Delayed Overanalysis of Casey Janssen

The Nats signed reliever Casey Janssen, formerly of the Blue Jays, to a one-year, $5-million contract a few weeks ago (feel free to stop reading now to avoid the existential dread associated with over-analyzing Casey Janssen). Overall, it’s hard not to like this pick-up. One year and five million dollars is basically nothing (except when it comes to signing a second baseman), and the Clippard trade certainly left a hole in the bullpen. There was also a recent stretch of time when Janssen was quite good. From 2011-2013, Janssen averaged 57.1 IP, 8/9 strikeouts per 9 innings, and a sub 3 FIP. WAR isn’t the best way to measure relievers, but he averaged 1.2 WAR a season over those three years, which put him squarely in the pretty damn good category of relief pitchers.

So why did a recently good closer sign for a seemingly below market sum? Because 2014 was mostly terrible. Strikeouts were way down (5.5 Ks/9 in 2014 compared to 8.5 in 2013), Homers were way up (1.2 HR/9 in 2014 compared to 0.5 in 2013), and his groundball percentage dropped from 48% to 34%. These are all fairly alarming trends for a relief pitcher that is 33 and doesn’t throw very hard (2014 average fastball velocity: 89.3 miles per hour). Every analysis for relief pitchers should contain small sample size warnings in all capital letters, but important indicators trending that strongly generally indicate something wrong happening.

In July of last season, Janssen came down with a particularly awful bout of food poisoning, and he probably came back too quickly. And looking at the mid-season splits, there’s a case to be made that it was the (negative) turning point for the rest of Janssen’s season. Let’s compare:

1st half: 22 IP, 1.23 ERA, 0 HR, 14 Ks, 1 BB, .218 wOBA against
2nd half: 23.2 IP, 6.46 ERA, 6 HR, 14 Ks, 6 BBs, .378 wOBA against

In the first half, Janssen made opposing hitters look like Austin Kearns. In the second half, they all looked like Yasiel Puig. His numbers did take a nosedive in July when he was sick, but got worse in August when one would have expected him to be feeling better (or put on the DL to recuperate). It’s impossible for anyone to really know how he was feeling, and if food poisoning actually was the main cause of Janssen’s second-half struggles. But, his velocity didn’t change from the first half to the second half, and his strikeout rate remained about the same. The uptick in walks and home runs in the second half are troubling, but maybe first-half Janssen was a fluke based on a year over year decrease in velocity (lost about .8 MPH on his fastball from 2013 to 2014)  and a decrease in strikeouts. For comparisons sake, here is an unnamed reliever’s 1st and 2nd half splits in 2014:

1st half: 37 IP, .97 ERA, 1 HR, 36 Ks, 11 BBs, .208 wOBA against
2nd half: 25 IP, 6.48 ERA, 3 HR, 23 Ks, 8 BBs, .375 wOBA against

This reliever? Rafael Soriano. There wasn’t an injury narrative to fault for his falling off a cliff bad second half, but he stunk nonetheless. Screwy things can happen in small samples, which is why we try to avoid over-analyzing them. Janssen may have just had impeccable timing, and his new true talent level as a command relief pitcher is that of a 4.00 ERA. But unlike with Soriano, there is a realistic narrative for Janssen that fits the timeline of his struggles. Here’s another 1st half/2nd half comparison

1st half:

2nd half:

While his K rate was basically the same from the first half the second half, these charts show that his whiff rates weren’t. Janssen had much more success both down and up in the zone earlier in the season in terms of swings and misses, so while his velocity was the same between the first half and second half, it appears that his stuff wasn’t.

Again, in such small samples, it’s impossible to draw any definitive conclusions. It’s true that first-half Janssen looked pretty similar to 2011-2013 Casey Janssen, while second-half Janssen looked more like Brian Bruney. It’s reasonable to look at the splits and say that Janssen’s bout with food poisoning ruined what looked to be a promising season. It’s also reasonable to look at his decrease in velocity and strikeout rate and think this was money not well spent. But for a paltry (in the context of the MLB) five million dollars, it’s not that much money anyways, so why the hell not?

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