In October 1998, at a time when the Hall of Fame included just two relievers, the World Series featured a pair of Cooperstown-bound closers, namely the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera and the Padres’ Trevor Hoffman — not that anyone could have known it at the time, given that both were still relatively early in their careers. Twenty years later, while it’s difficult to definitively identify the next Hall-bound closer, the matchup between the Red Sox and Dodgers features what may be this generation’s best prospects for such honors in Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen. In a striking parallel, both have a chance to close out the most challenging seasons of their careers in the ultimate fashion.
When the Yankees and Padres met in 1998, Rivera was in just his fourth major-league season, Hoffman his sixth. On the postseason front, their fates diverged: Rivera threw 4.1 scoreless innings in the World Series (with 13.1 that fall) while notching three saves, including the Game Five clincher, while Hoffman served up a go-ahead three-run homer to Scott Brosius in Game Three, the only World Series inning he’d ever throw. Still, both had numerous great seasons and highlights ahead. Hoffman would break Lee Smith’s career saves record of 478 in 2006, become the first reliever to both the 500- and 600-save plateaus in 2007 and 2010, respectively, and get elected to the Hall in 2018. Rivera would seal victories in three more World Series (1999, 2000, and 2009), break Hoffman’s record in 2011, and retire in 2013; he’s a lock to be elected in his first year of eligibility this winter.
Currently, there’s no obvious next candidate to join enshrined relievers Hoyt Wilhelm (elected in 1985), Rollie Fingers (1992), Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006), Goose Gossage (2008), Hoffman, and Rivera — save maybe for Smith, who will be eligible for consideration by the Today’s Game Era Committee this December (the ballot hasn’t been announced). Billy Wagner remains stuck in down-ballot obscurity, and the likes of Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, and Francisco Rodriguez, whose excellent careers petered out before they could reach major milestones, don’t threaten to move the needle. Given the difficulty of their jobs, Kimbrel and Jansen could both meet the same fates. Both are still quite a distance away from Cooperstown, whether one measures by traditional or advanced statistical standards, murky as they may be, but as they cross paths, it’s worth taking stock of the distance they’ve traveled and the challenges they’ve faced while savoring the specialty of this matchup.
The comparatively undersized Kimbrel (6-foot, 210 pounds) and the hulking Jansen (6-foot-5, 270 pounds) both reached the majors in 2010, albeit via vastly different paths. Kimbrel was drafted by the Braves out of Wallace State Community College in the third round in 2008. Working with a high-90s fastball and a nasty knuckle curve, he won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 and led the league in saves in each of his four full seasons with the team (2011-14) before being traded to the Padres in a six-player deal once the Braves decided to rebuild. He spent just one season in San Diego — the only one of the past eight in which he did not make an All-Star team — before being flipped to Boston in exchange for four prospects, part of yet another rebuilding program.
Jansen, signed as a 17-year-old amateur free agent catcher out of Curaçao in 2004, spent his first four-and-a-half professional seasons wearing the tools of ignorance, even serving as the Netherlands’ starting catcher in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, when the team beat the Dominican Republic squad twice. Though blessed with a strong arm, he struggled mightily at the plate and played just eight games at the position above High-A before beginning a midseason transition to the mound. Just 359 days after doing so, armed with a mid-90s cut fastball, he was in the majors. He struck out 41 and notched four saves in 27 late-season innings in 2010, spent 2011 in a setup role, then graduated to closing in 2012, and hasn’t left the job since, save for a few trips to the disabled list. Though less decorated than Kimbrel, he’s nonetheless led the NL in saves once and made three All-Star teams. He’s also laid down a much larger footprint in the postseason, with 16 saves, 65 strikeouts, and a 1.85 ERA in 43.2 innings compared to Kimbrel’s six saves, 23 strikeouts, and 3.86 ERA in 16.1 innings.
Kimbrel was virtually untouchable while with the Braves, the superior pitcher of the two over their first four full seasons:
During those four years, he was the most valuable reliever in baseball by a margin of 0.5 WAR per year (Greg Holland ranked second), but in the four years since being dealt, his performance has receded and the title of the game’s most valuable reliever has transferred to Jansen:
Only once in the past four seasons has Kimbrel turned in a year up to the standard of his work in Atlanta — a 1.43 ERA, 1.42 FIP, and 3.3 WAR in 2017. Though able to push his fastball velocity into the triple-digits with increasing frequency, he’s been dogged by high walk and home-run rates. Jansen, meanwhile, has developed pinpoint control of his cutter-centric arsenal, which also includes the occasional sinker and slider. After missing the first month and a half of 2015 due to surgery on his left foot, he walked just eight batters while striking out 80 in 52.1 innings. In 2017, he didn’t walk his first batter until his 31st appearance, on June 25; he’d already notched 50 strikeouts in 31 innings. He finished the year with 109 strikeouts and seven walks in 68.1 innings.
In November 2017, Kimbrel’s wife, Ashley, gave birth to their first daughter, Lydia Joy, who was born with a heart defect and endured her first surgery at just four days old. She needed a second during spring training this year, and with the team’s blessing, Kimbrel remained in Boston, adhering to a throwing program while tending to his family. He pitched in just two Grapefruit League games but was ready to go by Opening Day, and allowed just one run in 11.1 April innings. He hit a few rough patches, blowing two of his first four save chances in May and allowing four homers in 13.1 innings that month, walking eight in a 7.2-innings span from June 11 to July 2, and allowing runs in five out of six outings from July 23 to August 11. During that last stretch, pitching coach Dana LeVangie told a radio station that Kimbrel had become too predictable with his pitch patterns, particularly against lefties. In all, he pitched to a 1.77 ERA and 2.89 FIP in 40.2 innings before the All-Star break, and a 4.57 ERA and 3.58 FIP in 21.2 innings after. His overall 3.13 FIP was the highest of his career, his 2.74 ERA his second-highest, and for the first time, he allowed more than a homer per nine innings (1.01 per nine, to be exact). His 1.5 WAR was less than half of his 2017 showing.
As if that weren’t cause enough for concern, Kimbrel was scored upon in each of his first four postseason appearances, notching the save each time but walking five and allowing five runs in 5.1 innings. It turns out he was tipping his pitches. According to The Athletic’s Ben Harris, while watching the series on television, former Red Sox (and Dodgers) closer Eric Gagne spotted him telegraphing his knuckle curve by consistently digging his hand deeper into his glove and angling his wrist differently. Armed with that information, opposing batters did a better job of taking the pitch or hitting it hard. Once Kimbrel changed his setup by holding his glove at his waist, he closed out the Astros with a scoreless inning in Game Five of the ALCS.
Amid his postseason struggles, a Boston bullpen that appeared to be significantly weaker than those of both the Yankees (their ALDS opponents) and the Astros has stepped up. Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Heath Hembree, and Joe Kelly have combined to allow nine hits and three runs (two earned) in 22.1 innings, though their 16:13 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggests they were lucky to do so. Manager Alex Cora hasn’t been afraid to augment that unit with starters Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello, and Chris Sale pitching in on their throw days; together, they’ve delivered an additional four scoreless innings. Yes, Brandon Workman and Eduardo Rodriguez have been hit hard, yielding three of the bullpen’s five homers allowed in just 4.2 innings of combined work, but overall, the group has picked up the slack for Kimbrel, and they’re a big reason why the Red Sox have made it this far.
As for Jansen, after 13 appearances totaling 16.2 innings — the fifth-largest postseason relief workload ever — during the Dodgers’ run last October, he began 2018 in ugly fashion, serving up homers in his first two outings, one a loss and the other a blown save. He finished April having allowed eight runs (six earned) in 9.2 innings, but from May until early August, summoned his typical form (1.41 ERA and 2.51 FIP in 44.2 innings). On August 9, during the team’s trip to high-altitude Denver, he experience an irregular heartbeat, the third such episode of his career. He missed four weeks the first time and three weeks the second, then underwent postseason cardiac ablation surgery. The initial diagnosis this time was a four- to six-week absence (not to mention another postseason surgery), but he was able to return just 11 days later.
One problem: Jansen’s medication left him feeling lethargic and unemotional. He surrendered four homers in his first three games back, taking the loss twice and blowing a save in the third game. “Normally if I give up a home run, I’m really pissed. I gave up four, and I felt nothing. It was like I had no emotion,” he told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. Doctors switched him onto a regimen of aspirin, and he skipped an early September trip to Denver. From August 28 through September 29, as the Dodgers battled for a playoff spot, he allowed just one homer in 13.1 innings, but surrendered two solo shots while protecting a five-run ninth-inning lead in the Game 163 tiebreaker against the Rockies — in Los Angeles, thankfully. While he finished with career worsts in ERA (3.01), FIP (4.03), home-run rate per nine innings (1.6), strikeout rate (28.4%), and WAR (0.4) — a forgettable season — he’s recovered his dominant form in October, delivering six scoreless appearances totaling 6.2 innings, with just two hits and two walks against 10 strikeouts.
His biggest moment came in the 13-inning epic Game Four of the NLCS against the Brewers, when he stranded runners at second base in both the ninth and 10th innings. Such lengthy outings used to be routine. In the 2016 and -17 regular seasons, he made 20 appearances longer than an inning, notching an MLB-high 17 saves under such circumstances. Ten of his 20 postseason appearances in those two years went long, with five culminating in saves. While he made seven long appearances this year, with five saves, the last of those before the playoffs came on July 27. Nonetheless, he passed his Game Four test with flying colors, helping the Dodgers to even the series at two games apiece and, in Game Seven, retired all four batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings — Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, and Ryan Braun being the last three — before yielding to Clayton Kershaw for the ninth.
As with the Red Sox, the Dodgers entered the postseason with major question marks about their bullpen. Shifting surplus starters Kenta Maeda, Ross Stripling, and Alex Wood to the ‘pen hasn’t really panned out, as Stripling didn’t even make the postseason roster, while Wood and Maeda have combined to allow four of the unit’s six runs through the first two rounds. Nonetheless, in-season additions Dylan Floro and Ryan Madson, the oft-unloved Pedro Baez, returned prodigal son Julio Urias, and rookie lefty Caleb Ferguson have combined for 27 strikeouts and just 20 baserunners (14 hits and six walks) in 24 innings while allowing just two runs. Manager Dave Roberts has used Kershaw and fellow starter Rich Hill for a scoreless inning apiece, as well.
And where last year’s unit was similarly stifling in the first two rounds of the playoffs, fatigue particularly caught up to top setup men Maeda and Brandon Morrow in the World Series. Roberts and the Dodgers have learned from that, with the manager countering the industry trend by sticking with his starters longer. His rotation has totaled 58.1 innings thus far, 14.2 more than the next-closest team, the Red Sox. On a per-game basis, the Dodgers’ 5.33 innings per start is tied for second with the Astros behind the Rockies’ 5.67 — and they were eliminated in the first round.
Even given that there have been just seven Hall of Fame relievers (counting Rivera, the lock of all locks), it may come as a surprise that only in 1998 have two crossed paths in the World Series. The 1982 Series could have featured both the Cardinals’ Sutter and the Brewers’ Fingers, but the latter missed the entire postseason with a muscle tear in his forearm. The 1984 NLCS featured Gossage, then with the Padres, and Eckersley, then with the Cubs, but the latter was still a starter; Smith, the Cubs’ closer at the time, served up a crushing walkoff homer to Steve Garvey in Game Four, just the second of four postseason games in which he would ever pitch. He never pitched in a World Series, nor did Wagner, an analytical favorite who has nonetheless failed to gain traction in Hall of Fame voting.
Given that they’re just mid-career, neither Kimbrel nor Jansen have Hallworthy resumés just yet, but they’re respectively first and third among active pitchers in saves, with 333 (14th all-time) and 268 (33rd), respectively; the former is eight saves behind Fingers and already ahead of Gossage (310), Sutter (300), and Wilhelm (228). Neither has distinguished himself in terms of JAWS — which is admittedly rather imperfect when it comes to measuring reliever Hallworthiness — with Kimbrel currently ranked 52nd (20.2 career bWAR/18.6 peak bWAR/19.4 JAWS) and Jansen 102nd (15.9/14.5/15.2), but both can leapfrog dozens of relievers with a few more good seasons. Both are better positioned in terms of career Win Probability Added (the Baseball-Reference version, since that of FanGraphs only goes back to 1974), a leaderboard that conforms much more closely to the ranks of Cooperstown than JAWS does:
Among pitchers with at least 500 innings thrown, Kimbrel (with 532.2 innings) and Jansen (with 548.2) are also first and second all-time in strikeout rate, at 41.6% and 38.5%, respectively. That said, Aroldis Chapman (41.7%) is just 22 innings shy of that cutoff, the stat is of course skewed by the high-strikeout era (our K+ index stat remains in the works), and both pitchers (as well as Chapman) are likely to regress as their careers extend.
Indeed, regardless of the outcome of this year’s World Series, it’s entirely possible that the 2018 season marks the beginning of the decline phases for both Kimbrel and Jansen. Nonetheless, both have done much of the heavy lifting for the Hall, and they’re at the point where longevity and persistence in their current roles is as important, if not more so, than dominance. Sealing a World Series by securing the final out isn’t a requirement for Cooperstown — neither Wilhelm nor Hoffman ever did — but as we look back 10 or 20 years from now, it will be fascinating to see what this clash between two elite closers and their respective teams yields.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.