June 19, 2013
Painting the Black
The Improbability of the Closer
Before the 2012 season started the Blue Jays made two long-term decisions affecting their bullpen. First Alex Anthopoulos traded for White Sox closer Sergio Santos, who came to town with a team-friendly contract in place. Then, three months later, Anthopoulos executed a variation of the Santos extension by inking set-up man Casey Janssen to a two-year deal with a club option.
A year and a half has passed and one thing is clear: nobody predicted these deals would turn out the way they did. Since the moves Santos and Janssen have taken divergent paths, with Janssen becoming the Jays closer and Santos moving into the background. It's not the outcome that seemed likely at the time; does that mean there's anything to be learned from it?
The Santos side of things
When the Jays acquired Santos it looked like a steal. Although Santos, a converted shortstop, remained a novice on the mound, he'd dominated over his first two seasons in the majors. From 2010-2011 Santos pitched 115 innings and struck out 148 batters. He showed some wildness, too, stemming from high-effort mechanics, but not enough to detract from his eye-popping strikeout rates. The White Sox were confident enough in Santos' future to sign him to a three-year extension in September 2011 worth $8.25 million with three club option years before he became arbitration eligible.
For whatever reason, the White Sox soon changed their mind on Santos. Or, at the very least, were willing to part with him at a cost that many deemed below market value. Within three months of the extension the White Sox pulled the trigger on the trade that sent Santos to the Blue Jays for Nestor Molina. Molina boasted nice numbers, though scouts painted him as a control-and-command righty with modest upside. While trading starters for relievers is often frowned upon, it made sense for a pitching-rich organization to swap an average starter years away for an impact reliever ready now.
But the problem with Santos' time in Toronto is that he's rarely been ready to pitch. Santos was already down and out after shoulder surgery before the calendar flipped to May in 2012, and he's presently on the disabled list following an elbow operation that may sideline him until July. (Things aren't much better for Molina, who is back in Double-A and showing no statistical signs of progress thus far.) If Santos does return in July then he has about a season and a half to convince the Jays to exercise the first of the three club options.
The Janssen side of things
The feelings toward the Janssen extension were subdued compared to those offered after the Santos extension and trade. Anthopoulos inked the then-30-year-old Janssen to a two-year deal worth about $6 million with a club option for a third year despite a history of arm-related injuries. The right-hander was coming off a big season, yet there were sustainability concerns about his much-vaunted success against left-handed hitters. Factor in what seemed like a limited ceiling and one Jays fan put it well when he wrote, "If [Janssen] stays healthy it's a small win for the Jays, if he gets injured it's a small loss."
Janssen, unlike Santos, had already undergone his labrum surgery. And, again unlike Santos, Janssen didn't have electric stuff. Baseball Prospectus 2010 wrote of Janssen, "[he] should remain a modest asset capable of plugging emerging holes but seems unlikely to ever become a full-time solution to any of them." Then Janssen took off, posting career-bests in strikeout and strikeout-to-walk rates. Those improvements remained in 2011 and in 2012, when he first got the call to take over in the ninth. Since then Janssen has posted a 2.50 ERA with a 5.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio; for comparison, Jonathan Papelbon is at 2.26 and 5.52 over the same span.
It's not as though Janssen suddenly improved his deception or stuff, either. He still features drop-and-drive mechanics, with four or five offerings: fastballs, cutter, curveball, and a seldom-used slider. The keys to Janssen's success are command and control. He throws his pitches for strikes and locates them to money areas—the cutter stays on the glove-side of the plate while he plays keep-away with the fastball. The raw package isn't overwhelming, and doesn't scream closer. But it's turned Janssen into one of the top sneakily good closers in the league.
The interesting thing is how the two deals seem to be a confluence of many well-known lessons. Pitchers get hurt; players can succeed even if they may not adhere to general role specifications; team-friendly deals don't always work out, but the low stakes make them worth the gamble; and so on. There might not be a new overarching lesson here, just a smattering of old familiar ones. Including this one: Predicting ballplayers on a micro level is a tough task.