NEW YORK – Mention the numbers to Casey Janssen, and he’s quick to point out how early it is, and how the baseball schedule will eventually even everything out.
There’s a lot of that kind of talk going on right now with the Toronto Blue Jays, only while many of his teammates are expecting a natural progression to the mean, he instead raises the matter in reference to a regression.
Confused? Totally understandable, these are strange times for the 31-year-old closer.
“It’s a little skewed so far with it being the start of the season and not having too many innings,” Janssen said Thursday of his first eight games, in which he’s allowed only one run on three hits with no walks and 11 strikeouts. “I’m sure at some point it’ll get back to my career norms, whatever they are, but right now I’m trying to do what I do, which is change speeds, hit my spots and have my fastball command.”
While maintaining such a pace is near impossible – Fernando Rodney allowed only five earned runs in 76 games last year for the Tampa Bay Rays, so never say never – Janssen’s realism is rooted more in his irksome right shoulder, surgically repaired last October and still not quite right.
By no means is he hurt, and he insists he’s not guarding it when he’s out on the mound, but neither is he back to where he was last year.
“It’s a grind,” Janssen explained. “There are days when it doesn’t feel great and there are days when it feels okay. It’s just part of it. I don’t think anyone feels 100 per cent. Everyone’s kind of giving it whatever they have each day. That’s kind of what’s expected of us.”
A telling sign of that can be found in his velocity.
His average fastball velocity so far is 89.7 m.p.h., down two m.p.h. from last year, according to fangraphs.com. He’s also down two m.p.h. on his curveball (73.7), and another mile an hour on his cutter (89.1). Only his slider at 85 m.p.h. is unchanged.
“I’m not thinking about it,” Janssen said. “Whatever you have that day is what you have and you’ve got to pitch with what you’ve got. To look at the miles per hour is deflating enough, so I’ve stopped doing that, you’ve just got to pitch, and you read swings, you read the hitters’ reactions and make pitches with your off-speed pitches. …
“I don’t know if I can be better, but I know my arm can feel better. You don’t want to look too far into everything because I’ve been good enough, but I’d like to say my arm can feel better.”
Certainly his performance hasn’t been affected, and the sample size remains far too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, but it’s worth noting his groundball rate is up to 56.3 per cent from 42.5, while the percentage of swing and miss against him has risen to per cent, up to 11.4 per cent of his strikes from 9.5.
If anything, Janssen seems to have compensated for the velocity drop by making better pitches, so his repertoire as it is will certainly play.
More important, is that there are days his shoulder won’t allow him to pitch, leading him to ask manager John Gibbons for a day of rest here and there as needed.
“I hate it, it’s not the way I’m wound,” Janssen said.
The challenge is in deciding which days he can grind through an outing, and in trying to make himself available on days when his lockdown ninths are needed most.
With Sergio Santos on the disabled list with triceps tightness – he played catch Thursday, but is probably at least a couple of weeks, perhaps more away from returning – he’s the club’s best option for the ninth inning.
“If we were 13-5 right now they may be more inclined to get a day or something like that, these wins are important just as they’re important in September,” Janssen said. “I’m hoping for that four-day stretch where we have a couple of lopsided wins, and then I can rest that way as opposed to asking for days off.”
Worth remembering too is that Janssen was no lock to break camp with the Blue Jays, as his recovery from shoulder surgery kept him from going full tilt until mid-March.
The thinking is the shoulder will get stronger and stronger the further removed he is from the shoulder surgery, although that process is somewhat fragile.
He was feeling at his best before a 20-pitch outing in Kansas City on April 13, when he gave up his only run in locking down his third save despite seeing “good carry on the ball,” but hasn’t had the same sense since.
“It kind of got me a little bit, it was a little bit of a battle, and just haven’t really hit my stride from there,” Janssen said. “The positive is I know I’ve had those good days so I know they’re going to come again, and it’s just a matter of getting back to that point again where my catch can be crisp every day, and you can continue to long-toss and build strength.”
Until then, Janssen can only hope to continue his efficiency – four of his eight outings have required 12 pitches or less – and keep on hitting his spots.
“I’ve always had the mentality it’s going to happen fast, good or bad, hopefully it’s in the win column and get ready for tomorrow,” he said. “The fewer pitches you throw, the more opportunity you have to go back out the next day.”
The Blue Jays certainly want to give him plenty of chances.