MLB: Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen have been transcendently good

Jun 9, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) reacts after defeating the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 9, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) reacts after defeating the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

Pitching has rarely stolen the spotlight in Major League Baseball this year. Home runs are being hit in record numbers, and almost no man on the mound is safe from the offensive onslaught. But amidst the power surge, we may be seeing two of the greatest pitching seasons in recent memory.

Remember when people were pushing Zach Britton for the Cy Young Award in 2016? The Orioles’ closer had an incredible year, saving 47 games with a 0.55 ERA and holding opponents to a minuscule .162 average. Britton made an admirable run at becoming the first Cy Young-winning reliever since Eric Gagne (2003), but he ultimately finished fourth.

Maybe this year, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen can finish what Britton started. During a season that nearly feels like the dawn of a new live-ball era, the two closers have been undressing hitters from the mound since April. Their dominance has boosted both the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers near the top of their respective divisions, and if they keep it up, Kimbrel and Jansen could be legitimate candidates for the Cy Young Award by year’s end. If either wins, he would be the only the 10th closer to achieve the feat.

The biggest hurdle in Kimbrel’s path to history is teammate Chris Sale, who is likely the current consensus winner. It will never be easy for a reliever to go head-to-head with a starter’s statistics, but Kimbrel does so admirably. His 16.77 strikeouts-per-nine rate, 1.42 BB/9 and 0.28 HR/9 are all superior to Sale’s numbers—albeit over a significantly smaller sample size. And to put things in perspective, those stats also stack up very favorably against Britton’s 2016 campaign (9.94 K/9, 2.42 BB/9, 0.13 HR/9).

Jansen’s numbers look similarly rosy. The Dodgers’ bullpen anchor averages 15.17 strikeouts-per-nine and 0.3 HR/9. He has still yet to walk a single batter in 2017 through nearly 30 innings and, like Kimbrel, owns an ERA under one. Jansen is long overdue for a serious run at the National League pitching crown: He has consistently been one of baseball’s premier relievers for years, but his greatness has reached a new level this season.

What makes Kimbrel and Jansen’s season to date even more incredible is the fact that, according to advanced statistics, their numbers should look better. Jansen’s FIP has risen from its ridiculous earlier mark of 0.01, but it hasn’t jumped by much. Adjusted for fielding, Jansen’s ERA should actually fall from 0.91 to 0.29; Kimbrel’s is trimmed from 0.85 to 0.38.

And those figures take an absurdist turn when you dig in further. When Jansen pitches with men in scoring position, his strikeout rate jumps to 17.05 K/9 and his FIP is a silly −0.67; it literally breaks the metric.

Kimbrel is somehow better. Not only is his FIP an even-lower −0.76 with RISP, but he also ups his K-rate to an equally unfair 22.24 strikeouts-per-nine. When the other team has threatened to score this year, Kimbrel has more or less transformed into the best pitcher who ever lived—and Jansen isn’t far behind. They may not give you nine innings, but one frame provides plenty of value when it’s that dominant.

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Unsurprisingly, Boston and Los Angeles are both undefeated in 2017 when taking a lead into the ninth inning. Kimbrel and Jansen have been ultimate game-shorteners, effectively giving opponents 24 outs (or fewer) to beat their team. Kimbrel’s WAR so far this season (2.2) actually ranks him as valuable as Clayton Kershaw, while Jansen’s (1.9) puts him above Carlos Carrasco. Perhaps even more tellingly, Kimbrel leads the majors in Win Probability Added (2.86), and Jansen ranks sixth (2.30).

As the two closers approach the season’s halfway mark, their otherworldly performances have them on pace to possibly surpass Gagne’s ’03 campaign—which makes you appreciate how impressive the former Dodger hurler was during his Cy Young-winning year. Gagne converted a perfect 55 of 55 save opportunities, racked up 137 strikeouts (14.98 K/9) and pitched to a 0.86 FIP. His WAR that season calculated to 4.7, which is more than Jon Lester was worth to the world champion Chicago Cubs last year. If Kimbrel and Jansen matched those numbers, would they be Cy Young frontrunners?

Probably not. Starters are almost always, by definition, more valuable than relievers, and Mark Prior or Jason Schmidt probably deserved the award over Gagne back then in the first place. Nevertheless, Kimbrel and Jansen have still been two of the most precious assets in the league this season. Just think about how much better the Nationals would be if either were traded to Washington.

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But most importantly for the Red Sox and Dodgers, their closers’ stability in the late innings will serve the teams well come October. Why settle for a Cy Young Award when you could gun for the World Series MVP?