We all agree that Kenley Jansen was never going to leave the Dodgers, right? Certainly not after Aroldis Chapman agreed to terms with the Yankees. The Nationals might’ve been a player, but they have their limits. It was almost unimaginable that Jansen could choose to join the Marlins on purpose. As long as the Dodgers were in there, they had to be considered the heavy favorites, and now there’s an agreement in place. All three of the big free-agent closers have signed new contracts in the span of a week.
Mark Melancon is really good, but he just doesn’t work as a comp. Chapman works a lot better, and his deal made these negotiations easy. Chapman and Jansen are basically the same age. They’ve been similarly dominant, and Chapman signed for five years and $86 million, with an opt-out. So Jansen is getting five years and $80 million, with an opt-out, taking a small penalty because Jansen had a draft pick attached. Do you value a pick around $5 – 10 million? Voila! We’re all agents.
It’s an open question whether any of these relievers are worth it. Whether the market is just out of control. There’s no question at all that, in hindsight, Jansen has been worth an awful lot. By our own numbers, over the last five years, Jansen has been worth $86 million. But can he do that over the next five years? On the one hand, he’s starting from a good spot. On the other hand, pitcher.
Between 26 and 28, Jansen was worth 7 WAR. Now, between 1969 and 2011, there were 26 relievers who were worth at least 5 WAR between the same ages. Over the following five years, on average, they were worth 4.8 WAR. Meanwhile, out of that pool, there were 15 relievers who were worth at least 6 WAR between the same ages. Over the following five years, on average, they were worth 5.7 WAR. The story is what you already knew: History isn’t encouraging. Yes, there was Mariano Rivera. Yes, even Jonathan Papelbon worked out! But no one was more dominant than Eric Gagne. Insane between 26 and 28. Pretty much nothing from 29 on. What are you gonna do?
You hope, I think, based on a few things. Why might Jansen age pretty well? He has yet to lose any velocity. He has yet to have any elbow problems, and his shoulder hasn’t barked since 2011. In theory, teams are now better than ever about knowing how their players are doing physically. Jansen, then, will be closely monitored. And there’s the whole thing about his background. Jansen used to be a catcher, and he didn’t pitch before he was 21. That saved him from untold wear and tear, wear and tear that can catch up to an ordinary pitcher. Troy Percival was a catcher, and he started pitching at 21. He held out, physically, until his mid-30s. On the other hand, Jason Motte was a catcher who started pitching at 24. He missed his entire age-31 season. There’s no eliminating the risk. There’s always going to be risk.
Yet I do think Jansen has one more thing working for him. Kenley Jansen reduces the act of pitching to something incredibly simple. For example, check out this plot of individual pitcher-seasons between 2008 and 2016.
On the x-axis, the rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone. On the y-axis, the rate of contact on swings against pitches in the strike zone. I set a minimum of 50 innings pitched. Jansen had six qualifying seasons, from 2011 to 2016. They’re all down there in blue. They’re all grouped together. Jansen has an unusually high zone rate, and, relatively speaking, it’s been almost impossible to get the bat on the ball.
We can focus differently. For this plot, I’ve just considered the past three seasons. You see Kenley Jansen’s percentile rankings in a few different measures. “Simplicity” isn’t familiar, but that’s my stand-in for the simplicity of a pitcher’s approach. All that does is sort pitchers by how often they’ve thrown their primary pitch. What would be more simple than a guy who throws the same pitch literally all of the time?
The player pool comprises 302 pitchers. Only one has thrown a higher rate of pitches in the zone. Only two have yielded a lower contact rate on would-be strikes. No one has had a higher overall strike rate. Two pitchers score better by adjusted FIP. And no one’s repertoire has been more simple. Jansen has thrown that cutter 93% of the time. And his cutter is really just a four-seamer that he very subtly manipulates. Jansen, in short, gets the ball, and he grips it the same way over and over. Then he throws some kind of high strike, and the hitter frequently misses it. There’s been no sign of the league catching up. Jansen was maybe just more dominant than ever. This is all he is.
On my part, I’m just guessing, but I feel like Jansen’s approach makes him more dependable. I think it makes him less likely to break down, especially when compared to some dominant reliever who throws a truckload of sliders. Now, Jake McGee has had a similar profile, and he’s had some arm problems, but he’s been pitching for a lot longer than Jansen has. Motte has had arm problems, and he’s also a converted catcher, but Motte used to throw 96-97, instead of 93-94, so perhaps that’s a difference-maker. Again, there’s no eliminating the risk. It’s just trying to figure out how great it is. Jansen doesn’t set my risk alarm off.
I can’t know what’s going to actually happen. I don’t think all the big free-agent closers are going to keep it together for the medium-term future. Something bad will happen to someone, or someones, and that’ll cause observers to once again question the team investment. It’s going to take a while before we can have an honest evaluation of whether the market right now is just nuts. At the very least, though, this is what we can say: Kenley Jansen, up until now, has been exceptionally fantastic, with an exceptionally simple approach. For 2017, he should again be amazing, and he should make the Dodgers a few wins better. They couldn’t really afford to lose him. They could afford to keep him. And so continues the National League arms race. It looks like it could again come down to the Cubs and the Dodgers, with the Nationals trying to reach the same level. Good luck to them, because the first two are setting a near-impossible bar.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.