Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel are two of the better relief pitchers in MLB history, and find themselves currently competing to see which one will reach a milestone save quicker.
A long-time Los Angeles Dodger, Jansen landed a two-year, $32 million deal with the Boston Red Sox this past offseason, following a season in Atlanta that saw him lead the National League in both saves (41) and games finished (54).
For all the criticism that Chaim Bloom has taken during his curious tenure as Boston’s chief baseball officer, the Jansen signing looks like an excellent one to this point. Jansen has converted on all five of his save attempts in 2023, and has a 0.00 ERA across seven appearances.
Meanwhile, Kimbrel has become something of a mercenary in recent years, signing a one-year/$10 million deal to join the Philadelphia Phillies this offseason, following a relatively disappointing campaign with the Dodgers.
The eight-time All-Star isn’t technically the closer for the Phillies, because since taking over as the manager last June, Rob Thomson has played the matchups late in games rather than having a single pitcher entrenched in the ninth inning.
In a perfect world for the Phillies, José Alvarado — one of the best shows in baseball right now — would always be available for save situations. But on nights where Alvarado either pitches in an earlier inning or is altogether unavailable, Kimbrel and Seranthony Domínguez are more than capable of getting high-leverage outs as well.
In a win over the Colorado Rockies Saturday afternoon, Alvarado wasn’t available and Domínguez pitched the eighth inning, leaving Kimbrel to come in for the save. Kimbrel needed just eight pitches to set the Rockies down in order, notching the 396th save of his career.
Coincidentally, that tied him with Jansen on the all-time saves list. Six closers in MLB history currently have 400 or more saves: Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Francisco Rodriguez, John Franco and Billy Wagner. But both Jansen and Kimbrel now find themselves on the cusp of joining the exclusive club, which features three Hall of Famers — Rivera, Hoffman and Smith — and a fourth in Wagner that’s trending towards getting in himself.
Given that Jansen is a full-time closer, there’s a good chance that he’ll notch his 400th save before Kimbrel does. But both will get there in the first half of the 2023 season, creating interesting Cooperstown cases for each.
For his career, Jansen has a 2.44 ERA, 2.43 FIP and 22.7 WAR across 773 games, per FanGraphs. He’s a three-time All-Star and two-time Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year.
Kimbrel has a 2.35 ERA, 2.37 FIP and 20.2 WAR in 719 career appearances. He won the NL Rookie of the Year Award as a member of the Atlanta Braves in 2011, and his resume includes one Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year (2014 with the Braves) and one Rivera AL Reliever of the Year (2017 with the Red Sox).
Both currently fall short of the average bWAR, WAR 7 and JAWS of the average reliever in the Hall of Fame, but that may not be as valuable of a tool when studying Hall of Famer worthy closers as it is for other positions. First of all, there probably aren’t enough relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Secondly, the numbers are all thrown off a bit by the fact that Eckersley started 361 games in his career. Jansen and Kimbrel have made zero combined starts in the Majors.
Regardless, Jansen and Kimbrel both find themselves closing in on a save milestone that will put them into a different class in baseball history. And with another solid year or two, each could strengthen their case for Cooperstown.