There’s a growing conundrum plaguing the minds of baseball’s best executives. To a man, each is searching for the sport’s most elusive prize: a shutdown bullpen.
See, hundreds of pitchers are drafted and signed by all 30 organizations every year. But none enters the sport’s professional ranks wanting to pitch in relief. Each has intentions on being a starter, as is evident by the oft-used phrase “he was sent to the bullpen,” which has an inherently negative connotation.
Baseball’s best all-time reliever, Mariano Rivera, began his MLB career as a starter. Such was the case for prized closers Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Aroldis Chapman of the NL champion Chicago Cubs, as both dabbled with starting staffs in the minor leagues.
The difficulty in evaluating which young pitcher may be an effective reliever is difficult because nearly every player is initially being judged as a starter. So when players like Jansen, a right-hander, and Chapman, a lefty, have perfected the art of late-inning relief, they become invaluable to teams.
And both will command huge contracts when they enter free agency this winter. Given the lack of starting pitching available in the upcoming free-agent class, those teams looking to bolster their pitching staffs will have to do so by improving the back end.
It’s Jansen, though, that should be given the most consideration by those teams.
The two pitchers are this close—Chapman would be the best of consolation prizes. Jansen’s 47 saves, though, were more than Chapman’s 36. The former did blow six saves to the southpaw’s three, but Jansen was put into 14 more save situations than Chapman.
Chapman’s measurables are eye-popping. His fastball tops 100 miles per hour as frequently as a stock car, while Jansen’s hovers in the mid-90s. But as one MLB executive talked about the evaluation of pitchers—both starters and relievers—earlier this season, he said it’s important to try to find people who can get outs.
In that case, Jansen wins in a photo finish.
Chapman had a WHIP of 0.862 this season, and Jansen’s was 0.670. Jansen’s 3.2 WAR led all relievers this season and was 0.5 better than Chapman, according to FanGraphs.
Sure, the difference is minuscule, but teams won’t look to sign both. As they decide which player to make the priority, it’s these kind of finite details executives will work through.
It’s like being the judge of the Miss America pageant. You’re deciding between All-Star-caliber players. They’re two of the top five relievers in the game.
But the value of a reliever is never greater than in the playoffs, where Jansen provides a team with more versatility.
That was evident by the flurry of deadline deals for relievers, including one that sent Chapman to the Cubs and ALCS MVP Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians.
The value of a shutdown inning in a five- or seven-game series is far greater than in a regular season when a team needs 90-plus wins to earn a division title. A reliever would never win the MVP award, but Miller was able to win the ALCS MVP because he was called upon to pitch in the series’ critical moments.
A reliever can separate himself as a postseason stalwart with the ability to pitch in different situations, or pitch longer than he may have otherwise been used to in the regular season.
Both Chapman and Jansen were, generally, ninth-inning players this year.
But Jansen proved he has the ability to earn six-out saves and pitch in non-save situations. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts used Jansen during critical middle-inning situations and for six-out saves.
In the NLCS, Chapman pitched in four games and Jansen appeared in three. But Jansen threw 6.1 innings and didn’t allow an earned run. Chapman pitched 4.2 innings and gave up two earned runs.
Twice in the series Chapman looked uncomfortable throwing in the eighth inning.
He was inserted into the eighth frame of Game 1 with no outs and the bases loaded. Manager Joe Maddon thought Chapman was the Cubs’ best chance at getting out of the jam and into the ninth inning with the lead.
But after striking out the first two batters, Chapman gave up a two-run single, which tied the game at three. The two runs Chapman gave up came in a non-save situation in a Game 5 win.
Chapman only has one postseason outing in which he pitched more than an inning. That came in Saturday’s Game 6 win when he recorded five outs in a non-save situation.
Jansen did it three times this year, including throwing 2.1 innings in Game 5 of the NLDS and three on Saturday where he faced the minimum nine batters.
That kind of versatility is important because, in theory, a team’s worst pitchers are its middle relievers. In an ideal scenario, a starting pitcher would hand the ball to the team’s closer.
Jansen’s ability to pitch longer outings bridges that gap, whereas a team on which Chapman plays is more likely to have to rely on other relievers to get him the ball.
That’s among the reasons Rivera was so good: In 96 postseason appearances, he pitched 141 innings.
Of course, any team would love to have Chapman. He can throw harder than anyone who has ever stepped onto the rubber. But remember: It’s about getting outs.
He just gets fewer than Jansen, which means that Jansen answers more of the questions that surround baseball’s elusive prize.
Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.