The Simplicity of Kenley Jansen and October Bullpens

Baseball can be such a complex game. We’ve got radars and cameras that track every movement on the field and spit out massive data sets at the conclusion of each contest. We’ve got run-expectancy simulators and lineup optimizers and a tool that allows one to search any combination of season, game, split, event, and streak stats from any player in any number of years dating back more than a century. We love baseball due in part to its layers of intricacies; there’s something for everyone, and no two fans share an identical relationship with the sport. At its core, baseball, to the observer, serves as nothing more than a distraction, and the complexity of the game affords those observers a seemingly infinite supply of secondary distractions when the primary one is insufficient.

Baseball can be such a simple game. Sometimes, even with all the information at the disposal of the coaches and players, it can be best not to overthink things. Important moment? Bring in the best pitcher. Bring in the best pitcher, the way Dave Roberts did with Kenley Jansen with two men on and no outs in the bottom of the seventh of an NLDS Game 5, facing elimination. Got a good pitch? Throw that pitch. Throw that pitch 39 out of 47 times, the way Jansen did with his cutter to carve up the Nationals for 2.1 erratic but effective innings.

Jansen’s decisions with the cutter were nothing out of the ordinary — he threw his cutter 83% of the time last night, he threw his cutter 88% of the time during the regular season — but there was something about his outing, something about the way that he works in a near-state of perpetual motion, that brought a sort of calming beauty to an otherwise hectic and turbulent affair. A 4-hour, 32-minute game which featured a 66-minute seventh inning, a 13-pitch walk, 11 pitching changes, and, eventually, a moment of triumph. And in the middle of all that was a 29-year-old former catcher from CuraƧao, standing on the pitcher’s mound in the middle of a whirlwind in perhaps the biggest moment of his career, just throwing cutter after cutter.

Maybe my favorite quote of the year came from Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal in a pregame NLDS media session last week. Grandal was asked about Jansen, and about what allows him to get five-out saves and thrive in high-pressure situations. Grandal responded, simply, “98-mph cutter.” The reporter apparently wasn’t satisfied, and began on with a follow-up question, “Anything about his mentality–” Grandal cut the reporter off. “No,” Grandal replied. “98-mph cutter.” It’s such a stark contrast from what reporters want to hear out of players when we ask them a question, yet at the same time, it’s perfect. There’s substantial meaning behind Grandal’s brevity. By saying nothing, he’s saying everything. With some guys, it doesn’t need to be difficult. We don’t need to sit around and ponder about Jansen’s mental makeup or his will to win or any of that sort of thing, because, you see, he throws a 98-mph cutter, and that alone is what qualifies him for his job, and that makes him unlike anyone else, and that makes him the best.

Imagine being a manager, and desperately needing an out, and looking out at the pitcher you currently have on the mound, and realizing that he doesn’t throw a 98-mph cutter. “We’d have a better chance to get this out if that guy were throwing 98-mph cutters,” you might think to yourself. And then imagine realizing that you actually have a guy that throws 98-mph cutters, and there’s literally nothing in Major League Baseball’s official rulebook that prevents you from bringing him in at any time you wish. What do you do? You bring in the guy who throws 98-mph cutters to get the outs!

So even though it was the seventh inning, Roberts went and summoned Jansen, because, well, y’know, and after a couple of outs and a single and a strategic intentional walk, Jansen found himself with the bases loaded and Anthony Rendon at the plate.

For the first pitch, he threw him a cutter:

After that, he chose to give him a cutter:

Once that was over with, he went with the cutter:

And then for good measure, he decided to show him the cutter:

Kenley Jansen and the Dodgers worked their way out of this inning for precisely two reasons. Two very simple, easy-to-understand reasons, amidst a sea of chaos:

  1. Because of that pitch he throws — you know the one.
  2. Because Dave Roberts put Kenley Jansen into the game.

If Terry Francona built the casket for traditional October bullpen usage by bringing Andrew Miller into the fifth inning and letting him throw 40 pitches in Game 1 of the ALDS, Roberts might have put the nail through it by bringing Jansen into the seventh and letting him throw 47 pitches (plus four for an intentional walk) last night.

I watched this game with a group of sportswriters, and when Roberts summoned Jansen in the seventh for what would have been a nine-out save, I wondered aloud whether Roberts would have made that move at all if not for Francona’s recent usage of Miller and the praise it received. Opinions were mixed. What we all agreed on, though, is that, regardless of what may or may not have influenced the decision, we were glad it was happening. Long live the new-age bullpen.

Not every team has the guy with the 98-mph cutter, so it can’t always be this smooth. But if a team has made it this far, they’ve got some version of that guy. They’ve got the guy with the 103-mph fastball, or the guy with the stupid slider, or the 21-year-old with the so-unlike-a-21-year-old numbers. Everyone left has the guy with the 98-mph cutter, in one form or another. Everyone left has the guy who can make the endlessly complicated game so, so simple.

We hoped you liked reading The Simplicity of Kenley Jansen and October Bullpens by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Baseball Randy
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Baseball Randy

The giants don’t have anyone like that.

Javedd1993
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Javedd1993

And the Giants are no longer in it.

Doorknob11
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Doorknob11

If you mean somebody that throws a nonfastball almost all the time they have Romo!

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

Didn’t Baez get a hit off 100 mph fastball?