For years, the Toronto Blue Jays had been looking for that special bit of 9th inning magic on the mound. Ever since BJ Ryan‘s shoulder blew up, taking with it to the drain his expensive contract, the team has gone through a number of means to get to that end: there was the Kevin Gregg wild ride years, and then another where they signed 3 different potential closers – Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel – with none of them panning out. Alex Anthopoulos went the trade route this past off-season, acquiring the lights-out slider of Sergio Santos, and immediately anointing him the closer before spring training. As we all know by now, a bum shoulder derailed that plan too.
No more. As it turned out, losing the teams newly-anointed closer was something of a blessing in disguise (although kind of a shitty one, because Santos happens to be quite good), because the Blue Jays apparently had their 9th inning man in the bullpen all along – a homegrown option in Casey Janssen. A former starter-turned reliever after shoulder surgery, Janssen was excellent in middle relief last season, but has long been the underdog in winning the 9th inning job because he lacks the traditional “closer’s arsenal” of a blow-it-by-you fastball and a wipeout breaking pitch (not something that’s totally disagreeable, really). Even as Francisco Cordero was coughing up run after run early in the season, the team opted not to go with Janssen, until it became so overwhelming clear that there simply wasn’t another choice if they want to win ball games.
Finally, with Cordero on the skids and Santos nowhere close to having a return timetable, the Blue Jays handed the 9th inning to Janssen, and he hasn’t looked back since: in 44.1 innings since May (when he took over), Janssen has posted a 1.84 ERA / 0.77 WHIP, along with an almost uncharacteristically good 9.59 K/9. He’s converted 19-of-21 save chances in terms of counting numbers, and opponents are batting just .185 against him this season. You combine that with continually improving control (1.51 BB/9), and what the Blue Jays have ended up with what might be one of the the most unlikely shutdown closers in the league today (maybe besides Fernando Rodney).
What’s the key to his success? Well, control is one big factor, and his profile suggests that simplifying his arsenal – going with more fastballs and less sliders (15% in ’10, 4.7% and 5.2% in 11′ & ’12 respectively) might have something to do with it as well. Despite not having a big fastball, opponents haven’t really figured out Janssen’s low-90s stuff, and he’s been able to keep them off-balance with an improved curveball – going from a 5-pitch starter with a couple of under-developed pitches to a (primarily) 3 pitch reliever has been a proven formula for Janssen so far.
So where do the Blue Jays go from here? Santos is supposed to be good to go for next spring, but at this point, there is very little justification to not have Janssen begin next season as the Blue Jays closer. Relievers careers tend to be volatile, of course, and it’s very possible that we could be talking about very different results from Janssen next season as the rest of the league continues to make adjustments. That said, Janssen’s emergence has the 9th inning – even if it’s been brewing since last season – has been quite the underdog story this season, no? After all the ups-and-downs that the Blue Jays bullpen has gone through over the last couple of season, perhaps it’s the homegrown option that will finally stick.