Should the Braves Be Looking For a New Closer?

Michael Baumann


Michael Baumann
blogs.fangraphs.com

Larry Robinson-USA TODAY Sports

The decision to change the closer is one of the most awkward a manager will face. Any other combination of bullpen arms can be shuffled around without most fans taking notice, but the save statistic and the entrance music make a closer highly conspicuous. Screw around with that guy, and it becomes a news story.

The Braves invested heavily in that position this winter, lavishing $16 million on 34-year-old Kenley Jansen. I’ll go to my grave believing this signing was at least partially about poaching a legendary Dodger the day after L.A. inked Freddie Freeman — you don’t want to go stag to prom when your ex has a date — but closers like Jansen don’t come along every day. The man pitched in three All-Star games and three World Series and entered the season with 350 career saves, more than Rollie Fingers, Robb Nen, or Bruce Sutter. Jansen had encountered some turbulence in the late 2010s and wasn’t putting up ERAs in the 1.00s anymore, but armed with a new sinker and slider, he’s still quite an effective closer.

Or, more accurately, he has been. In his past seven appearances dating back to August 27, Jansen has blown three saves in seven attempts, allowing 12 baserunners and three home runs in just 5.2 innings. On Sunday, the Braves launched a stirring five-run rally in the ninth to pull ahead of the Mariners, perhaps the only other team in all of baseball as hot as Atlanta. Jansen promptly surrendered two home runs and the lead. The second came on a 93-mph sinker right where Eugenio Suárez could 3-iron it into the Seattle bullpen. I had to look up what that pitch was, because the TV view bore little evidence of sink or cut.

Not a great way to lose a game, in short. And now Brian Snitker is getting questions about his star closer. So what should he do?

So here’s the good news for Atlanta: Jansen’s wobbliness over the past few weeks doesn’t seem to have jeopardized the Braves’ season. Since August 22, Atlanta is 11–5, which is the best record in the NL over that span. If Jansen doesn’t blow a save, Atlanta basically doesn’t lose. Moreover, if Snitker were determined to make a change, he has other options: Collin McHugh, A.J. Minter, or Raisel Iglesias, who’s as Proven Closer-y as they come and has allowed a solitary run in 17 appearances since coming over from the Angels at the deadline. Suffice it to say, this is not a situation where Jansen is the best of bad options.

But the question of whether to make a change is not actually a question, but three. First, is Jansen actually pitching poorly, or did he just get bum rushed by Julio Rodríguez? (An exit velocity of 117 mph looks ugly, but Rodríguez is going to end up doing that a lot over the next several years.) Second, is he pitching poorly enough that the benefits of a change outweigh the aggravation of reshuffling the bullpen? And finally, even if Jansen is going through a rough patch, is there a better place to hide him than the ninth inning?

So, for the first question: Jansen’s results definitely have not been good since the All-Star break. (All stats are current through Sunday’s games.)

Kenley Jansen 1st Half vs. 2nd Half

IP ERA AVG OBP SLG wOBA K% BB% HR/FB
1st Half 35.2 3.53 .191 .236 .321 .241 35.0 5.7 9.5
2nd Half 17.1 4.67 .231 .346 .523 .366 25.6 14.1 14.3

That speaks to a pretty big drop in performance. A .241 opponent wOBA is about what Clay Holmes has put up this year; .366 is more in the neighborhood of a Jhoulys Chacín. The drop in strikeout rate and rise in walk rate are equally concerning.

But a look at the underlying numbers doesn’t reveal that much. Jansen’s pitch velocity is relatively consistent throughout his arsenal over this year, as is his spin rate. Jansen’s opponent hard-hit rate is up in the second half, but he was barreled twice on Sunday and just twice in his previous 23 appearances put together. That could just be one game. His whiff rate on his sinker and slider went through the floor in July and August, but given that he only throws a couple dozen secondary pitches per month, the difference between a 0% whiff rate and a 25% whiff rate can be as little as one or two pitches.

As troubling as his second-half stats are — and more than anything, the strikeout and walk numbers stand out as genuinely alarming — there’s no clear evidence in the underlying data that Jansen is nursing an injury or catastrophic mechanical problem.

The one concerning data point, and you really have to squint to see it, is that Jansen’s release point is starting to drop as the year goes on. It’s still a pretty tight grouping — within a quarter of an inch across all three pitches, most likely imperceptible to the batter — but it coincides with a decrease in the percentage of sliders Jansen threw at the edge of the strike zone in August. He has lived around the edge of the zone his entire career, getting hitters out not with big velocity or a magical breaking ball but with precision. The fact that he makes his living dotting the corners could leave him vulnerable to even a minute loss of command.

That could be enough to warrant yanking him from the closer’s role, or at least giving someone like Iglesias a turn so Jansen can have a few days off. But until and unless the problem gets worse, I wouldn’t make a change if I were Snitker.

All things being equal, I think it’s kind of silly to have an established capital-C closer in this day and age. But all things aren’t equal in the Braves’ case: Jansen, by his stature, his accomplishments, even his salary, is supposed to pitch the ninth inning. Removing him from that role, even for someone like Iglesias, would be a disruption for a team that’s playing extremely well at the moment. The Braves are a lock to make the playoffs; they can afford to wait and see if Jansen is really in trouble or if he’s just having a bad couple weeks.

Moreover, the ninth inning isn’t always a bad place to hide a pitcher who’s struggling. Ever since Andrew Miller set the world on fire in 2016, it hasn’t been a given that a team’s closer will be its best reliever. Some pitchers are best suited to multi-inning stints, entering with men on base, or unpredictable usage patterns. The Braves won the World Series last year thanks to a bullpen that was big on improvisation in the middle innings and had serious questions about its closer down the stretch. You might have heard about this; it was in the news. Keeping Jansen in the ninth inning leaves him with a predictable usage pattern, and if he pitches to the save rule, he’ll stay in his comfort zone, always enter the game with the bases clear, and leave the fireman role to pitchers more suited to it.

It’s not that Jansen can’t pitch with men on base; this season, he’s allowed a .281 opponent wOBA with the bases empty and .293 with runners on. For his career, those numbers are .245 and .236, respectively. The Dodgers occasionally used him as a multi-inning fireman. The Braves, though, have kept him out of those spots. He’s entered just three of 54 appearances this year with a runner on. McHugh has entered with a man on 19 times in 49 appearances, Minter 13 of 63, Tyler Matzek 14 of 35. Iglesias has also entered with the bases clear almost exclusively with Atlanta, but last year the Angels called him in 20 times with at least one runner on.

If Jansen enters a game with the bases empty, it also mitigates two career-long problems for him. The first: He’s not going to induce many double plays. He’s never been a ground ball pitcher, and his GB/FB ratio this year is 0.50, fourth-lowest out of 164 qualified relievers. And while baserunners are only 8-for-10 stealing off him this year, he still makes Jon Lester look like Tippy Martinez. When Tyrone Taylor got caught stealing off Jansen in May, he was the first baserunner a Jansen battery had nabbed since 2016.

It might seem paradoxical, given how much more conspicuous a blown save is in the ninth than in the seventh, but the Braves can protect Jansen from disadvantageous situations and still trot him out in save situations. We’ve known for decades that the save rule and the one-inning closer usage that it inspired are ridiculous. But Snitker, if he’s clever, can use that to his advantage.



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