Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Building the Bullpen

Signing a reliever isn’t big news usually, but that’s all the baseball news we have for now until pitchers and catchers report. The Nationals signed veteran Casey Janssen today in a move that will attempt to replace Tyler Clippard’s role as set up man and experienced second string closer.

The Nationals were able to sign Janssen because he basically fell apart halfway through the 2014 season. After several years of success and 2 good years as the Blue Jays closer, Janssen’s 2014 came crashing to a halt after the All Star break. This seemed to coincide with a bad case of food poisoning Janssen picked up over the break. While food poisoning is no laughing matter, the stats don’t really back up the connection. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs took a deep dive into Janssen’s 2014 to discover why he went from a quality closer to bullpen fodder.

What Sullivan points out, that is obvious after a quick perusal of Janssen’s player page, is that Janssen lost the ability to strike people out. He was still effective at limiting walks, but he forced fewer groundballs and, while he was still able to get ahead of batters, lost the ability to put hitters away after getting to two strikes. Sure enough, Janssen allowed the highest contact rate in the last 7 years of his career in 2014 and posted the lowest swinging strike rate since way back in 2009 when he was flip flopping between a starter and a reliever.

This is a disturbing trend for Janssen because he doesn’t possess overpowering stuff. His fastball is down half a tick to 89 MPH, but only from a high of 92 MPH in 2011. He relies on a heavy dose of a cutter and curve that he uses to limit hard contact and induce swings and misses. As Sullivan points out, his trouble really came with putting hitters away. After getting to two strikes, Sullivan posits that Janssen was getting too much of the strike zone, serving up a hittable pitch in the zone rather than something just outside the zone. He shows a GIF of one at bat where this is clearly the case: the catcher calls for a ball low and away and Janssen serves one up right down the middle. I’ll do you one better, though, and show you where Janssen put his two strike offerings. The first shot below shows every pitch thrown by Janssen when ahead in the count with 2 strikes (i.e. 0-2, 1-2, 2-2) in 2014, followed by 2013.

As you see, he really did catch more of the plate with 2 strikes, exactly the time he doesn’t want to be near the strike zone. Now, that is most likely a mechanical issue. Doesn’t mean he can or will fix it, but it’s not as scary of a prospect as a loss of natural ability or loss of velocity. In the end, the Nats pick up a competent reliever not far removed a couple stellar seasons who clearly has a couple issues. Given Rizzo’s past success with relievers, I’m guessing they have a plan for fixing those mechanical issues.

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