Unsung Los Angeles Rookie Relievers

Plenty of rookie relievers who made brief appearances in 2010 are worth looking out for in 2011. Aroldis Chapman leads rookie reliever headlines with his grade 90 fastball (yes, grade 90) and Chris Sale could challenge for the White Sox’ closer role. Craig Kimbrel has also gotten lots of love from several FanGraphs authors. While it remains to be seen if Chapman and Sale will develop into starters, Kimbrel seems destined for the bullpen. His mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slurvy curveball form a two-pitch reportoire, which resulted in a 17.42 K/9 in 2010. Earlier this month, I highlighted Kimbrel’s control issues and 6.71 BB/9 when discussing the Braves’ possible platoon closer situation.

But there are two Los Angeles rookie relievers with similar profiles to Kimbrel whom I feel have been more underappreciated, perhaps due to Kimbrel’s appearances in October baseball: Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jordan Walden of the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim). Like Kimbrel, both Jansen and Walden bring the high heat with mid to high-90s fastballs along with mid-80s slurvy slider/curves. And like Kimbrel, both L.A. relievers are strikeout artists with command issues, especially with their fastballs.

Though Jansen and Walden are similar types of pitchers, they couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. Jansen was signed out of Curacao, a constituent country of the Netherlands and an island off the Venezuelan coast, and was signed as a catcher with a cannon of an arm. He gained a little bit of fame with the way he threw out baserunners from the backstop, but hit just .229/.310/.337 in five seasons as a catcher. The Dodgers decided to try that arm out on the mound, and Jansen almost immediately turned into a strikeout pitcher with control issues, striking out over 14 batters per 9 innings with high walk rates in high-A ball in late 2009 and early 2010. Only several months later, Jansen debuted in the Majors in late July this summer, bringing his high heat on 87% of his pitches. His fastball averaged 94 mph while his slider averaged 81 mph. He also occasionally mixes in a changeup. Like Kimbrel, Jansen has not allowed a single home run in his short ML career yet. His 13.67 K/9 and 5.00 BB/9 led to a 0.67 ERA, though it seems that number was helped by a .231 BABIP and 93% strand rate.

Walden was a 12th round draft-and-follow signing out of Texas, beginning as a starter and eventually being converted into a reliever. Whereas Jansen took fewer than 57 minor league innings to make it to the big league club, Walden made 54 starts over 278.2 minor league innings before pitching 49.2 reliever innings between Double-A and Triple-A ball. He debuted in the Majors in late August with a fastball that averaged 99 mph and a slider that averaged 86 mph. Walden trusts his slider a little bit more than Jansen does, throwing it on 22% of pitches (10% for Jansen). His rate stats compare similarly with Jansen’s though, as his 13.50 K/9 and 4.11 BB/9 led to a 2.35 ERA in 2010, a number that could have been just as minuscule as Jansen’s if not for a .353 BABIP.

Although Jansen and Walden have had similar pitching profiles, their 2011 performances might look different. Jansen has only pitched one and a half years of pro ball and has more upside along with his immediate success. As long as he continues working on his slider to complement his fastball, the two-strikeouts-an-inning will continue to come. Walden, on the other hand, did not always have double-digit strikeout rates. Even when you consider that most of his minor league innings were spent in the starter’s role, he averaged less than a strikeout an inning in 49.2 MiLB innings of relief. He will have to continue working on his control if he wants sustained success in a league that adjusts to pitchers as quickly as a young reliever with great stuff can impact a bullpen.

With better control, both Jansen and Walden should have future closer role opportunities down the road. But in 2011, Jansen looks more likely to wrest such an opportunity away than does Walden. Jansen will probably start off by splitting the setup role with lefty Hong-Chih Kuo, but one Kuo elbow problem and continued Jonathan Broxton fastball struggles are all it takes for Jansen to start closing games at Chavez Ravine. For Walden, on the other hand, there are others in the Angels’ bullpen such as Hisanori Takahashi, Kevin Jepsen, and Scott Downs who are just as likely to challenge the closer’s job, which is currently held by Fernando Rodney.

To me, it will be just as interesting to follow the paths of Jansen and Walden in 2011 as it is to follow Kimbrel, Sale, and Chapman. All these rookie relievers, whether their organizations feel their needs are better served by converting them into starters or moving them towards later innings, should have bright 2011 seasons. Of the five, though, don’t sleep on Jansen and Walden. Their 2011 roles in each Los Angeles ballclub should be dynamic and intriguing to say the least.

Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

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Ryan Bones
Ryan Bones

Great article.. I, like you, think that Jansen is being overlooked, especially considering his lack of experience on the mound. He’s listed as 6’6 so it might take him longer to develop the ability to repeat his pitching motion consistently, but if he does, look out.