Okay, it’s not the most confidence inspiring performance a closer can give. A couple days after blowing a save against the hated Giants, (keep in mind that the balls the Giants hit only traveled like 20 feet in the air that night), Kenley Jansen didn’t exactly shut down the Giants, “giving up” a baserunner off of a muffed strikeout, and the bloopiest of bloop singles by Ehire Adrianza.
I think we need to pay attention to the last part of that because while much has been written about Jansen’s “struggles”, it’s really not much of an issue. Yesterday Jansen gave up one hit in 3 batters faced. Good for a .333 batting average on balls put in play (BABIP), even though the one hit was a bloop single; remember softly hit balls are more often than not going to be caught. A .333 BABIP throughout the course of a season would be concerning for Jansen as his career line is .270. A 60 point increase would mean small sample size devils, or his cutter was more flat, leading to better contact, or a little bit of both. Of course, his BABIP isn’t .333, it’s a monstrous .524. Which obviously means that more than half of the batters he faces are reaching base when putting the ball in play, which is insane. To put into context how incredible this is, no player since 2000 has had a BABIP within 20 points of .400. Unsustainable, that’s the word i’d use to describe it.
It’s not like Jansen’s suddenly hittable over half of the time either. If this were the case, then I have a pretty good feeling he wouldn’t be striking out batters at a 37.8% clip. So if that’s not the issue, then what is? Well it looks like it’s ground balls, Jansen has increased his ground ball% by more than 6 points from last season (that’s good), and decreased his FB% this season by over 8% (also good). Ground balls are generally good for pitchers. During the 2013 season, ground balls registered a .483 OPS good for a .213 wOBA (weighted on base average), and an ISO (slugging% minus average) of .018.
When looking at this, you can see that the more ground balls, the less likely you are to get on base. If we compare line drives or home runs, you are far more likely to get on base in the latter two. Also, if you hit a ground ball, and you’re lucky enough for it to find a hole, it is overwhelmingly likely that you only get to first base on it, more bases are good, so ground balls probably aren’t. So for a pitcher, inducing ground balls is very beneficial to the success of one.
And lets not gloss over the fact that 28.6% of the fly balls being hit are going for home runs, yes, Kenley’s left some over the plate that have been asked to be hit a long way, but that percentage is so far above anything that he’s shown in his career (28.6% is well over 3 times his career average) that as Kenley adjusts, you can certainly expect less fly balls to turn into home runs.
So what’s the point of this Jansen deal? Kenley’s getting unlucky, incredibly unlucky. Unbelievable things can happen in a small sample size like 9 IP, just ask Stephen Strasburg. And the small sample size demons are more likely to afflict relievers because the situations around their entrances are ever changing, nothing is constant about entering a game as an MLB reliever. So yes, he’s getting unbelievably unlucky. However, there are some areas for concern, like his walk rate. Walking 5.00 BB/9 is very uncharacteristic of the Jansen we’ve seen in the past couple of seasons, and hopefully he makes adjustments and smooths that out, but I expect he will. So what should happen with Kenley? Well, give him a couple of days off, get his mind right because being a closer for a winning team is difficult, give him the chance to have some amnesia, forget about what has happen, and focus on what will happen, and I have a strong feeling Jansen will return to being the games best reliever.