Photo via Rob Carr/Getty Images North America
Once a minor league catcher who struggled to hit the baseball, Kenley Jansen has blossomed into one of the game’s premier relief pitchers. In 2016, a contract year, Jansen demonstrated his dominance out of the bullpen, leading all relievers in WAR* (3.2) and finishing second in FIP** (1.44). The Curacaoan hit the market at an opportune time, too, as major league games are increasingly dominated by hard throwing relievers (and relievers in general).
Using baseball-reference.com, I ran a query and found that, over the past decade, relief pitchers’ SO9 have increased by 1.4, from 7.3 K/9 to 8.7 K/9. This is significant, especially if you consider that over the previous 10 years this statistic remained fairly stagnant, hovering around the 7.3 K/9 threshold. Using the same query, I found that since 1988, the average bullpen’s OPS+ against has dropped from 100 (league average, including starters and relievers) to 94 (6 percent better than league average). From this, we can deduce two things. One, relief performance has clearly improved over the last 25+ years. Two, relievers are outperforming starters.
Prior to the 2016 offseason, the biggest contract ever signed by a reliever was $50 million over four years by Jonathan Papelbon in 2011. This offseason, three relievers have already signed larger contracts: Mark Melancon, Aroldis Chapman, and now Kenley Jansen. So, is Kenley Jansen worth the five years and $80 million the Dodgers gave him?
Fangraphs has a model for converting a player’s WAR into his value on the free-agent market. There are a few other websites with different calculations, but the basic method adds together all the free agent salaries from a given offseason and examines the ratio of dollars to one WAR. Using a general consensus from multiple sites, one WAR on the open market during the 2015 offseason was worth about $7.7 million. According to this model, Kenley Jansen’s 3.2 WAR last season would’ve been worth $24.6 million on the open market.
From 2012-2016, Jansen compiled a WAR of 11.4. If we use the 2015 market estimate, Jansen was worth $88.8 million. Now Jansen is going into his age 29 season. Say he gets slightly less productive and is worth one less win over his five-year contract with the Dodgers. In this scenario, he’d be worth almost exactly $80 million. Obviously, we can’t pinpoint Jansen’s exact WAR over the next five seasons, but he’ll likely continue to do much of the same.
It’s safe to say that the Dodgers actually paid what the market dictated Jansen was worth. It’s difficult to measure Jansen’s value to the Dodgers bullpen specifically, but in 2016 the next closest FIP to his 1.44 was Joe Blanton’s 3.33. Not re-signing him would’ve left a hole at the back of the bullpen.
Five years and $80 million for Kenley Jansen ain’t too shabby.
*WAR = Wins Above Replacement
Measures how many “wins” a player is worth; a zero WAR is “replacement level”.
**FIP = Fielding Independent Pitching
Essentially a replacement for earned run average; however, FIP only takes into account true outcomes, or things the pitcher has total control over (e.g., home runs, walks, and strikeouts).