/BB, two hits allowed. For the season as a whole, he struck out a massive 99 in 65 innings, and improved his BB/9 rate from 4.4 in 2011 to 3.0 in 2012.

Despite all that, he’s once again going to open the season as the second banana. As we’ve talked about several times in the past, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I’d love to have a guy like Jansen available to nail down the highest leverage situations rather than being chained to the ninth.

Oh, and there’s this: he might even be better next year, as I looked into in a post for FanGraphs in November:

Despite League’s great finish, I doubt there’s too many who would argue that he’s better than Jansen, who trails only Craig Kimbrel in K/9 rate over the last two seasons. (Yes, even more than Aroldis Chapman.) That’s especially so considering Jansen has the opportunity to be even better in 2013. Not only is he hopefully past the cardiac issues, look at his velocity charts over the last two years:

As you can see, for most of 2012 he’d had difficulty maintaining his 2011 heat, leading to no shortage of hand-wringing despite the fact that it hadn’t hurt his effectiveness. But see how it clipped up noticeably at the end of the season? There’s a reason for that:

“I was just playing around with the two-seamer and saw some great late movement,” Jansen said. “I took it into a game against Colorado. I threw a 90-mph cutter, then A.J. [Ellis, catcher] asked me for a two-seamer and I hit 95. That’s when I realized that I was staying behind the two-seamer but wasn’t staying fully behind the cutter.

“From that point, my cutter got to 96 and touched 97.”

That game against Colorado was on September 29. Jansen saw 15 batters between that game and three more, striking out eight of them and allowing only two hits.

Jansen’s heart procedure went smoothly and not only is he expected to be ready for spring training, he was reportedly feeling great just a few days later. With his heart concerns behind him (hopefully) and a fix to regain his lost velocity, Jansen’s poised to be one of the most dangerous relievers in baseball, no matter what inning we see him in. I can’t wait to see it.

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Next up! Wait, Jamey Wright was decent?

Dodgers Survive Colorado Scare, But May Be Without Kenley Jansen

If the Dodgers wanted to reverse their recent slide and avoid a sweep this afternoon, they needed at least one of the following two things to happen, and preferably both:

1) For Joe Blanton to stop pitching like the Triple-A mess he’d been in his first four Dodger starts, and
2) For someone, anyone, on offense to start producing, especially with Matt Kemp out

I’m guessing that “nearly blow a 10-1 eighth inning lead” wasn’t on the list, but what fun would it be if it weren’t interesting?

Blanton, nothing short of a disaster in his first month as a Dodger, was finally effective in getting into the eighth inning having avoided any major damage. With everything that’s happened to the rotation recently, Blanton’s performance can’t be understated, and there was just no way he was going to continue being as poor as he’s been. Blanton left with two on in the eighth up 10-1, and that’s where things got ugly.

Shawn Tolleson, just recalled back to the club today when Scott Elbert went on the disabled list, faced four batters and allowed four to reach, adding two runs to Blanton’s ledger. Randy Choate entered to hit Tyler Colvin to force in another run, and Ronald Belisario followed to allow two more (all of which were charged to Tolleson). With Kenley Jansen unavailable – and more on that in a second – Belisario was forced to pitch the ninth as well, which he fortunately was able to get through without allowing the Rockies to complete what would have been a soul-crushing comeback.

While the pitching staff made things interesting, the offense provided fireworks of their own. Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier, Juan Rivera, & A.J. Ellis all had two hits against Colorado starter Drew Pomeranz and friends, with Hanley Ramirez hitting his eighth Dodger homer and A.J. Ellis hitting his first grand slam. You just can’t say enough about Ellis at this point, can you? His 11th homer of the year is more than half as many as the 19 he had in parts of nine minor league seasons. His OBP is .386. He is, as they say, the greatest man in the world.

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Unfortunately, today’s win came with some very bad news about Jansen, whose unexplained absence in the ninth left many wailing at Don Mattingly. Well, here’s why we didn’t see him:

This is now the third time, I believe, that Jansen has had heart issues which have cost him time, and it’s beginning to become a serious concern. Oh, sure, it’s a big problem that a team in the playoff hunt may have just lost their dominating closer, but beyond baseball, Jansen’s health is the priority here. Assuming Jansen checks out and doesn’t have more pressing worries about this, the Dodgers have worries of their own. Brandon League, closer? Terrifying to think about, but it’s what Mattingly hinted at after the game because of League’s “experience”. No. Thanks.

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Finally this afternoon, the Dodgers announced who they’d be sending to the Arizona Fall League, which is annually one of the best places to see the collected top talent in the minor leagues. Pitchers Red Patterson, Eric Eadington, & Steven Rodriguez, catcher Gorman Erickson, infielder Rafael Ynoa, and outfielders Yasiel Puig & Joc Pederson will be joining the Salt River Rafters, which is comprised of players from Houston, Colorado, Detroit, and the Dodgers. Before anyone asks, no, Zach Lee & Chris Reed did not need their seasons extended with even more innings. Only players who have not appeared in the majors are eligible, so if there was any thought of Alex Castellanos or someone like him, that’s why he’s not here.