clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Kenley Jansen Is Painting His Way to the Record Books

With 50 strikeouts and zero walks, the Dodgers’ closer is displaying historic control and bat-missing ability

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The last time Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen pitched, in a Sunday save in Cincinnati, he came close to perfection. The Reds’ Adam Duvall fouled off three pitches and popped up a fourth; Scott Schebler struck out on three pitches; and Eugenio Suárez struck out on four pitches. The only strike — or, in this case, ball — against Jansen’s outing was his second pitch to Suárez, which missed by this much.

That thing was 4 whole inches inside. Come on, Kenley.

Jansen has been coming close to perfection with such regularity that it’s strange to see him in an even count any time after the first pitch of a plate appearance. A month earlier, on May 18 in Miami, Jansen actually attained perfection, throwing an immaculate inning (nine pitches, nine strikes, three outs).

As (almost) always, Jansen stayed in or near the strike zone as he mowed down the Marlins. And as usual, that didn’t help the hitters.

Jansen has been great since the day he debuted in the big leagues, but he’s on another level now, in the first year of the five-year, $80 million deal he signed this offseason to stay with the Dodgers. The righty has allowed just four runs (three earned) in 29.2 innings, converting all 15 of his save opportunities and recording a 0.30 FIP.

Jansen isn’t doing anything dramatically different this year. The righty still throws cutters nearly 90 percent of the time, more often than any other pitcher throws any other pitch aside from Jake McGee’s four-seamer. And he still pounds the plate: Only six pitchers have thrown a higher percentage of their pitches inside the zone. Jansen has always worked this way. The only perceptible change is that for the second consecutive season, he’s throwing the cutter higher than ever before.

Jansen’s cutter is a high-spin pitch — among 107 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 25 cutters this season, only four spin theirs faster than his — and he’s racking up whiffs by aiming it up. This GIF of his pitch-frequency heat maps against right-handed hitters in 2016 and 2017 reveals that he’s locating up and away more often this season, with a second hot spot appearing close to the top of the zone.

Not only is Jansen enjoying his highest-ever rate of swings outside the strike zone (ranking 12th in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings), but he’s also recording a career-low contact rate inside the zone (ranking eighth). Enticing hitters with probable balls while missing bats with likely strikes is a recipe for a ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio, and Jansen’s is such an outlier that it doesn’t even divide: 50 strikeouts, zero walks.

Fourteen strikeouts ago, Jansen claimed the record for most K’s to start a season before a first walk, breaking the previous record of 35 set by Adam Wainwright in 2013. Now he’s nearing another record: the most strikeouts over any walkless span of a single season. The table below shows the longest such streaks dating back to 1950, when the Baseball Prospectus database begins. In light of the lower leaguewide strikeout rates prior to that time, though, the top of an all-time table would likely look the same. (Tom Morgan, who ranks 166th with a streak of 27 strikeouts without a walk in 1958, is the only pitcher from the ’50s to crack the top 240.)

With that strikeout of Suárez, Jansen passed both peak Pedro and the less illustrious Matt Shoemaker, who rode his splitter to an unhittable stretch last season. Now he’s chasing two of the best control pitchers ever: Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, and another starter who should be enshrined, Curt Schilling, whose incredible control of the strike zone is equaled only by an incredible lack of control of his postcareer comments and spending.

Obviously, there’s an era effect here: No pitcher reached 40 before 1994. Strikeout rates have never been higher, and this season’s strikeout-to-walk ratio trails only 2014–16 in baseball’s modern era, which explains why a third of the entries on this list hail from the past three-plus seasons. Jansen’s late-inning relief role also makes this sort of streak more feasible: Only once this season has he had to throw two innings, and he hasn’t faced a single hitter twice in one game. Jansen’s feat has been both easier to accomplish and, because it’s so protracted, easier to notice than those of Maddux, Schilling, or even Jeff Samardzija, whose streak of 47 earlier this year began several starts into his season and spanned only six outings.

Even so, Jansen’s streak is still historic, and the fact that it comes with a couple of caveats doesn’t detract from the fun of his Rivera-esque rampage. Jansen, who’s leading the league by a lot with a career-high 79.4 percent first-pitch-strike rate, has thrown just nine pitches in three-ball counts this season, the lowest percentage (2.1) of any pitcher with 175 or more pitches thrown. His last three-ball count came on May 9. We’d have to lower our minimum to 30 pitches to find someone with a higher rate of pitches thrown while ahead in the count than Jansen’s 45.5 percent; toss out 0–0 offerings, and Jansen has been ahead 61 percent of the time. Small wonder, then, that he’s also allowed the fifth-lowest average exit velocity among pitchers with at least 400 pitches this season. It’s hard for hitters to unload when they’re always worried about protecting the plate.

We haven’t even gotten to the truly unfair part. Let’s say Jansen throws one of his rare cutters outside of the strike zone, and that his opponent manages to lay off of the blindingly fast, unpredictably darting delivery. (Jansen’s cutter ranks fourth in speed, third in vertical movement, and sixth in horizontal movement this season among pitchers with at least 50 cutters thrown.) The hitter has avoided two of Jansen’s traps, but he might well fall prey to the third: Even after accounting for his proximity to the strike zone — and the fact that the called strike zone tends to shrink when the hitter falls behind — Jansen gets more called strikes than we would expect.

So far this season, 374 pitchers have thrown at least 20 innings. Jansen ranks 32nd on the list in expected strikes added per pitch, which has translated to 10 more strikes than his zone rate alone would lead us to anticipate. That’s because on top of everything else, Jansen has thrown to two of the top four framing catchers this season, Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes, who’ve teamed up to stake the Dodgers to a very large lead in team runs saved from receiving. The combination of a pitcher with pinpoint command and catchers who can make borderline pitches look more like strikes has also helped extend Jansen’s streak.

Jansen hasn’t gotten any favors from the umps on his scarce three-ball-count offerings, all of which have been inside the zone.

The closest thing to a questionable call on a three-ball count came on April 15 against Chris Herrmann, who checked his swing but was rung up regardless. But according to Pitch Info’s called-strike-probability data, provided by Baseball Prospectus — which is based on the season, the count, the pitch location (relative to the batter’s personalized zone), the pitch type, and the handedness of the pitcher and batter — that pitch was 64.2 percent likely to be called a strike.

Even if there hasn’t been a bad call that directly changed a walk to a strikeout, borderline strike calls earlier in counts have still contributed to Jansen’s extreme strikeout-to-walk rate by keeping him out of unfavorable counts. So since we’ve already taken every opportunity to praise him, let’s close with a countdown of the 10 Kenley called strikes (all but one caught by Grandal) that by the numbers should have been balls, in descending order of strike probability.

10.
Date: 5/23
Hitter: Matt Carpenter
Count: 0–1
Called-Strike Probability: 43.9

Intended to hit the strike zone’s upper border, this slightly inside pitch missed its target but still earned a strike.

9.
Date: 5/3
Hitter: Kelby Tomlinson
Count: 0–2
Called-Strike Probability: 40.7

Grandal reaches for this one, too, but glove aside, he’s still enough to coax the call on a pitch that dips beneath the knees.

8.
Date: 5/3
Hitter: Joe Panik
Count: 1–1
Called-Strike Probability: 31.1

This pitch doesn’t look as far from the zone as the stats would suggest, but maybe my eyes (and Grandal) deceive me.

7.
Date: 6/2
Hitter: Manny Piña
Count: 0–2
Called-Strike Probability: 22.0

The catcher called for this outside and got it inside instead, but the call went his way, possibly because only his hand was in motion as the pitch approached the plate.

6.
Date: 4/15
Hitter: Nick Ahmed
Count: 0–0
Called-Strike Probability: 14.0

A classic example of a pitch that looks higher in flight than it does at its destination.

5.
Date: 5/6
Hitter: Ryan Schimpf
Count: 1–0
Called-Strike Probability: 10.4

This is exactly the type of high strike that Jansen is throwing (and getting away with) more often this year, thanks to Grandal’s steady squat and his glove’s subtle tug toward the ground.

4.
Date: 4/25
Hitter: Brandon Belt
Count: 2–1
Called-Strike Probability: 8.2

Another high strike, and another unhappy hitter.

3.
Date: 4/15
Hitter: Nick Ahmed
Count: 0–2
Called-Strike Probability: 2.1

Poor Nick Ahmed was victimized twice in one plate appearance, and this time was worse.

2.
Date: 4/19
Hitter: Trevor Story
Count: 0–0
Called-Strike Probability: 1.2

Grandal vs. gravity: This is another pitch that looks low before Grandal gains yardage after the catch.

1.
Date: 4/19
Hitter: Gerardo Parra
Count: 0–0
Called-Strike Probability: 0.2

An appropriate stopping point: Hitters who’ve faced Jansen, Parra feels your pain.

Jansen has three ways to wear out opponents; if one doesn’t work, another will. By elevating his game from its former elite level to unprecedented dominance for almost three months, he’s turned each of his outings into a must-watch (and mustn’t-walk) event. Maybe we’ll be bored by quasi-automatic outs someday, but for now, Jansen might be baseball’s best argument that a rising strikeout rate is a draw, not a drawback.

Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.