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May 9, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Evolution of a Save Celebration

by Sam Miller

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Kenley Jansen pitched his first game on July 30, 2009. He worked a scoreless fourth inning for Inland Empire, struck out one batter, and that was it. Kenley Jansen, whom we had described as “the system’s best hope at catcher” just six months earlier, was a pitcher. Three days later, he allowed two runs in his second outing. Three days after that, he allowed three runs in his third outing, and his ERA was 22.50. Pitching is not supposed to be a simple thing. Experience matters. Making adjustments matters. Kenley Jansen has made a lot of adjustments, and he is a thrilling pitcher, and after I watch him I want to hop in a car and drive really fast and make sharp turns. But closing games isn't just about throwing strikes and getting outs and converting saves. There's the matter of the post-save ritual.

There are all sorts of post-save rituals, and not every closer dodges Matrix bullets like Jose Valverde. Last summer, Jeff Sullivan classified all 30 major-league closers' victory celebrations and grouped them into seven categories: the indifferent; the acknowledgers; the glove punchers; the fist pumpers; the adorable tiny hoppers; the showstoppers; and the other, which included only one closer, whom we might say is in a League of his own. Because he's Brandon League. That's why we capitalized League and said it like that.

Somewhere between 22.50 and this week, when Jansen was named the Dodgers' closer—not even three years!—somebody taught him how to make a pickoff attempt, and what to do when he and the catcher don't agree on what to throw, and where he should try to throw a slider with two strikes, and where to run if the batter hits a triple, and the old first-to-third move, and how to avoid balking, and to get out of the way when there's an infield pop-up, and they bought him a different glove and put him on a different running regimen. Nobody talked to him about his post-save celebration, probably. There are things we don't talk about, still, in 2012. This is why Europeans think we're so uptight.

So ​Jansen has had to learn a post-save celebration on his own, as all closers do. This doesn't happen overnight. I would bet Jose Valverde didn't do that dance during his rookie year. I would bet Jordan Walden didn't acknowledge his Creator after his first save, back in the Texas League. I would bet Joakim Soria didn't even do an adorable tiny hop the first time he saved a game. I bet he held up his glove to take the throw from the catcher. I bet he was like, "Haha, whoops, I guess that's it then. Do you guys still want to hang out?"

​The reason I would bet this is because I would bet we're all like Kenley Jansen, just trying to figure things out on our own, before we die.

July 25, 2010
Jansen's first save
Enthusiasm: 8

1. Spin away from hitter
2. Clench fist
3. Pat chest
4. Kiss/point to sky
5. Complete turn, walk to catcher

Everybody in this clip is fist pumping. The catcher fist pumps. The man in the blue t-shirt and white board shorts does a sort of lasso fist pump. The man in the dark t-shirt and gray shorts makes a safe call that he quickly turns into a fist pump. Even the umpire is doing a first pump. Kenley Jansen, though, does not fist pump. Instead, he looks upward to acknowledge some deity or deceased ancestor. It's a fully developed save celebration, and it's one that we will never see again. Perhaps Kenley Jansen found out something unpleasant about that deity or deceased ancestor.  

Sept. 24, 2010
Jansen's Second career save
Enthusiasm: 8

1. Fist pump
2. Walk to the catcher

Here we see Jansen do a fist pump. A real fist pump, and a good fist pump. It's a simple celebration, and it's emphatic. It is also a fist pump we will never see again. 

May 13, 2011
Jansen's fifth career save
Enthusiasm: 1

1. Glove over mouth
2. Walk to catcher

The glove over the mouth is particularly vexing. We have previously seen Jansen try two different, but both enthusiastic, celebrations. But here there is no celebration, and in fact Jansen covers his face like a shy geisha. Is he so bashful about celebrating the save that he doesn't even want us to see his smile? This is anti-celebratory. Carlos Marmol celebrates the other team's saves more than this. 

July 26, 2011
Jansen's sixth career save
Enthusiasm: 5

1. 90-degree turn from batter
2. Lift arm quickly
3. Near fist pump?
4. Tug at shirt
5. Walk to catcher

This is, I suspect, the start of a new phase. Jansen really seems to want to celebrate, but he doesn't feel comfortable showing that emotion. He's so close to a fist pump, but at the last second turns it into a sleeve tug. 

Sept. 1, 2011
Jansen's seventh career save
Enthusiasm: 4

1. 90-degree turn from batter
2. Adorable tiny hop
3. Adjust belt
4. Wipe mouth with shirt
5. Walk to catcher

Continuing Jansen's attempts to control his energy, here is Jansen doing an adorable tiny hop. An adorable tiny hop is, after all, just a nervous expression of energy, contained but poorly contained. Jansen's adorable tiny hop is especially adorable and tiny because Kenley Jansen is not adorable or tiny. 

Sept. 14, 2011
Jansen's eighth career save
Enthusiasm: 4

1. 90-degree turn from batter
2. Arm up halfway
3. Modified arm pump
4. Jig
5. Quicker shirt tug
6. Walk to catcher

Oh man he wants to leap around. He's got an arm pump, but it's just so subtle and restrained, almost like he's camouflaging it with an adorable tiny dance. Oh, yes, he's now past the adorable tiny hop and doing an adorable tiny dance. 

April 27, 2012
Jansen's 10th save
Enthusiasm: 4

1. Spin away from hitter
2. Wave arm
3. No complete turn, walk to catcher

New year, still restrained, but moving back toward a fist pump. Jansen does a little fist wave that we could call a fist pump, but he's a bit cautious and turns away from the hitter first. It's a non-confrontational save celebration, in which Jansen clearly feels victorious but not invincible.

April 29, 2012
Jansen's 11th save
Enthusiasm: 9

1. Turn away from hitter
2. Scream a bunch of bad words
3. Walk to catcher

What's interesting is not that Kenley Jansen has a save celebration. What's interesting is that Kenley Jansen is building a save celebration as he goes. Over the course of two years, Jansen has hit most of Sullivan's closer-celebration categories at least once. He has acknowledged. He has been indifferent. He has pumped his fist. He has done an adorable tiny hop. He came pretty close to a showstopper on his most recent save. He hasn't glove-punched, but he has done everything but glove-punch. He has done each of these in a peculiar order, an order that suggests he arrived in the majors as a pumped-up kid and soon realized or was told that he should cool it until he has actually earned the ninth inning. As he gets more saves, he'll feel less need to restrain himself.

More than that, though, he will feel more need to fire himself up. Closing is an intense job. Closers celebrate their successes because they are intense successes. But the intensity isn't just a byproduct; it's a strategy, and closers must agitate themselves into a wigged-out state every night in order to be the monstrous beasts that we expect in the ninth inning. As Jansen gets used to the ninth inning, Jansen will get used to getting ready for the ninth inning: a couple Red Bulls, a loud entrance song, an intense warm-up in the bullpen, a bunch of sick and hateful thoughts going through his head. When he gets a save, all that energy is going to explode. My guess, based on what we've seen from Kenley Jansen so far, is that Kenley Jansen will eventually be a showstopper.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Saves,  Closer,  Closers,  Kenley Jansen

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