Just over a month ago, Dave Cameron made an astute observation: Kenley Jansen was suddenly throwing harder in the earliest part of the season. Or as he put it, “PITCHF/x has already classified more 97+ mph pitches from Kenley Jansen this year than it did all of last year.” And since Jansen was already a hard-throwing and dominant closer with an unhittable pitch even before the velocity jump, it made for an interesting proposition. Namely, what would hitters do against a Jansen who was actually throwing harder? What happens if you take someone who is one of the three or four best in the world at what he does, and then give him something more to work with? What then?
Six weeks into the season, Jansen now has one more 97-plus mph pitch (21) logged than in his entire career through 2013. He’s also already allowed more than half as many earned runs as he allowed in any of the last three years, and he has four meltdowns as compared to eight in all of 2013. Hitters have a .276/.349/.408 line against in 2014, as opposed to .158/.245/.249 previously. He’s throwing harder, finding less success despite it, and, well, baseball is just the worst sometimes. (This may be residual Jose Fernandez anger.)
…and it’s because of that that he’s had problems. Causation! It implies correlation, except when it doesn’t.
You understand why, of course. Remember why Jansen has been so incredible over the last few years in the first place: The absurd cutter he throws approximately 90% of the time. It’s great because it’s thrown hard, but it’s especially great because of the movement at the end. When the pitch is thrown too hard, though, there’s less time for it to move — or so goes the thinking.
When thrown properly — like, say, just over the outside edge of the plate to a right-handed batter — it’s basically untouchable. Even just last week, he was still doing that. He destroyed Anthony Rendon on May 6 at 95 mph with unreasonable movement:
You can make a good case for that being the best pitch in baseball. Jeff has.
Now, here it is at 99 mph against Miguel Cabrera last month:
It’s still a great pitch, because it’s 99 mph. Cabrera — at least, diminished early-season Cabrera — swings right through it. Though it looks like a straight fastball here, it’s not; both corrected PITCHf/x logs and game reports from the time refer to it as a cutter. It’s great, but it doesn’t really move. Even the best fastball can eventually be timed if you know it’s coming and there’s not a lot of movement to it. This is sort of Henderson Alvarez‘ issue, as we looked at last week.
And Jansen knows this, saying, “It makes it a little straighter, but I feel like the velocity makes it move a little later and that’s better. I don’t have the big cut, but I have late cut. It feels like a weapon.”
So back to the the question: Is there anything to the idea of Jansen’s increased velocity being responsible for his troubles?
Fortunately, we live in the future and we can compare things like the performance of pitches that were thrown extremely hard or just, you know, very hard. Overall, he’s thrown 324 pitches that were either fastballs or sliders. One-hundred-and-eighteen have been at 95 mph or faster. Of those 118, a mere 10 have been put into play. Five went going for hits; 25, or 21.2%, have been swinging strikes.
One-hundred-and-sixty-one have been at 94 mph or slower. Of those 161, 25 have been put into play, with 12 going for hits. Twenty-one, or 13%, have been swinging strikes. It’s hard to say there’s anything here, as far as damage against Jansen, that’s worse when he’s throwing at higher speeds. At lower speeds, there are more hits, more balls in play, fewer swinging strikeouts.
It’s those five hits at 95-plus mph that stand out, though. One was Brandon Belt’s double down the left-field line that scored Angel Pagan in mid-April. One was a Victor Martinez homer, the other a Martinez hit that contributed to Jansen blowing both games of a short, two-game set against Detroit in April. Another was a Ehire Adrianza hit that scored a run for the Giants and turned a 2-0 lead into a 2-1 lead. (Jansen held on.) Four of the five hits there — the last being a meaningless Hunter Pence double in a blowout — led to damage and/or losing a game. Perhaps that makes it seem like his throwing harder leads to bad things. Overall, it hasn’t.
So what has? First, look at his season line, where you’ll see two pretty obvious issues stand out: First, a .432 BABIP from a guy who has never even been at .300 before; and second, a walk rate that has jumped to 10.5%, reversing the improving 11.9->8.7->6.2 trend he’d shown between 2011 and 2013. You can throw a million miles per hour and strike out a ton of batters, but it’s still difficult to get around nearly half of the contacted balls you allow falling in for hits and putting runners on base for free.
On the BABIP, first, it goes without saying that won’t be sustainable. No pitcher with as many innings as Jansen has a number like that, with only Carlos Villanueva and Felipe Paulino close. Of course we’re talking about just 18.2 innings here. The usual reasons go into that. The Dodger defense hasn’t exactly been stellar behind him, with more than a few catchable balls dropping in and one particular blown game came partially due to a grounder that hit him in the foot and bounced away. Luck hasn’t been on his side. It can’t be with a .432 BABIP.
The walks are a real issue, though. He’s thrown nearly an identical amount of balls at 95 mph or harder as compared to below, but he’s of course thrown 43 fewer pitches at 95 mph or harder. You can see that a bit in the heat maps:
There are fewer pitches at 95 mph or faster, but with as much, or more, wildness. So while there’s not really much to the idea that pitching harder — and with slightly less movement — is hurting his ability to get hitters out, those pitches are a bit more difficult to locate, as you’d expect.
There’s also this, of course: Jansen’s velocity is coming back down toward normal levels. Of the 21 97-plus mph pitches, 20 came in April. (It hasn’t exactly made a difference, yet. He easily dispatched the Marlins on Monday night, but gave up three earned runs to the Giants the night before.) The velocity bump seems like it isn’t going to last all year. That BABIP won’t continue, either. If the walks return to normal with it, we’ll soon enough be thinking of Jansen as nothing but the elite closer he’s long been, no matter how hard he’s throwing.
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