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Starting Nine: Kenley Jansen, Brian Snitker and the issue of loyalty

Plus, Dansby Swanson making a run at Braves history and highs and lows from the west coast road trip

Atlanta Braves v Seattle Mariners
Kenley Jansen tops the National League with 33 saves, but since June 26 has the worst ERA and fWAR of any qualified Braves reliever.
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Sometimes, you scratch your head wondering why they even green-lit the sequel. Did the Tri-Lambs really need to go on spring break? Who was pining for another Scream movie? And why did the Fresh Prince need a gritty reboot?

In that vein, get ready, because Kevin Smith has created third Clerks move that nobody asked for.

The Atlanta Braves are penning their own Part Deux with one of the hot-button topics from last year’s world championship run.

The beleaguered closer.

This time, it’s Kenley Jansen in the role previously played by Will Smith, and like his predecessor, Jansen is going through a stretch that is victimizing more nails than a season of Ozark.

It worked the last time, as Smith took his late season struggles into a perfect postseason, and the loyalty and persistence with which manager Brian Snitker turns to his veteran closer gets things started in this week’s Starting Nine.

1. Jansen, Snitker and the issue of loyalty

“He’s leading the league in saves.” Those were the words of Snitker coming to the defense of Jansen last Friday, after the closer blew his seventh save of the season, and in the most gut-wrenching of fashions in giving up two home runs as an epic comeback went to waste against the Seattle Mariners. It was his third failed save attempt in Jansen’s last seven appearances.

Snitker is, more than anything, loyal. It’s defined his career in baseball, more than 40 years spent one organization — you know the story — from minor league player to bouncing around the organization in a variety of roles. Until finally, his chance.

Now he’s got a ring and four straight division titles, and designs on a fifth.

Loyalty was the foundation of that script. It was the same last season, when calls came that Smith wasn’t the right guy when the Braves closer was more cardiac that consistent, blowing four saves in August and September.

Snitker’s comment at the time? “He’s getting saves. He doesn’t have as many blown saves as these elite guys.”

Smith, despite the lowest fWAR (0.4) of anyone with more than 21 saves, rewarded his manager’s faith with a pristine postseason. Eleven games. Eleven innings. Six saves. Zero runs.

There’s precedent if you’re Snitker. Smith was his guy, he stuck with him, and he delivered when it mattered most. In Jansen, he has a closer with one of the best resumes of anyone to do it in this generation with three All-Star appearances, 383 career saves (ninth-most all-time) and 19 postseason saves (second all-time) — and, yes, he leads the National League in saves this season with 33.

The difference is while there were other options when Smith was struggling — Tyler Matzek had a 1.78 ERA in the second half of last season, Luke Jackson was striking out 10.57 per nine and A.J. Minter had experience closing — the Braves hadn’t gone out last summer and landed their closer of the future.

Raisel Iglesias has been sensational. In 16 2/3 innings over 18 games, he’s allowed one run, a 0.54 ERA to go with 20 strikeouts and four walks. Meanwhile, since June 26, Jansen has a 4.84 ERA, the worst of any qualified Braves reliever, and he’s last in fWAR (minus-0.3) among that group. He’s also walked 4.43 per nine in that stretch and allowed 2.01 home runs per nine.

While the 34-year-old has his best xBA (.176) since 2017 (.170), the hard-hit rate (32.8) is this worst of the Statcast era (since 2015), as his the fly ball rate (39.7 percent) and Jansen’s ground ball rate (29 percent) is the lowest he’s ever posted in a 162-game season. Batters are also averaging an 87.0 mph exit velocity, which is — if you’re sensing a trend — is also a career high.

Like Smith, Jansen may Snitker’s guy, but Iglesias is a luxury the Braves didn’t have a year ago. In the midst of a division battle with the Mets, Atlanta isn’t in position to let him work through his struggles on the fly in save situations, where he has a 4.23 ERA. In Jansen’s seven blown saves — which is one off the league lead — the Braves are 1-6, which looms large with the deficit in the National League East at a half game.

Tuesday’s work vs. the Giants was a positive, even if Jansen did allow a hit before recording to strikeouts to preserve a 5-1 win. Both of those Ks came on the trademark cutter, his first appearance with multiple putaways on the pitch since Aug. 12 and just the third of the second half.

Loyalty got Snitker this far, and it helped the Braves key a celebration last October, and should Jansen keep struggling, that loyalty is going to keep being questioned so long as he gets the ball with games on the line.

2. Dansby Swanson making a run (literally) at franchise history

The career year of Dansby Swanson, his final salvo before heading into free agency this winter, has him trending toward heights that no shortstop in franchise history has ever reached.

With 5.8 fWAR, he’s 0.3 from Denis Menke’s club record of 6.1 in 1964, and Swanson now has 20 home runs to go with 17 stolen bases. With three more swipes, he’ll be the Braves’ only player at the position ever to reach 20 homers and 20 steals in a season.

The only Braves to ever come close to a 20/20 season at shortstop are Jeff Blauser, who had 15 homers and 16 steals in 1993 and Rafael Furcal with 15 homers and 25 steals in 2003.

Swanson’s stolen base production has slowed considerably in the second half with four in all and just one since Aug. 21, after totaling 14 in the first half and five attempts since the beginning of August. But getting there in a season in which he’s posted a career-best fWAR and wRC+ (117) just figures to increase his value in contract negotiations.

Now, let’s turn our attention to some things that went right and some that went wrong during a 4-4 west coast road trip.

3. Right: Braves not the only ones failing to take advantage

After winning the first three games of the road trip, which included piling up 23 runs in sweeping the Oakland A’s and taking the first game against the Mariners to move atop the division for the first time this season, things got weird.

Seattle rookie George Kirby outdueled Max Fried, who gave up two home runs for the first time season and the first time since Sept. 1, 2021; and that series wrapped with Jansen letting an epic comeback go to waste. Then, Spencer Strider allowed a season-high nine hits in a series-opening loss to the San Francisco Giants, and after a rebound from Kyle Wright (which we’ll get into momentarily), the Braves had no answer for Carlos Rodon as Charlie Morton gave up four runs for the second straight game.

But while Atlanta was dealing with its third three-game losing streak of the season, the Mets failed to capitalize. They went 1-3 in that span, and the Braves return to Truist Park for a weekend series vs. the Philadelphia Phillies a half game back, which is exactly what the deficit was to start the three-game losing streak.

The best thing the Braves can say about their struggles is that the Mets were in the same boat, though that strength of schedule storyline surfaces again, as Atlanta turns its attention to a team in postseason position (Phillies), while the Mets play the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates.

4. Wrong: The big bats have hit a rough stretch

No Braves hitter has more home runs than Austin Riley’s 36, and Matt Olson sets the pace with 91 RBI. While both went deep on the road — Olson doing so back in his hold stomping grounds in Oakland, and Riley’s blast coming before the comeback that was for naught in Seattle — their bats continued what’s been a rough stretch.

Olson was 3-for-30 on the trip with that lone extra-base hit, continuing a rough stretch for the first baseman. Since Aug. 28, he’s hitting .076 (4-for-53) and has a mere one wRC+ in that span and 11 in September.

Meanwhile, Riley, who was 4-for-31 over these eight games, is hitting .174 (8-for-46) since Sept. 1, and has 90 wRC+ this month, his first month under league average since June 2021.

As an aside, it may be time to trot out the rest/workload conversation, as Olson is tied for the league lead with 143 games played, while Riley is tied for seventh with 141. Swanson, who despite his career-high numbers, has played is as many games as Olson and is in his second straight month of below-league average production at the plate. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Luckily for this offense Michael Harris II is raking this month (224 wRC+), and Vaughn Grissom (133) and Robbie Grossman (128) are having strong months as well. But they’re the only qualified hitters this month hitting above average.

5. Right: Kyle Wright shows his growth

After allowing a career-high eight earned runs on five hits with two homers against the A’s, Kyle Wright bounced back with 5 1/3 one-run innings in a victory over the Giants that gave him an MLB-leading 18 wins.

Wright’s curveball has redefined him as a pitcher, throwing the pitch more (?) than at any point of his five MLB seasons. The A’s jumped on it to the tune of a .400 average, but the Giants were hitless on the 28 he threw Tuesday.

Of note, the 28 percent Wright threw was his lowest usage rate since May 29, as he prioritized his sinker (32 percent), which was the only pitch the Giants had any success against.

If the A’s gameplan was to focus on the curve, Wright flipping the script to ultimately make it more effective shows the continued growth in his breakout season.

6. Wrong: Charlie Morton’s road woes

Charlie Morton has been very, very strong at Truist Park. His .191 average against is bettered by only Strider’s .186, and He’s pitched to a 2.96 ERA at home and 1.01 WHIP, which is also second to Strider (0.96).

The road has been a different story, and it played out twice on the west-coast swing, as the veteran gave up four runs to both the Mariners and Giants, including allowing three homers to Seattle.

He now has staff worst on the road in 5.38 ERA, home runs per nine (1.60), average against (.257) and weighted on-base average (.349).

The topic of who should make up the postseason rotation proved a hot button issue last week, and Morton isn’t making the strongest of cases with the playoffs weeks away.

7. Right: Eddie Rosario’s signs of life

Like Don Draper finding himself out west, a trip to the left coast may have been exactly what Eddie Rosario needed in a season that hasn’t gone to plan.

Hitting a mere .068 before he underwent eye surgery in April, Rosario was at .222 with a .630 OPS in 47 games from his return until the Braves began this just-finished road trip. But he hit .500 (6-for-12) in five games, including going 6-for-9 in the last four and had five hits against the Giants.

He’s hitting .205 on the season with a .574 OPS and has a career-low 57 wRC+, but after his exploits last postseason, it’s at least a sign that Rosario may be trending in the right direction at the right time.

8. Wrong: Tyler Matzek is going to find it again, right?

Tyler Matzek’s three strikeouts Wednesday in San Francisco was the first time he’d fanned three in an appearance since April 22, and the first time since he an injury-list stint that cost the left-hander nearly two months. But Matzek’s still not consistently been the lockdown force he was a season ago.

Before that aforementioned 1 1/3 vs. the Giants, he allowed a run in each of his previous appearances, including a homer vs. the A’s on Sept. 7 and one against the Mariners on Sunday. His last four appearances include a 4.91 ERA and since coming off the injured list July 4, Matzek is fanning 7.11 per nine; a year ago, he was averaging 11.0 K/9. He’s also seen a 30-point jump year over year in expected batting average (.221) and a 103-point increase in expected slugging (.387).

To Matzek’s credit, the average fastball velocity is ticking back up. In July it was at 93.9 mph, then 94.1 in August and 94.2 this month, but it’s still down from last year (96 mph).

To close, let’s take a hard right and break out some cake and ice cream to celebrate a Hall of Famer ...

9. HBD, Kid Nichols

Spencer Strider has already made his mark amid his sensational rookie season, breaking the Atlanta era record for strikeouts in a game (16) and has the best fWAR (4.1) of any first-year pitcher since the team moved to Georgia.

But he, and every other Braves rookie pitcher are looking up when it comes to birthday boy Kid Nichols.

His 8.4 fWAR in 1890 at age 20 ranks second all-time across baseball with rookie starters, a season in which he started 48 games, winning 27 of them, threw 424 innings and struck out 222 with a 2.23 ERA. He also led the NL with seven shutouts and a 2.98 FIP.

He was Greg Maddux way before Greg Maddux, per a pitching style broken down by Charlie Bennett, his catcher with the Braves. “His favorite method is to throw fast balls and switch off to slow ones constantly to keep a batter puzzling over what he is going to do. He will give it just a little upward movement or outward shoot of not more than a few inches, but it takes a very quick eye to gauge it.”

The eventual Hall of Famer spent the first 12 years of his career with the Braves, winning 330 games, and it got started with a rookie season that figures to keep standing the test of time.

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