After last night’s third straight blown save, the Toronto Blue Jays have removed Francisco Cordero, or Coco as he’s lovingly called by his manager and derisively called by his team’s fans, from the role of closer and made Casey Janssen his temporary replacement.
With Sergio Santos already set to begin a rehabilitation program on his injured right shoulder (which should take two weeks), Janssen’s ascension to the role promises to be brief. Frankly, I don’t really understand what Janssen has done to earn the promotion, but it’s not as though there are a myriad of candidates that should feel hard done by because of this decision.
So far this season, Janssen hasn’t pitched nearly as poorly as his 5.23 ERA might suggest. He’s felt the sting of a very unlucky 25% home run to fly ball rate, which is nearly the opposite of the very good luck he experienced last year with a minuscule 4.3% HR/FB.
I think that last number is important because Janssen’s new status in the bullpen has a lot to do with last year’s performance, in which he struck out a career high 23.8% of the batters that he faced, while maintaining a very decent 6.3% walk rate. His ERA, WHIP and FIP for the season were all the best of his career, and a large improvement over the numbers he sported one season earlier.
However, if we dig a little bit deeper, we see that his biggest improvement between the two seasons was found in his results against left handed batters who went from having a .360 wOBA in 2010 to a .235 wOBA in 2011. This change in results for Janssen occurred despite little difference in approach, as we see after comparing pitch selections in different counts between years. There is however, a noticeable difference in BABIP for the right handed reliever, suggesting that it has much to do with luck.
Janssen’s true talent is probably closer to something in the middle of his 2010 and 2011 numbers, which in my mind is still surprising given the absolute lack of anything to get excited about from his six pitch repertoire. Note to right handed batters: Try to avoid swinging at Janssen’s breaking pitches, they don’t usually land for strikes.
But as I suggested in a previous paragraph, there really isn’t another bullpen option to get excited about, and we’ve already documented Francisco Cordero’s declining velocity ergo declining strike out rate issues. I suppose you could make a case for Darren Oliver, who surprisingly has reverse splits over the course of his career when you look at opponents’ wOBA.
Frankly, I like Oliver outside of a set role because he’s exhibited a comfortability over the last few seasons being used whenever a manager sees fit. He seems like the perfect pitcher to have for a variety of high leverage situations outside of the ninth inning.
Which brings us back to the bigger issue here, which is the role of the closer.
In a vacuum, it seems ridiculous to roll out your bullpen according to what’s essentially a meaningless counting statistic in the save. However, studies have shown that specialized bullpens offer a slight improvement over how relievers used to be managed before the save became a thing to be counted. Teams that wait to use their most valuable relievers for save chances win approximately one extra close game every two years. That’s not a lot, but it’s something.
If you ask players and managers, they’ll tell you that relievers want to have a set role in the bullpen, be it seventh inning guy, left handed specialist, set up man or closer. This seems like bullshit to most of us, who see how a certain handed pitcher has done in the past against a certain handed batter and question why that pitcher wouldn’t be brought in to face that batter regardless of inning.
It’s probably a tired narrative, but I’m not certain that it’s without any merit whatsoever. What I don’t like is an equally unfounded argument that’s often cited by the other side of this debate. We hear all the time about how Major League managers, outside of Joe Maddon, are afraid to try new things at the cost of looking stupid. This seems as equally presumptuous to me as any argument defending the need for a “proven closer.”
It seems to me that good managers are willing to sacrifice pride on a daily basis and I don’t think it’s absurd to suggest that there are a lot of face saving stories baseball skippers keep to themselves for the sake of the team. Ultimately, I have a very hard time believing that a manager who pinch hits for J.P. Arencibia with Omar Vizquel would be at all worried about our precious perceptions in how he also manages a bullpen.
Managers believe that what they’re doing will give them the best chance of winning, not only the day’s game, but the next and the next after that. This is the manager that a front office has hired, and whether the best reliever should have a defined role or face the opposition when leverage is at its highest, the decision that a manager makes is unlikely to be persuaded by what we collectively are going to think of it.
Right or wrong with their actions, it’s insulting to suggest that the motivation behind the management of a bullpen is about anything other than finding success.