Sunday Notes: Are Kenley Jansen and/or Craig Kimbrel Cooperstown Bound?

Billy Wagner was the club’s closer when Craig Kimbrel joined the Atlanta Braves in 2010. Thirty-nine years old by season’s end, Wagner logged the last 37 of his 422 career saves, and he was as dominant as ever while doing so. Over 69-and-a-third innings, the left-hander fanned 104 batters while allowing just 38 hits.

Kimbrel, who was just 21 years old when he debuted that May, was every bit as overpowering. In 21 appearances comprising 20-and-two-thirds innings, the rookie right-hander fanned 40 batters while allowing just nine hits. Along the way, he recorded the first of what is now 395 saves.

I’ve had a Hall of Fame vote for three years, and in each of them I’ve put a checkmark next to Wagner’s name. This coming winter, I plan to do so again in what will be his penultimate year on the ballot (assuming he doesn’t get voted in; Wagner received 68% of support in his last go-round).

Kimbrel will soon celebrate his 35th birthday, and while the end of his career is fast approaching, he’s still pitching. Will he likewise be getting my vote once his name appears on the ballot? And what about Kenley Jansen? Still going strong at age 35, he’s also got 395 saves, tying him with Kimbrel for seventh on the all-time list, directly behind Wagner.

Let’s compare some of their numbers:

Wagner: 422 saves, WPA 28.40, 187 ERA+, 2.73 FIP, 6.0 H/9, 11.9 K/9.
Kimbrel: 395 saves, WPA 22.99, 174 ERA+, 2.38 FIP, 5.2 H/9, 14.3 K/9.
Jansen: 395 saves, WPA 24.72, 161 ERA+, 2.44 FIP, 5.8 H/9. 13.0 K/9.

Factoring postseason play into the equation, Jansen has had the most success — 20 saves and a 2.20 ERA — but he’s also had the most opportunities, and by a wide margin. He has 59 appearances, whereas Kimbrel has 23, and Wagner just 14. It’s not fair to put too much weight on October, although if you care to do so, Jansen gets the edge.

The bigger question is: how Hall-worthy are closers? They pitch far fewer innings than starters, and as WAR attests, their relative value is therefore much less. Not everyone agrees with that statement. Alex Cora has had both Jansen and Kimbrel as closers during his managerial tenure in Boston.

“It’s just like any other position, right?,” said Cora. “If you’re really, really good at what you do, somebody will vote you in. Hoffy [Trevor Hoffman], Mariano [Rivera]. I played against them and saw first hand how dominant they were. Kenley is getting close to 400 saves, and shoot, he’s throwing 96 [mph] with that cutter. He might pitch for five more years. Then we’ll see what happens.”

Fredi González feels much the same way.

“They should give more consideration [to closers],” opined the Baltimore Orioles bench coach, who previously managed the Braves and Marlins. “I had Kimbrel for my first five years in Atlanta, and he sure made game-planning easier. If we could get to the ninth, we pretty much had that inning locked up.”

González added a caveat, saying that he’d have to take a close look at the numbers before stating outright that Kimbrel merits a plaque in Cooperstown. As for the pitcher himself, he prefers not to ponder the possibility, at least not publicly.

“I don’t really like talking about my career,” Kimbrel told me in spring training. “I think once I’m done, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable doing it. At the same time, I understand what I’ve been able to accomplish to this point. But I’m still playing — each and every year is a new year, with new opportunities — and I also understand that what I’ve done in the past isn’t going to help me now.”

Jansen was more forthcoming on the subject, although, like Kimbrel, he didn’t want to speak specifically about his own cause.

“I’ll leave that for you guys,” Jansen told me when I brought up the subject on Friday. “But I will say that it’s one of the toughest jobs to do. If you ask anybody about the last three outs… go ask Hall of Famers like John Smoltz, who did it. They will tell you that it’s tough to get the last three outs on a daily basis — especially for so long — so of course closers belong in the Hall of Fame. I know that I would vote for Billy Wagner. He was lights out.”

For all intents and purposes, Jansen and Kimbrel have been lights out themselves. Whether they’ll one day receive the same kind of support Wagner has gleaned — which may or may not ultimately get him enshrined — remains to be seen.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Mark Grudzielanek went 9 for 11 against Tim Hudson.

Ken Griffey went 10 for 17 Rollie Fingers.

Ruppert Jones went 11 for 25 against Dave Stewart.

Derrek Lee went 12 for 17 against Mark Mulder.

Von Joshua went 13 for 25 against Catfish Hunter.

Placido Polanco went 14 for 22 against Barry Zito.

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How much has Pete Crow-Armstrong changed as a hitter since entering pro ball? I asked the 21-year-old Chicago Cubs prospect that question following a back-fields game during spring training.

“I haven’t changed,” replied Crow-Armstrong, whom the New York Mets drafted 19th overall in 2020 and subsequently swapped to Chicago in exchange for Javier Báez and Trevor Williams. “I’ve stayed true to myself as a hitter. We’ve made slight swing changes, but no, I’ve just improved what was already there. I feel like you’re probably going to ask about the power, but it’s always been there. I trust in my ability, my body, and I’ve worked really well with the coaches here.”

I asked the youngster if he could elaborate on “slight swing changes.”

“Entry into the zone has probably been the biggest benefit out of the changes we’ve made,” said Crow-Armstrong. “I like to think of it as a cleaner first move. It’s less steep.”

The Harvard-Westlake (CA) High School product slashed .312/.376/.520 with 16 home runs last year between Low-A Myrtle Beach and High-A South Bend. No. 14 on our Top 100, Crow-Armstrong is 10-for-28 with Double-A Tennessee so far this season.

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A quiz:

MLB made batting helmets mandatory in 1971, albeit with a grandfather clause that allowed players to continue wearing cloth caps with liners — which a handful did throughout the decade. Who was the last MLB player to hit sans a helmet?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Hobie Landrith, who played parts of 14 big-league seasons, primarily as a backup catcher, died earlier this month at age 93. Signed out of Michigan State University by the Cincinnati Reds in 1949, Landrith later became the first-ever New York Met, the franchise having selected him with their initial pick in the 1962 expansion draft.

Paul Hinrichs, a native of Marengo, Iowa who pitched in four games for the Boston Red Sox in 1951, died earlier this week at age 97. Known as the “Pitchin’ Parson” — his father was a minister — Hinrichs allowed eight runs in three-and-third innings of work. His lone career gopher (an inside-the-parker by Bobby Avila) and only strikeout (Larry Doby) came back to back.

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The answer to the quiz is Bob Montgomery, whose final big-league plate appearance — all without a helmet — was in September, 1979. The erstwhile Boston Red Sox catcher, and later broadcast analyst, is celebrating his 79th birthday today.

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Asked on Friday about Logan O’Hoppe, Phil Nevin told reporters at Fenway Park that the rapport between the rookie catcher and Shohei Ohtani has been good. The Angels manager added that while “Sho calls his own game,” the preparation they do before stepping between the white lines has been “helping Hop.”

I proceeded to ask Nevin for his overall thoughts on pitchers, and not catchers, doing the game-calling.

“At the end of the day, the pitcher is really calling his own game,” responded Nevin. “The starters can shake. The catcher gives them an idea, but they can shake to whatever they feel comfortable with. Shohei just has so many pitches. We started using the PitchCom. Shaking to other pitches runs out of time with the clock. This is just a more efficient way for them to do that… but I don’t really care who calls it, or what, as long as we’re on the right page.”

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

NPB’s best pitchers matched up on Friday, with Roki Sasaki and the Lotte Marines coming out on top with a 2-0 win over Yoshinobu Yamamoto and the Orix Buffaloes. Sasaki allowed one hit over seven scoreless innings, with 11 strikeouts.Yamamoto allowed five hits and one run over six innings, with nine strikeouts.

Tatsuya Imai has thrown 16 scoreless innings with 19 strikeouts over two starts for the Seibu Lions. The 24-year-old right-hander went 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA with the NPB club last year.

Shogo Akiyama is slashing .432/.468/.636 in 47 plate appearances with the Hiroshima Carp. The 35-year-old (as of today) former Cincinnati Reds outfielder walked off the Yakult Swallows with his first home run of the season on Saturday.

Young Jin Song has thrown nine-and-two-thirds scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts over three appearances for SSG Landers. The 18-year-old right-hander picked up his first KBO win on Friday.

Been Gwak has thrown 12-and-a-third scoreless innings with 17 strikeouts for the the KBO’s Doosan Bears. The 23-year-old right-hander pitched for South Korea in the WBC.

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Ricky Tiedemann lasted until the 91st pick of the 2021 draft, which is when the Toronto Blue Jays selected him out of Golden West [Junior] College. The 20-year-old southpaw had no idea where he’d be landing that day.

“I had zero clue,” Tiedemann told me during spring training. “It was kind of a last-second thing in the third round, and something I didn’t even know was happening. They went through my agent. I was kind of just hanging out with my family, enjoying the moment, and not getting into the business side of it. I was letting my agent take care of that.”

Toronto’s top-rated prospect had conversations with a lot of scouts, and a lot of at-home meetings with teams,” prior to draft day, but none of those interactions left him with a feeling of, ‘Oh, they’re going to take me on draft day.’ To the best of his knowledge, “Every team was kind of on the fence about it.”

The Blue Jays are certainly happy to have hopped off the fence in the lefty’s direction. Currently with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Tiedemann is No. 24 on our Top 100, and is the highest-ranked LHP on the list. He threw three scoreless frames, with all of the outs coming on Ks, on Thursday in his first start of the season.

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FARM NOTES

The California League’s Lake Elsinore Storm went into last night 6-0 on the season and had outscored their opponent 42-8. San Diego’s Low-A affiliate began the campaign with a 17-0 win over the Visalia Rawhide.

Andrew Abbott followed up on his spectacular seasonal debut — the 23-year-old southpaw fanned 11 of the 15 batters he faced on April 6 — by tossing six shutout innings with 14 strikeouts as Double-A Chattanooga topped Mississippi 8-3. Abbott is No. 15 on our Cincinnati Reds Top Prospects list.

Braydon Fisher has made four appearances and allowed just one baserunner (a HBP) in four innings, with eight strikeouts, for the High-A Great Lakes Loons. The 22-year-old right-hander was taken in the 2018 draft out of League City, Texas’s Clear Falls High School by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Cole Young is slashing .407/.556/.630 in 36 plate appearances with the Low-A Modesto Nuts. The 19-year-old shortstop was drafted 21st overall last year out of Wexford, Pennsylvania’s North Allegheny High School.

Creed Willems is slashing .429/.520/.952 with three home runs in 25 plate appearances for the Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds. The 19-year-old, left-handed-hitting catcher was taken in the eighth round of the 2021 draft out of Aledo (Texas) High School by the Baltimore Orioles.

Blaze Alexander is slashing .458/.618/.792 in 34 plate appearances with Triple-A Reno. The 23-year-old infielder was taken in the 11th round of the 2018 draft out of Bradenton, Florida’s IMG Academy by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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The Tampa Bay Rays came into the year having averaged 94 wins over the last three non-COVID seasons, and they began the current campaign with a record-tying 13 wins. Brett Phillips knows them well. The Angels outfielder joined the A.L. East club in August 2020, and was with them until last August. My asking him what makes his old team so good began with an entertaining exchange:

Phillips: “Camaraderie.”

Me: “It takes more than just camaraderie. It takes talent, as well.”

Phillips: “Wouldn’t you say that everyone in the major leagues is talented?”

Me: “Of course.”

Phillips: “All right. So we know that. Maybe they’ve got a secret sauce that they’re stirring around in the back room and giving it to their players? Nah, I’m just kidding.”

Turning serious, Phillips proceeded to point to Tampa Bay’s President of Baseball Operations.

“I think Eric Neander has done a really good job, top to bottom, of relaying information that they need their players to understand,” he said. “It’s a new age of baseball with all this information, and teams like the Rays that are able to bridge the gap… they’re able to put that information in layman’s terms, and come up with a method of how they’re going to go about it from an organizational standpoint.

“What did they just do, go 13-0?” continued Phillips. “That’s hard to do. But as pumped as I am to see that they’re having success, I still think we’re better.”

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Luis Arraez and Pablo López were traded for each other over the offseason in what many called “a good baseball trade.”

López, who is scheduled to make his third start of the season this afternoon, has a 1.35 ERA, a 2.36 FIP, and 26 Ks in 20 innings.

Arraez, who I wrote last May “is in line to win to win a batting title” is slashing .511/.566/.702 with a 244 wRC+ over 53 PAs.

Two-plus weeks into the 2023 season, the opiners are being proven correct. The deal is working out just fine for both teams.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

MLB.com’s Brian Murphy wrote about Retrosheet’s “mission to unearth baseball history.”

Charlie Bevis wrote about 2023 is the 100th anniversary of modern night baseball.

MassLives’s Christopher Smith asked several Red Sox players about out-of-the-box hitting drills they’ve tried over the years.

Chun-woong Lee 이천웅, an outfielder for the KBO’s LG Twins, has admitted to engaging in illegal online gambling. Jee-ho Yoo has the story at Yonhap News Agency.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Prior to making his MLB debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson slashed .349/.468/.462 with the Montreal Royals in 1946. The Royals, whose roster included two other Black players, Roy Parlow and John Wright, went 100-54, then bested the Newark Bears and the Syracuse Chiefs to capture the International League title.

Ollie Carnegie hit 297 minor-league home runs, including 45 with the International League’s Buffalo Bison in 1938. The Pittsburgh native played his first professional season with the Michigan-Ontario League’s Flint Vehicles in 1922. He never played in the majors.

Miguel Cabrera has 1,134 extra-base hits and 1,229 walks. Ty Cobb had 1,138 extra-base hits and 1,249 walks.

Joey Votto has 2.093 hits, including 817 extra-base hits. Matt Holliday had 2.096 hits, including 816 extra-base hits.

Mike Trout hit his 300th career double yesterday, making him the fourth player in MLB history with 300-plus doubles, 300-plus home runs, and 200-plus stolen bases by his age-31 seasons. The others are Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, and Alex Rodriguez.

Sal “The Barber” Maglie jumped to the Mexican League after his 1945 rookie season with the New York Giants, and — as were other players who did the same — was subsequently indefinitely suspended by commissioner Happy Chandler. Maglie returned to MLB in 1950 and preceded to 59-18 with a 2.86 ERA with the Giants over the next three seasons.

On today’s date in 1970, Willie McCovey’s 11th-inning, two-run homer lifted the San Francisco Giants to an 11-9 win over the Houston Astros. Willie Mays had tied the game at nine apiece in the eighth inning with career home run No. 601.

Cleveland’s Bob Feller held the Chicago White Sox without a hit on today’s date in 1940. The no-hitter, which came on Opening Day, was the first of three he threw in his Hall of Fame career. Feller also had 12 one-hitters.

Players born on today’s date include Bruce Bochy, who caught for three teams — the San Diego Padres, Houston Astros, and New York Mets — from 1978-1987. Bochy logged 192 career hits, and has since gone to accumulate 2,011 managerial wins, the 11th-highest total in big-league history.

Also born on today’s date was Piggy Ward, who played for five National League teams from 1883-1894. A native of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Ward reached base an MLB record 17 consecutive times from June 16-18, 1893. The streak began with the Baltimore Orioles, and continued following a trade to the Cincinnati Reds.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Greg Simonsmember
11 months ago

How does Tyler Nevin have time to manage the Angels while also playing for the Tigers?