Despite leading the National League with 41 saves in 2022, it was a year of ups and downs for Kenley Jansen as he went east for the first time in his prolific career. Let’s take a look back.
In the frantic week following the lifting of the CBA lockout, it seemed like the Braves may be done with roster construction. They had locked in first base, left field, and the middle of their bullpen. Almost everyone had Will Smith pegged for ninth inning duties again after the World Series run. And then, out of nowhere, the Braves swooped in and signed Jansen to a one-year pact for $16 million.
What were the expectations?
Jansen might find himself in the Hall of Fame one day, so expectations were naturally very high. Add in the Braves being on the wrong side of his wicked cutter for years while he was in Los Angeles, and it was only natural to get excited. Prior to the season beginning, the bullpen was widely viewed as one of the best in the league, if not the best, and Jansen was a big part of that.
But, he wasn’t the only part, and he was pretty far removed from his dominant 2016-2017 period, where he was throwing up video game numbers. Still, Jansen seemed like as good a bet as nearly anyone to be a relatively rare 1+ WAR reliever... which is pretty much right where he ended up.
If I told you on Opening Day that Jansen would lead the league in saves with 41, post his best strikeout rate (32.7 percent) since 2017, all while lowering his walk rate (8.5 percent) on a team that would go on to win 101 games, you would be over the moon, right?
To be clear: Jansen was quite good in 2022. Everything gets amplified in the ninth inning on a team that needed to win every night from June 1, and he did his job most nights. He owned a 3.38 ERA, 3.21 FIP and 3.48 xFIP over 64 innings, and his 1.1 fWAR was tied for third on the team and a top-40 mark for relievers in MLB. There were nights the opposing hitters couldn’t make contact, let alone drive the ball with any authority. He looked largely like the game’s most dominant closer, as he was for a half-decade in L.A.
His Statcast numbers remained mostly strong:
And then, there were stretches of complete ineffectiveness that cost the Braves big time. His worst was a two-week stretch at the end of August and September where he very clearly did not have it and alarm bells tolled for A.J. Minter or Raisel Iglesias to assume the closer’s role. Brian Snitker stuck with his veteran the entire way. He ultimately figured things out and was on the mound as the Braves clinched the NL East on October 4th, and wrapped up their Game 2 NLDS victory.
What went right? What went wrong?
From a process perspective, though you’d never know it given that his 1.1 fWAR was his lowest full-season mark since a down year in 2018, a lot of things went right for Jansen. His 87 xFIP- was better than he managed in 2020 or 2021, and in line with his 2018-2019 numbers. He posted his best xwOBA-against/xERA since the video game numbers era was still ongoing in 2017, driven by a cutter renaissance.
From a results perspective, though... things were a little sour at times. He gave up a ton of fly balls, and while most of them were weakly hit, a lot of them weren’t. His 82 FIP- was his second-worst ever for any season. His WPA, which isn’t really his fault but is still what some people will judge him on, fell outside the top 60 among relievers in 2022. His shutdown-to-meltdown ratio was still great, above 4.00, but not quite as steady as he’s produced overall. His sinker still factored into his arsenal, despite some command and effectiveness issues.
Amusingly, Jansen’s highest WPA in a single game this season came on August 22, as he locked down a one-run save in 1-2-3 fashion... against the Pirates.
That was relatively simple, but he repeated it a few weeks later, when he again nailed down a one-run lead (from a Jake Odorizzi) start with a perfect frame in Miami, sealing the division title for Atlanta:
One more successful video: Jansen worming his way out of a jam he created:
He retired just three of the seven batters he faced in this frame, but it was still enough to lock down a win.
Of course, as mentioned, there were some rough times in 2022 as well. The meltdown in Seattle was probably the most notable — definitely a bottom-10 moment of his career. Jansen went out-homer-out-homer to turn a miraculously-achieved one-run lead into a brutal walkoff loss:
But even before his stretch of struggles, there was the occasional hiccup:
Hilariously, though, the Braves actually came back to win this game 6-5. So not every massive closer meltdown is an auto-loss, just a lot of them.
Jansen is once again a free agent, and it will be interesting to see where he ends up. One would assume the Braves would utilize his money elsewhere and employ Raisel Iglesias in the closer role, but Alex Anthopoulos has never been shy about bullpen spending. MLB Trade Rumors projects a two-year, $26 million deal for the veteran closer; other sources forecast a one-year deal in the $10-$14 million range. Any team that signs him will have to figure out how Jansen, who had the sixth-slowest pitching pace among all MLB hurlers to throw two pitches last year, is going to fare, or adapt to, the pitch clock that’s arriving for the 2023 season.