Who: Casey Janssen, No. 44. Right-handed relief pitcher. Deceptively tall at 6’3, 225 LBS. 30 years old.
Provenance: Orange, CA. Drafted out of UCLA (Brooins!) in the fourth round of the 2004 amateur draft by the Blue Jays.
Contract Status: Got paid this offseason with a two-year, $5.9 million pact which also includes a $4 million option for 2014.
The Career Thus Far: Five MLB seasons. 221 games pitched for Toronto (18th in club history), 22 starts. 3.81 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 223 strikeouts and 90 walks in 331.0 innings pitched. Nine saves, if you’re in to that sort of thing.
2011 Stats: 2.26 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 53 strikeouts and 14 walks in 55.2 innings over 55 games with the Blue Jays. 6-0 record, if that’s your bag.
Don’t Even Bother…: …With your Mr. Dressup-themed taunts. By the time that you explain to Casey who his namesake was, and that he lived in a treehouse and his dog was named Finnegan and the dog spoke to him, you’ll have exhausted yourself, and he won’t even care. Don't go there.
Looking Back: A few years back, we looked at Casey Janssen as just another busted-out arm, trying to salvage an extra year or so out of a baseball career that was being cut short by a labrum tear. Chasing the “3% chance of being Rocky Biddle,” to paraphrase injury expert Will Carroll.
Now, Janssen is a key contributor to the Blue Jays’ success, and unquestionably one of our favourite members of the pitching staff. He’s a twitchy, high-energy reliever who works quickly and effectively, and wears high socks with aplomb and without looking as though he’s trying to bring pantaloons back into fashion. Moreover, we love the way he drops and drives to the plate with his legs, like he’s infringing on Tom Seaver’s copyright over that delivery.
Ultimately, the reason that we think so highly of Janssen can be reduced to one key metric: strikeouts per nine. When Janssen returned after missing a season due to his labrum surgery and rehab, he had trouble finding the means of eliciting swings out of hitters. As a result, he was around the plate often, but as evidenced by his 5.40 K/9 rate, he wasn’t fooling many with his stuff. For a relief pitcher, being able to leave a batter with his bat in his hand in a high-leverage situation is an essential skill, and Janssen’s reliance on his fielders made him resemble a mop-up pitcher at best.
But over the past two seasons, Janssen’s fastball velocity has returned and improved (from 90.4 MPH in 2009 to 92.1 MPH last year) and his K rate has increased remarkably, from the aforementioned 5.40 to 8.26 in 2010 and 8.57 in 2011. He’s also de-emphasized his slider (from 15% of his pitches in 2010 down to just 4.7% last year), and added in the de rigeur cutter (25% to 30% to 37.5% over past three seasons.)
And if there’s one thing we like to see from our relievers, it’s some fastballs that deserve the moniker.
Looking Forward: For all of the caution and equivocating that we’ve demonstrated throughout this season preview process, we’ll probably lose our mind over our expectations for Janssen.
Sure, it’s possible that he regresses, and that hitters around the league catch up with him. But we can’t state enough how much we appreciate the skills of keeping the ball down in the zone, and throwing it hard. Add to that the fact that Casey doesn’t dilly-dally on the mound, and you’ve got a guy who we love to see get the ball in close situations.
(One of our favourite mental images is the speed with which Janssen steps of the mound, gets the rosin bag, resets with a big shoulder shrug, then lets it rip. It just looks like it’s so much fun to be him out there.)
Though we think the Jays now have a better closer option, it wouldn’t have bothered us at all to come into the season with Janssen pegged to be the monster at the end of the bullpen. As it stands, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him manage to get five saves over the course of the season. If you’re in to that sort of thing.
2012 Expectations: With the glut of good arms competing for late innings, we figure that Casey will take the mound in a whole host of situations. Which is perfectly fine by us. If he’s needed to take the ball anywhere from the sixth through the ninth inning, we reasonably expect him to respond with an ERA in the low 3.00’s and just under a strikeout per inning.