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April 1, 2011

Prospectus Q&A

Bobby Jenks

by David Laurila

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There is more to Bobby Jenks than the scary beard [is there a better way to describe it?] and much-publicized spring tiff with Ozzie Guillen. There is also more than the fastball, as the new addition to the Red Sox relief corps has evolved from a flame-throwing wild man into more of a craftsman. The erstwhile ChiSox closer hasn’t exactly turned into Greg Maddux—he still intimidates hitters with mid-90s heat and his mountain-man physique—but he incorporates a five-pitch mix into his attack plan.

Signed as a free agent in December, the 30-year-old right-hander came to Boston with a reputation, both on and off the field, as varied as his arsenal. Regardless of your opinion of him, Jenks has an impressive track record on the mound: 173 saves, a career 8.8 K/9 rate, and a pair of All-Star appearances.

The party line is that he will happily share set-up duties with Daniel Bard, but the chinks in Jonathan Papelbon’s armor, along with Bard’s relative inexperience, have many Red Sox fans wondering if Jenks will be the team’s primary closer by season’s end. Whatever his role might be, he will attack the opposition with moxie as well as malevolence.

Power and Polish

PITCHf/x data shows that Jenks averaged 94.9 mph with his fastball last season, down a tick from the previous year, and his radar-gun readings no longer reach triple digits—he was clocked at 102 in 2005—but he is still firmly in the high-octane category. Equally important for his success is the fact that he is more cerebral on the mound than most fans give him credit for.

“I’d describe myself as a power pitcher who doesn’t get intimidated by any hitters out there,” said Jenks, who posted a 10.4 K/9 last season. “The stuff is still there, but it’s more of a mental game for me now. The more time you spend working with different coaches and catchers, and seeing hitters and going over scouting reports, the more you become a pitcher and not just a thrower. Velocity really isn’t all that important to me.”

“He does more than just throw hard,” agreed Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. “He obviously has a great fastball, and his curveball is a great pitch as well, but he also throws a cutter and a changeup. He’s able to locate away, as well as in, and up and down, with his fastball. That’s his number-one pitch. We’ve got three guys at the end of our bullpen—Bard, Pap, and Jenks—who throw mid- to upper-90s, but they don’t even need to throw mid- to upper-90s because of the way they can locate.”

Friends and Adversaries

Jenks will have Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek calling pitches for him this summer, a big change after having the same catcher for each of his six big-league seasons. He doesn’t foresee a problem, nor does “Salty.”

“It doesn’t take too long to learn a new catcher,” said Jenks. “Working with A.J. [Pierzynski] for several years, we didn’t shake much, but it shouldn’t take too long for Salty and Tek to get a feel for what my stuff is doing and how I pitch. Tek especially—he’s faced me many times, so he knows how I like to go after hitters.

“Whether I’m working with Salty or Tek, they’re knowledgeable and smart. If they have a game plan they feel really strong about, we’re going to go with that.”

That doesn’t mean Jenks will automatically go with the fingers he sees. According to his new catcher, the pitcher is always right.

“All of our pitchers dictate what they do,” said Saltalamacchia. “They all pitch their game. We just throw down suggestions, but we do work together as a team and both have an idea of how we want to get the guy out. You want to pitch to your strengths, but every hitter is different and you have to play the ballgame accordingly.”

“I want to have an idea when someone comes up to the plate,” added Jenks. “If he’s a first-pitch-fastball hitter, I might come in with something a little different. I might start him off backward, starting slow and then going hard. I won’t necessarily be predictable.”

Roles and Regulations

The biggest difference for Jenks this season will be the move—at least for now—from closer to set-up man. He has fielded as many questions about his new role as he has about his former manager, and his responses have been variations on the same theme—he simply wants to contribute and will do whatever is asked of him. “They expect me to take the ball whenever they call my name,” said Jenks, “and those are my expectations as well.”

“He’s going to have a different role this year, but that doesn’t change what he does,” said Saltalamacchia. “He’s going to go out there and pitch the same way he always has; it is just going to be a different inning.”

According to Red Sox pitching coach Curt Young, his new charge is ready to add value in whatever role he’s asked to fill. Jenks held opponents scoreless in six of his seven spring outings, leaving Young impressed.

“He’s exactly the same guy I saw when I was in Oakland,” said an appreciative Young. “You look out there as a member of the opposing team, he comes in to pitch the ninth inning, and you feel like you really have no chance. He has shown that sort of stuff this spring. Really, every pitch has been sharp for him: his curveball, the little cutter he has, his changeup, and both his four- and two-seam fastballs.

 “For a guy who has been a closer—a guy who is used to short outings—he kind of has that starter mentality where he’s going to use any pitch at any time. That’s what makes him so effective. He’s a multi-pitch guy who has the ability to produce all of those pitches at a top quality. He’s going to really help our ballclub this year.” 

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