Kenley Jansen was a fantasy force in recent years, perennially being one of the first two or three closers off the board and posting excellent ratios for his owners. From 2012-2017, he had an ERA below 3.00 each season, and while he’s put up three straight campaigns with an ERA above 3.00, for the most part, he’s remained a solid option for fantasy owners looking for saves. His strikeouts have ticked down a bit the past couple years, but his 32.4 percent strikeout rate in 2020 was his highest mark since back in 2017. Is he a 38-42 percent strikeout guy anymore? No, but with the game’s likely best combination of pitching and offense, he should have plenty of opportunities to get saves in 2021.
His strikeout did rebound a bit, despite another drop in velocity, which is a problem, but at this point, Jansen figures to be a guy with a strikeout rate in the low 30 percent range at best. He’s mixing in a sinker more, which adds another pitch in his repertoire, but it’s whiff rate took a step back in 2020, just like his cutter, Jansen’s bread-and-butter.
Despite converting 11 of 13 opportunities in 2020, Jansen posted a career low 25 percent ground ball rate. He’s never been a huge ground ball guy by any means, seeing as he’s at 33.7 percent for his career. What about his sinker? Yeah, that pitch isn’t generating many ground balls at all. In fact, in 2020 the launch angle against his cutter was 24 degrees, which was the highest of his three pitches. Furthermore, all three of his pitches had a launch angle of at least 19 degrees.
Compared to 2019, each of his pitches, as expected, resulted in more fly balls, but thanks to a 7.1 percent HR/FB ratio, he was able to avoid damage from the long ball. On top of that, while he did allow more fly balls, and despite a drop in velocity, Jansen remained excellent in avoiding hard contact. Take a look at Jansen’s percentiles over the years in a couple key batted ball metrics, and notice how he actually maintained or even improved.
Hard Hit Rate
In fact, his barrel rate at 3.5 percent was a career low, and his average exit velocity against of just 82.7 miles per hour was as well. Here are some other notable statistics from Jansen’s 2020 campaign:
His average exit velocity against was the fourth-lowest among pitchers with at least 50 batted ball events (BBE) in 2020.
Within the same parameters above, no one had a lower exit velocity against on fly balls and line drives than Jansen (86.0 mph), and the next closest person (Victor González, 86.9 mph) was nearly a full mile per hour faster!
Only 14 percent of balls hit against Jansen posted an exit velocity of 95 miles per hour or faster, which was best in baseball within the same aforementioned parameters. The next closest was Adam Kolarek , who was at 20 percent.
One could argue it’s a dangerous game that Jansen is playing, or that he’s perhaps dancing with the devil. Eventually, allowing too many fly balls is going to come back to hurt you, and at some point, Jansen isn’t going to be a guy that can avoid hard contact as frequently as he has in recent memory. There were just two players with at least 50 batted ball events in 2020 to allow an average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives under 90 miles per hour despite a launch angle north of 20 degree.
Jansen: 22.2 degree launch angle, 86.0 mph (FB/LD)
Julio Urías : 21.7 degree launch angle, 89.9 mph (FB/LD)
Jansen’s diminishing velocity is a major concern, and it’s a likely contributor to his declining strikeout rate. Sure, his strikeout has rebounded a bit, but he’s no longer the overpowering closer that will post a 40 percent strikeout rate with his eyes closed.
Despite his struggles in the postseason, he’s tabbed as the team’s Opening Day closer, but Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol are waiting in the wings, should Jansen slip up. He’s no longer the top two or three closer in fantasy baseball, but he’s a serviceable option that should get plenty of saves. You’ll likely want to pad your strikeout totals, in case Jansen drops closer to 30 percent in 2021, but at his current price, he should return quality value with a great starting rotation and offense likely putting the team in advantageous spots late in ball games.