Jansen and Kimbrel and Sharing the Summit

A little under an hour east of here, rising behind one of the world’s largest free-standing natural monoliths, there lies a peak known as Hamilton Mountain. The trail up passes by a breathtaking waterfall and breathstopping cliffs, and the summit affords magnificent views of the Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade peaks towering beyond. As you head out from the trailhead, there’s only one way to go, passing through shrubs and underneath power lines before entering a forest. Soon, though, one arrives at a junction. There are two paths and a sign with arrows, reading “Difficult” and “More Difficult.” The choice is up to the hiker, but no matter which way you pick, you’re going to get to the top.

Mariano Rivera is retiring, which is going to allow us to re-visit the question of who is the game’s best closer. Not that we couldn’t address the question before, but Rivera was the default response, and sometimes people got emotional if you went another way. Now Rivera has removed himself from the pool, and there’s a small host of current candidates to take his place. Among them are Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel and Los Angeles’ Kenley Jansen, and statistically it can be hard to tell the two apart. Remarkably, they occupy very similar planes. Remarkably, they get there along two very different paths.

And now they’re going to go head-to-head, although not really, since if one pitches, the other probably won’t. Odds are this NLDS will feature Jansen and Kimbrel, both, but not at the same time. You don’t get duels between closers the way you get duels between starters. But both of these guys are going to loom as terrifying potential deadly weapons, and given that they’re two of baseball’s best closers, it feels appropriate to run a comparison. Some of the similarities are astonishing.

It seems to me people know more about Kimbrel. Run a Google query for “Craig Kimbrel” and it says you get 545,000 hits. Run a Google query for “Kenley Jansen” and it says you get 265,000 hits. Both debuted in 2010, and both have thrown around 225 innings. Jansen has the bigger market, but Kimbrel has been a closer longer, and so Jansen’s considerably less familiar. It doesn’t help that last year the Dodgers committed a three-year contract to try to replace him. Brandon League has since been left off the postseason roster entirely. Jansen’s going to handle the ninths.

Where is it that Kimbrel and Jansen stand out? Most people are familiar with the fact that strikeout rates are on the rise. They haven’t risen so much that these rates aren’t amazing:

Kimbrel: 38% strikeouts (in 2013)
Jansen: 38% strikeouts

More than a third of the time, the pitchers don’t even give the hitters a chance. The most likely outcome of any matchup against Kimbrel or Jansen is a strikeout. There isn’t a corresponding high likelihood of a walk:

Kimbrel: 8% walks (and HBP)
Jansen: 7%

Those rates could be lower, sure, but you’re talking about two pitchers who obviously work into a lot of deep counts, and sometimes in order to get so many strikeouts, walks are just collateral damage. Batters are still put on the defensive, and it’s not like they often get caught looking. The issue, unsurprisingly, is that Kimbrel and Jansen are just difficult to hit and square up:

Kimbrel: 70% contact
Jansen: 70%

You have two closers who throw strikes and who don’t let hitters put the bat on the baseball. That’s pitching, basically, or at least that’s pitching at its greatest. That’s the simplest possible description of a star-level arm, and if you want to get dorky about it:

Kimbrel: 1.93 FIP
Jansen: 1.99 FIP

If you want to get even dorkier still:

Kimbrel: 1.95 xFIP
Jansen: 2.06 xFIP

Two guys who throw an inning at a time, generating almost identical results. This is why a conversation about the game’s best closer is unlikely to yield a definitive answer. Kimbrel and Jansen are at the same place, and there are a few other guys, too. Baseball, most assuredly, has a best closer, but it doesn’t seem like we can know who he is. Not while feeling certain about ourselves.

But, as similar as Kimbrel and Jansen are in the numbers, they have very different processes. I think this is made pretty evident just by looking at a chart of their swinging strikeouts:

jansenkimbrel

Jansen is almost exclusively in the zone or above it. Kimbrel is almost exclusively above the zone or below it, with little within the black rectangle. This year, 85% of Jansen’s swinging strikeouts were between 1.5 – 3.5 feet off the ground. Kimbrel came in at 51%. The vibe you get is that Jansen has a quality heater, while Kimbrel has both a heater and a breaking ball. Pretty much, yeah. Kimbrel has more weapons. Jansen has the best weapon.

This season, Jansen’s fastball accounted for 101 of his 111 strikeouts. For Kimbrel, it was 44 of 98. Jansen has a slider, but he seldom throws it; Kimbrel has a curve, and he often throws it. Because of Jansen’s repertoire, he throws more pitches in the zone, and he gets more swings and misses in it. Because of Kimbrel’s repertoire, he’s able to work below the zone, and that’s where he puts a lot of his hitters away. Neither is easy to hit under any circumstances, but Jansen posted Kimbrel’s contact rate while pounding the zone a little more. It’s a different way to succeed.

A sort of Rivera-esque way to succeed, when you consider that Jansen threw 94% fastballs. No one in baseball threw a higher rate of fastballs, although Jake McGee was close, off by one point. There are things in common between Jansen and Ernesto Frieri, but Jansen doesn’t seem quite so homer-prone, and so people don’t think of Frieri as one of the best.

Below, I’ve included what I consider fairly representative strikeouts by Kimbrel and Jansen, both. This isn’t how it always goes, but this is how it goes pretty often.

CRAIG KIMBREL

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Kimbrel2.gif.opt

Kimbrel3.gif.opt

Kimbrel4.gif.opt

KENLEY JANSEN

Jansen1.gif.opt

Jansen2.gif.opt

Jansen3.gif.opt

Jansen4.gif.opt

Almost impossible, both of them. Which is kind of the point. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and by using different methods, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen are surrounded by equivalent piles of skinless cats.

In the series between the Braves and the Dodgers, there’s going to be a lot of really good pitching, a lot of it at the start. But make no mistake — there are weapons out there in the bullpens, two of them particularly, similarly lethal. No team ever wants to go into October with questions about its closer. The only questions about Kimbrel and Jansen are how often they’ll be able to be used.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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cistulli's hairline
Guest
cistulli's hairline
2 years 11 months ago

Thanks.

bdhudson
Member
Member
bdhudson
2 years 11 months ago

Just for fun – Greg Holland in 2013:
K – 40.4%
BB – 7.1%
Contact – 63.7%
FIP – 1.36
xFIP – 1.68

Hope there’s more room on the summit.

I'm not Greg Holland
Guest
I'm not Greg Holland
2 years 11 months ago

Greg Holland has been slightly better than Kimbrel in most stats.

Eminor3rd
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Eminor3rd
2 years 11 months ago

That Jansen slider gif is f***ing insane

jwise224
Member
2 years 11 months ago

frisbee

Joe
Guest
Joe
2 years 11 months ago

There weren’t any sliders in the Jansen gifs; those were cutters.

Feeding the Abscess
Guest
Feeding the Abscess
2 years 11 months ago

Yep. 93 MPH

Sam
Guest
Sam
2 years 11 months ago

I’d point out that while their numbers are eerily similar this year, Kimbrel’s been the better pitcher overall (Career numbers):

Pitcher/WAR/FIP/xFIP/IP/K9IP/ERA-/FIP-/K%
Kimbrel/9.2/1.44/1.70/227.1/15.08/37/38/43.2%
Jansen/6.3/2.03/2.33/222.1/14.05/57/55/39.8%

They do have very similar WHIPs (Kimbrel 0.90, Jansen 0.92) and BAA (Kimbrel .155, Jansen .157), though Jansen has a better BABIP (.258 to .280). Not sure if WAR is affected by Kimbrel being the closer longer or not, but there you go

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 11 months ago

It wouldn’t have anything to do with the closer role. I think the main reason is Kimbrel came up already a stud, while Jansen initially had a lousy walk rate, which he has gradually improved each year. It’s not surprising his control wasn’t great at first, considering Jansen was a catcher up until a year before he came up as a reliever.

LightRocket
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LightRocket
2 years 11 months ago

Eh. The book on Kimbrel when he came up was control worries, too, and he actually had worse control numbers in 2010 (Granted, in 2X IP for both.) He caught up and passed Jansen the next year, but it was only by 1.4 BB%.

So, even in that, they were still pretty darn similar.

The Foils
Member
The Foils
2 years 11 months ago

Let’s not obscure this point.

“Jansen was a catcher up until a year before he came up as a reliever.”

The book on Jansen was: dude can’t hit, wonder if he can pitch.

DBA455
Member
Member
DBA455
2 years 11 months ago

With a silly 64.5% contact rate, along with 43.4% K rate, and 2.07 xFIP (and, yeah, an elevated 11.2% BB rate) Aroldis Chapman would also like an invitation to this party.

And I’m sure Uehara fans will point out what a nice year he had … and then Melancon.

TheNewGuy
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TheNewGuy
2 years 11 months ago

Dont forget Rosie (Rosenthal) either. Don’t know his other stats off hand, but his K/BB numbers were similarly insane, so I doubt he’s far off these guys.

michael furey
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michael furey
2 years 11 months ago

Koji Uehara #s the past 3 years –
Contact%: 70.7, 67.1, 66.9
Swinging Strike%: 16.0, 18.9, 18.5
K%: 35.0, 33.1, 38.1
BB%: 3.7, 2.3, 3.4
SIERA: 1.59, 1.83, 1.36
Also, the king of weak contact (.243 career BABIP)

Jayne
Guest
Jayne
2 years 11 months ago

Also, his WHIP is .642 over that 3 year span.

Zack Greinke
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

hahahahaha, that is one of those stats you just need to laugh at the obscene nature of.

0.642!

Mo Fan 42
Guest
Mo Fan 42
2 years 11 months ago

Who told you I had delicate sensibilities?

Dan Ugglas Forearm
Member
Dan Ugglas Forearm
2 years 11 months ago

Everything looks better when done vs. Hunter Pence.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 11 months ago

Note to self: Don’t read Jeff Sullivan articles on phone, unless I want my tiny phone processor to overheat and explode.

Robert
Guest
Robert
2 years 11 months ago

I cant remember who the opponent was but it was in Kenley’s string of 27 batters sat down in a row that he struck out the side on 10 pitches. It was my favorite outing of the year and resulted in a friend having to dump a beer on his head for Kenley striking out the side and beating our 2 strikeout over/under bet.

Oh, Beepy
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

The reaction to Jansen or Kimbrel strikeouts should never be to waste beer.

There is not that much beer, you know…

ALEastbound
Guest
2 years 11 months ago

Todd Jones makes these two look like minor leaguers.

derp
Guest
derp
2 years 11 months ago

Kenley’s Walk rate is plummeting fast, and I can expect him to totally ditch the slider within the next few seasons. To top it all off that is a cutter he throws. Just like Mo, eh?

The Foils
Member
The Foils
2 years 11 months ago

“I can expect him to totally ditch the slider within the next few seasons.”

Why? He’s only just now added it. If anything, I’d think he’d mix it in more often once he actually learns how to throw it.

FYI
Guest
FYI
2 years 11 months ago

Here’s a more reliable (and interesting) way to measure interest than the highly unscientific Google result counts:

http://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=%22craig%20kimbrel%22%2C%20%22kenley%20jansen%22&cmpt=q

brady
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brady
2 years 11 months ago

The third Jansen .gif was ridiculous

TheNewGuy
Guest
TheNewGuy
2 years 11 months ago

Im sure they’re not Kenley fastballs he throws all the time, but power cutters. They don’t even have to be that hard, some he throws are just 91-92, but the right to left movement is what does it. Then when he rears back to hit 94-95 with it, it’s goodnight Irene.

I always wondered how Kenley threw so many pitches by hitters in the zone, every time I saw him he did it. It seems his cutter has just enough movement to fool hitters at that speed, and it fools them everytime.

Just shows what an insanely dominant pitch the cutter can be if you can master it. Goodbye Mo, Kenley’s taken over your crown as dominant cutter king closer now.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 11 months ago

This is a great article, these two will certainly be the best in the business for years to come. However, Koji’s success and dominance can’t be overlooked either. 1.61 FIP and 2.08 xFIP this year with a ridiculous 11.22 K/BB ratio. He won’t be one of the best for long, but I think he deserves credit for a dominant season as a closer this year

Swfcdan
Guest
Swfcdan
2 years 11 months ago

Nothing to do with this article whatsoever (ive posted above), but I wondered if we could have an article blaming lead off hitters for the very low offense this year around the league.

I’ve looked at all the high OBP guys from this season, nearly all of them are sluggers over lead-off guys (the sluggers OBP seem fine). The best table-setter OBP after the big 3 guys (carp, trout, bass I mean choo) was Dexter Fowler, whaaat? Even Ells who we thought would’ve been great only had a .355 OBP. Other pathetic lead off men this year to name and shame them:

Bourn- .316 OBP (and only 23 steals). Way to make your mark in Cleveland. Pathetic.
Andrus- .328 OBP
Altuve-.316 OBP (does he realise a walk is as good as a single?)
Rollins- .318 OBP
L Martin- .313 OBP

All leadoff guys/ table setters. None of them deserve to be leading off or batting 2nd for their clubs.

Shows why runs were down this year, only 9 guys topped 100 runs, whuut? Lead-off guys just couldnt get on base well enough this year, and yet Matt Carpenter scored 126 runs despite no speed (3 SBs). Time for managers to value on-base over speed at the top of the lineup?

And the low runs totals explain the low RBIs totals for nearly all players this year, table setters just werent on base enough for sluggers this year, so no wonder RBIs are down. It’s your fault lead off guys, we’re all looking at you! Only 4 guys (4!) went 30/100/100 this year: Davis, Miggy, Jones (despite his abysmal .318 OBP) and Goldy…crazy.

And there you have it, finally reached a meaningful conclusion. Offense was down because lead-off guys couldn’t do their job this year.

So I ask the question again, are teams better off loading the top of their lineup with high OBP guys over rabbits who can’t take a walk, even if that means leading off with sluggers? It sure hasn’t done the Cards and A’s any harm.

Oh, Beepy
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Whaaat the fuck does this have to do with closing games?

channelclemente
Guest
channelclemente
2 years 11 months ago

Sergio Romo, especially 2012.

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