Casey Janssen And The Hyperefficient Save

Entering the bottom of the ninth on June 5th, Toronto Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen probably thought he had lucked into a day off. He had just had the previous day off but hey, nobody is going to argue with a leisurely getaway day.

And so with the Jays leading the Detroit Tigers 7-3 thanks to a Melky Cabrera insurance home run in the top of the ninth, manager John Gibbons sent third-year reliever Chad Jenkins out to try and shut things down with a two-and-two-thirds-inning save. The Jays had a 99.2 percent chance of winning the game based on win probability graphs, though it may have been slightly lower with the middle of the Tigers order due up.

Four batters later, the Jays had to call on Janssen after all. He had no patience for this; he was already back in Toronto, mentally, and how dare a late Tigers rally put him to work?

With runners on first and second and two outs, Janssen got the call to face rookie Nick Castellanos. And look, youngblood, Janssen may not be old at 32, but he’s too old to mess around with the likes of you. Here is the entirety of Janssen’s appearance:

That’s the whole thing. Janssen strode in, threw one pitch and erased the remaining 1.5 percent shred of a chance the Tigers had to win the game.

It was Janssen’s 10th save of the year to that point and he had yet to give up an earned run – he’s since moved to 11-of-13 saving games with a terrible 1.42 ERA and 1.89 FIP – but even with a perfect slate, this kind of surgical work was surprising. A one pitch save.

Since 1988, when Baseball Reference first counts pitches, this marked just the 176th time a pitcher had managed a one-pitch save and the first time since Jim Johnson did it against these same Blue Jays on July 12 of last season. Since the year 2000, it’s happened roughly five times a season, so it’s not exceptionally rare, but it’s still damn impressive.

What’s more, it wasn’t Janssen’s first time doing it. Way back on August 28, 2007, when the Jays were still entertaining the idea of Janssen as a starter long-term – he started five games in 2009 after a year off due to injury – he picked up one of his six saves on the year in one-pitch fashion. That makes Janssen one of just 25 pitchers ever to throw a one-pitch save more than once in that span. The names who have done it more than twice, well, some of them probably aren’t that surprising:

Pitcher 1-Pitch SV Career SV
Trevor Hoffman 5 601
Dennis Eckersley 4 390
Mitch Williams 3 192
Dave Righetti 3 252
Dan Plesac 3 158
Jeff Montgomery 3 304
Roger McDowell 3 159
Gary Lavelle 3 136
Buddy Groom 3 27

Okay, so Groom is a bit of a shock but as a lefty specialist, Art Howe and Mike Hargrove clearly trusted him to get a hard out against a lefty when it mattered.

But the impressive one-pitch outing from Janssen doesn’t quite stop there. In the outing before this year’s one-pitch lockdown, on June 3, he threw just three pitches to earn a save. Two saves in one series, four total pitches.

While I don’t have the database chops to check if a two-save, four-pitch performance has happened before, I was able to look at the instances of three-pitch saves in the same season and work backwards (there have been 786 three-pitch-or-fewer saves). 110 pitchers did this multiple times in the same season, with 25 doing it three times or more (including Edward Mujica last season), and Mark Davis (1989) and Jeff Reardon (1992) somehow managing it five times in a single year.

From there, I looked manually at each season pair to find the closest together any instances were. Here are the closest:

Pitcher Year Pitches for B2B Saves Close1 Close2
Trevor Hoffman 2002 3 Aug 13 Aug 14
Tom Gordon 1999 5 May 22 May 23
Steve Olin 1992 5 May 26 May 27
Jeff Montgomery 1990 2 Sep 28 Sep 29
Gary Lavelle 1979 3 Aug 7 Aug 8
Casey Janssen 2014 4 June 3 June 5
Roberto Hernandez 2000 4 July 27 July 29
Jeff Reardon 1992 3 Aug 6 Aug 8
Dan Plesac 1990 2 Aug 15 Aug 17
Mark Davis 1989 5 Sep 4 Sep 6
Steve Bedrosian 1988 4 June 15 June 17

So we see that Janssen is now one of just 11 pitchers to perform the feat twice in a three-day span. If you include his 2007 one-pitch outing, Janssen is also one of 74 pitchers to throw a three-pitch save three different times, though that, naturally, leaves him well off Trevor Hoffman’s 17 such outings.

The one other things I thought to look up was whether Janssen adding 0.015 WPA with a single pitch ranked highly or not. Turns out, no, not even close. After all, he had a four-run lead with two outs; he could have surrendered a three-run home run and still ended up with a save. His 2007 one-pitch save was more impressive, adding 0.174 WPA.

That still pales compared to Mitch Williams on April 28, 1989, however. Leading 3-1 with runners on first and second and two out in the top of the ninth, the Chicago Cubs called on Williams to get Gary Templeton out. Williams settled…and turned and fired to second base, picking off San Diego Padres left fielder Carlos Martinez, thereby earning a save and 0.071 WPA without throwing a single pitch. Incredible.

To be thorough, here are the ten most efficient saves since 1988 by WPA per pitch:

Player Date Tm Opp IP Pit WPA pLI WPA/Pitch
Mitch Williams 28/04/1989 CHC SDP 0.1 0 0.071 2.81 Infinity
Chris Holt 09/07/1999 HOU KCR 0.2 1 0.556 8.45 0.556
Jeff Montgomery 28/09/1990 KCR CAL 0.2 1 0.529 9.05 0.529
Andy McGaffigan 14/04/1989 MON PIT 0.2 1 0.516 9.25 0.516
Mike Lincoln 02/08/2003 PIT COL 0.2 1 0.377 5.8 0.377
Buddy Groom 11/04/2001 BAL BOS 0.1 1 0.283 10.9 0.283
Erv Palica 1949-08-25 (2) BRO CHC 0.2 1 0.282 6.29 0.282
Buddy Groom 22/08/2003 BAL NYY 0.1 1 0.279 10.87 0.279
Phil Regan 16/05/1970 CHC STL 0.1 1 0.275 10.85 0.275
Brendan Donnelly 30/09/2009 FLA ATL 0.1 1 0.27 10.82 0.27

So, congratulations, Casey Janssen, those were two very impressive and efficient outings. But you’re really going to have to ratchet up the intensity to match the hyperefficiency of the Montgomerys and McGaffigans of the world.

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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Ruki Motomiya
Ruki Motomiya

Mitch Williams getting an infinity WPA/pitch amuses me more than it should. The ultimate clutch!

Ambiguous Hat Day
Ambiguous Hat Day

Bottom of the ninth. Setup man comes in and, without getting any outs, loads the bases. Closer comes in and balks in the winning run. Negative infinity WPA/pitch?

Big Daddy V
Big Daddy V

This almost happened to Al Alburquerque on 5/21, but he intentionally walked the previous batter. You could say he didn’t throw any “real” pitches.