The Story of Bobby Jenks

Bobby Jenks is out for the rest of the year and the rumors have begun to fly. See ESPN, the Examiner, RotoWorld, MLBTradeRumors, and even Bob Nightengale chime in with their belief Jenks will get traded this offseason.

Entering his second year of arbitration, his steady save totals should augment his $5.6 million salary to the point where he may not be the best use of Kenny Williams’ resources. He was, for example, only worth $1.9 million this year.

His story is also not one of consistency. Generally speaking, he was lucky last year despite poor underlying stats, and this year he’s had the reverse happen. It might just be the story of small sample sizes in the end, but can a team like the White Sox afford a closer that costs more than $7 or $8 million?

Much was made in 2008 of the precipitous decline of Jenks’ strikeout rate. Surely he must be suffering from an arm injury, we all said. No one goes from striking out almost a batter per inning to 5.55 K/9 in one year without something being wrong, right? Especially with his fastball velocity down almost two MPH off its peak. Well, not so much. He got through the year with a sub-3 ERA, perhaps thanks to his career high 57% groundball percentage, and also thanks to a little luck (.261 BABIP).

Fast-forward to this year and the secondary stats all normalized to his career rates (8.27 K/9, 2.70 BB/9), and his fastball regained a mile per hour. Unfortunately, his luck turned too. While his BABIP (.298) stayed the same, his other batted ball statistics went south. The real ‘unlucky’ part of his game concerns home runs. Despite a reasonable fly ball percentage (33.1%), he’s giving up a home run and a half this year thanks to a distorted home run per fly ball rate (17%, 9.6% career).

So now the portly (6’3″ 275 lbs) closer is on the DL with a calf strain and the team will get to audition their possible replacement in Matt Thornton. What can we expect, and does Thornton have the stuff to be the closer in 2010?

Non-traditionalists will look at his numbers and give an unqualified thumbs up to Thornton’s candidacy. 330+ innings into his career, his strikeout rate is good overall (9.37 K/9) and excellent recently (over 10 K/9 the last two years). In his last 134 innings, his walk rate has been under 2.55 BB/9, which is also excellent. He’s actually had two straight identical seasons with great underlying numbers. Sure, his groundball rate took a step back this year, and his flyball rate went in the wrong direction, but can you really argue with two straight FIPs under 3?

He has the fastball of a closer (95+ MPH), a good slider (neutral by linear weights over his career), he gets people to reach (reach% over 25% for the last four years), and they don’t make great contact even when the ball’s in the zone (79.7%). What’s not to like?

Ah, there’s the rub. Thornton has blown 10 saves against two saves in the last two years and for some the thought is that he can’t handle the pressure. Are there actually great relievers that can’t be closers? This may need a more comprehensive look, but as anecdotal evidence I submit to you Heath Bell. Bell had 12 blown saves against his first two saves despite good underlying numbers that don’t even look as nice as Thornton’s do now. Sure, Bell may be slowing down a little recently, but he sort of blew through that blown saves problem this year, wouldn’t you say?

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

9 Responses to “The Story of Bobby Jenks”

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  1. joe says:

    Of course this is obviously through the eyes of the average fan or manager, right?

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  2. Eno Sarris says:

    What do you mean by ‘this’? Clarify and I’ll be glad to respond.

    I would think the average fan thinks Jenks is a great closer and Thornton might not be able to handle the role, but I don’t think that’s the case.

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  3. Bryz says:

    The only problem with citing Thornton’s 2-12 and Bell’s pre-2009 2-14 in save situations is that non-closers commonly have more blown saves than converted saves because they are subjected to more opportunities to blow saves than actually earn them.

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    • MikeS says:

      Yeah, When Thornton gives up the lead in the 8th, it’s a blown save because technically it’s a save situation. He wasn’t going to get a chance at that save because Jenks is pitching the ninth. There is no such stat as a “blown hold” but that’s what it really is.

      Also, as a Sox fan, it seems to me that Thornton (and Dotel) are used more when they really need a strikeout – guys on base or in scoring position, less than 2 out – rather than to start an inning. So there is less margin for error than for a closer who almost always starts the inning with the bases empty and can give up a hit or walk without it hurting the team.

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  4. Eno Sarris says:

    Sure, that’s one of many problems with citing his blown saves. That occurred to me as I was citing the other problems with citing those blown saves, but the main point is that Thornton looks like the real deal.

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  5. Dave says:

    As a White Sox fan, I’d like to see someone consistent at closer and let Thornton pitch the setup — so he can pitch in more “important” situations.

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  6. The A Team says:

    The Thornton situation reminds me a little of Madson in Philly. The main excuse to keep Lidge as the closer (11 BS and counting) is that Madson is better suited for the 8th and doesn’t handle the pressure of the 9th…

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  7. JCA says:

    Should holds figure into the calculation? Those are save situations where he did his job. He’s had 56 save situations in the past 2 years and had a hold or save in 46. That’s a 80+% success rate.

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  8. Eno Sarris says:

    If you add holds and saves together, Jenks’ comparable success rate is 85%, however, so now we are talking some sort of shortcoming on Thornton’s part. Looking at performance against leverage might help with Thornton, it seems, but I still think Thornton’s overall performance says that he can succeed no matter what frame he’s pitching in. At the very least, it’s obvious that Thornton has improved his clutch numbers and is doing better in higher leverage situations this year. Let’s see how he does in the highest leverage situations now that Jenks is out.

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