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)
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
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:
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.
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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