The Struggling Bobby Jenks

Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston recently caught up with Red Sox manager Terry Francona.  Not surprisingly, Bobby Jenks was one of the primary topics of discussion.

“After a tough weekend for Bobby Jenks, who blew a lead and was saddled with Friday’s 5-4 loss, then came in Sunday and blew a two-run lead, Red Sox manager Terry Francona said “we are not going to run from him. He’s going to help us win a lot of games.”

While Francona voiced his support, he has cause to consider taking the same approach with Jenks as he did with Carl Crawford when he dropped Crawford to the No. 8 hole in the batting order. Until Jenks gets his act together, Francona might want to avoid using him in a close games — the preferred term these days is “high-leverage” situations. Matt Albers, who retired all six batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings, has a 1.13 ERA and provides a logical alternative to Jenks, whose ERA now stands at 9.35.”

I’ve been hearing a lot of people compare Jenks to Eric Gagne over the last few days.  While that’s understandable given his recent performance, the comparison is neither fair nor one that fits.  Do people have cause for concern with respect to Jenks?  Yeah, I’d say there is a cause for some concern, but certainly not to the level of panic that seems to be making it’s way through certain sects of Red Sox Nation and mainstream media.  In his 11 pitching appearances thus far, he’s pitched only 8-2/3 innings, given up nine runs, allowed 22 base runners, and blown two saves.  I think it’s safe to say Jenks hasn’t been performing up to anyone’s expectations through the first month of the season.  Well, maybe that’s not entirely true.  I’m sure somewhere Ozzie and Oney Guillen are gleefully poking pins to an overstuffed Bobby Jenks voodoo doll as well speak, but that’s a story for another time.

The biggest concern regarding Jenks is with respect to his control and ability to limit walks.  Of the 22 base runners he’s allowed so far, nine have been via the free pass.  Yes, folks—nine.  For a pitcher with his talent, that figure is both startling and unsettling.  While Jenks has never had elite level control, his BB/9 rates have been pretty solid over the past four seasons; typically registering in the 2-3 BB/9 range.  Even in the past when he went through performance lulls, it wasn’t because of walks.  It was because of poor luck on balls in play.

So what’s causing his gruesome walk rates?

Well, for starters, he’s not getting ahead of hitters early in the count.  In previous seasons, Jenks had been very successful at registering first pitch strikes.  This season, that trend has reversed, and he’s registering them on fewer than half of the batters he’s faced.  Due to his inability to throw strikes consistently, hitters are staying back, remaining patient, and waiting for a pitch they can drive.  To add further insult to injury, hitters are much less likely to swing at “pitcher’s pitches” (i.e. pitches thrown outside of the strike zone) when facing pitchers with control issues.  This effect creates deeper counts, fewer whiffs, and lower levels of “weak contact” batted balls, none of which puts the pitcher in a position to succeed.  If Jenks can find away to recapture his ability to execute on strike one more consistently, he should be able to cut his walk total down to a more manageable figure.  While this certainly won’t guarantee future success for Jenks, it should push him in the right direction.

Year F-Strike % Strike % O-Swing %
2005 67.9% 66.2% 27.7%
2006 60.3% 65.0% 26.9%
2007 60.2% 67.9% 29.9%
2008 71.2% 67.4% 28.3%
2009 61.4% 65.9% 25.3%
2010 62.3% 64.7% 27.4%
2011 47.9% 58.0% 21.7%

Luckily for both Jenks and the Red Sox, he’s only pitched 8-2/3 innings to date.  As gruesome and uncomfortable as those innings have been, it’s likely not representative for how he’ll pitch over the course of the season.  It’s probably fair to assume he won’t continue to walk batters at a rate of one per inning.  Furthermore, considering his current and career batted ball rates, it’d be foolish for us to think he’ll continue to allow hitters to bat .448 on balls in play.  As a result, Jenks is due for a pretty hefty dose of regression toward the mean.

This brings us back to Edes’ original question.  Should Francona take the “Carl Crawford” approach with Jenks by putting him in lower leverage situations until his performance rebounds?  While it couldn’t hurt to reduce his role temporarily, I’m not sure it’s necessary.  Given Jenks’ talent level and recent performance history, along with my distaste for people who make rash decisions based on small sample sizes, it seems a bit foolish to make such a drastic change at this point.  To put his performance into more practical terms, he hasn’t even pitched enough innings to qualify for a complete game (if he was a starter).  It’s possible (or even probable) he’s going through his annual slump right now; rather than during the mid-season or late in year.  For all we know, his last appearance was the end of his slump, and his next appearance will be the beginning of a performance upswing.  We don’t know.  It’s also possible his performance will improve regardless of his bullpen role.

I’m not saying they leave him in the role indefinitely, but considering the resources spent on acquiring the portly fireballing right-hander, they should give him a little more time to right the ship.  Furthermore, while Matt Albers appears to be the better pitcher, I’m not sure he’s the right man to hold down such a high leverage job.  His 1.13 ERA looks nice, but it masks his pedestrian 6/4 K/BB ratio and 4.44 xFIP.  Even if you look beyond his 2011 small sample influenced stats, his career 4.71 xFIP and 212/153 K/BB ratio makes his current performance out to be even more of a mirage.

Aside from injury, long-term mechanical issues, or Steve Blass disease, Jenks’ performance is an excellent bet to rebound.

Categories: Bobby Jenks Boston Red Sox

After being slapped with a restraining order for stealing Nick Cafardo's mail, I was forced into retirement for a brief period of time. As fun as it was to lounge around the community pool and play shuffleboard with noted internet columnist, Murray Chass, I quickly felt a yearning to write again. Now in my second tenure with Fire Brand, I have set lofty goals of achieving world domination, ending the plight of the hipsters, and becoming BFFs with Mike Trout. I am fluent in two languages (Sarcasm and English, in that order); have an intimate relationship with M&Ms; firmly believe that Lucille is the best character on Arrested Development; and spend my spare time trolling select members of the Boston media. You can follow me on Twitter @Chip_Buck.

One Response to “The Struggling Bobby Jenks” Subscribe

  1. Mr Punch May 4, 2011 at 9:01 AM #

    It shouldn't make the slightest difference what he's being paid – and if the Sox think it does, that's plain incompetence. The team's slow start has burned through the margin for this kind of "give him time" approach. Scott Schoeneweiss looked just like this, but at least he was a lefty – though that didn't help.