No, I can't rename this blog "Missing Casey", because that's copyrighted by a Mr Dressup tribute site.
Casey Janssen saved his 31st game in 33 chances on Tuesday, for a 93.9% save percentage. Want to know how many closers in Blue Jays history have a better seasonal save percentage than that?
Zero. Yup. Zero*. Not Tom Henke (who was at 91 and 92% a couple of times). Not Duane Ward. Not even the sainted BJ Ryan. Mariano Rivera only cracked 93% 3 times in his 19-year career, and Rivera is pretty much the gold standard of closers. Over the last 2 seasons (following his installation as closer in the wake of Sergio Santos’ injury and Francisco Cordero’s awfulness), Janssen is 53-for-58 in saves, for a 91.4% conversion rate.
That’s really good, but despite the gaudy save stats, Janssen doesn’t normally get lumped into the “elite” reliever group with the Papelbons, Riveras, Kimbrels and Chapmans of the world. A lot of that is due to his repertoire – Janssen doesn’t have a 100+mph heater like Aroldis Chapman, or a devastating out pitch like Rivera. He doesn’t strike out 13 batters per 9 innings like Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen (no relation), Ernesto Frieri, or (again) Chapman. Without turning this post into an analysis of Janssen’s pitching approach, I think it’s fair to say that Casey keeps the ball down, throws strikes, and succeeds based more on guile and location than on pure “stuff”.
And that’s great, especially when you consider what a “closer” really is, as opposed to the perception of what a closer should be. A closer is a pitcher who usually enters the game with a lead of one to three runs, at the start of the opposition’s last inning. The closer doesn’t need to be the best pitcher in the bullpen; it’s his job to be consistently “not-awful”: don’t surrender home runs or a bunch of hits and walks. A walk and a single, or a pair of 2-out singles followed by a groundout is just fine. And a double followed by 2 singles is fine, when the lead is more than 1. And that’s Janssen’s profile; he doesn’t walk many batters; he has a WHIP of 1.04 this season and 0.86 last year. In other words, he isn’t likely to put a bunch of runners on and risk blowing open a close game. He’s surrendered just 3 home runs this year, meaning that he’s not terribly likely to turn a 1-run lead into a tie game with one bad pitch. To me, that’s what you want when you have just one inning left in a close game.
I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on Steve Delabar in the wake of Wednesday night’s loss, but Delabar’s WHIP is more than a third of a runner higher than Janssen’s. Both Delabar and Sergio Santos have struggled with walks from time to time, but they both also strike out a lot more batters than Janssen does, and they have better pure “stuff”. For my money, that type of player is not the one you want for your closer; they’re the guys who should pitch in that second-and-third-one-out jam in a tied 7th inning. Or after a leadoff double with a 1-run lead in the 8th and the opponents 3-4 hitters due up. That situation is where you need someone who can get a key strikeout or two.
Interestingly, Janssen seems to do his best work when he doesn’t come into a ‘jam’. Take a look at these numbers:
Inherited runners stranded: Since 2012: 16 of 19 (84%)
2009-2011: 35 of 64 (54%)
That 2012-13 strand rate is impressive, but the sample size is relatively small because Janssen, as a closer, usually comes in to start the 9th with no inherited runners on base. In the previous years, Janssen wasn’t a closer and came into mid-inning ‘jams’ more often; thus the larger sample. And weirdly, Janssen wasn’t very good at stranding runners as a non-closer. That suggests to me that the Jays would be well advised to leave him in the closer role, as opposed to installing
example) as closer and shifting Janssen to a setup role. Santos
So with all that said, I’d say Janssen is an elite closer – he’s done the job of getting through the 9th inning at a historically good rate over the last 2 seasons. The question now facing the Jays is whether he will continue to pitch as effectively through 2014-15. Janssen’s only given up 5 earned runs all season in save situations (32 of his 52 appearances), but in the other 20 appearances, he’s given up 10 runs. His ERA and xFIP have climbed each year since 2011, and while they’re all good numbers, they aren’t overpowering. But despite having nowhere near the best pure “stuff” in the bullpen, Janssen is probably the best trade chip the Jays have, among their pitchers. He has great save stats, solid-if-unspectacular rate stats (ERA, WHIP, K/BB, xFIP, etc) and comes cheaply at $4MM next season.
If Janssen was dealt, perhaps for much-needed help at 2B, C, or in the rotation, could one of
, Brett Cecil, or Delabar close? They
very likely could, despite what I said about WHIP above. You don’t have
to be flawless in the closer role, you just can’t be prone to total meltdowns
(yes… like Delabar's meltdown on Wednesday night). But while the save is a deeply flawed stat, 31 out of 33 is a comforting ratio. We may not see a season like
Janssen’s 2013 again for some time. Santos
* obviously excluding guys with less than a dozen saves in a season… but you knew that.