Tomase: Jansen’s late-game impact has helped save Red Sox’ season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
If you’re wondering what has changed about the Red Sox in the last year, score one for the dinosaurs.
When it comes to new-age roster construction, everyone needs a closer, but the smartest front offices like to pluck them from nowhere before moving on to the next guy. The Rays have mastered the art of the churn, but they’re hardly alone; the same pitcher hasn’t led the Braves in saves since Jim Johnson in 2016-17.
The Red Sox have tried to survive without an experienced fireman nailing down the ninth since Craig Kimbrel left in 2018. They got a great season out of Brandon Workman in 2019 and half of one out of Matt Barnes two years later, but the final outs have frequently proved dangerous for manager Alex Cora.
Tomase: As Red Sox roll, underachieving Yankees are taking on water
Not anymore. In Kenley Jansen, the Red Sox took the direct approach, paying big money (two years, $32 million) for a 35-year-old entering his 14th season. An analytically inclined front office might label the decision lazy, since it’s always possible to find someone who throws 98 mph and just needs to change the shape of their blah blah blah to do the job for peanuts.
But on the same day they lost shortstop Xander Bogaerts to the Padres in free agency, the Red Sox pivoted to Jansen, and it’s safe to say they have no regrets.
Six weeks into his Red Sox career, Jansen has been dynamite. He’s 1-0 with a 0.84 ERA and eight saves in nine chances. His 36.4 percent strikeout rate harkens back to his heyday with the Dodgers when he was making three straight All-Star teams from 2016-18.
As we search for reasons to explain why the Red Sox are 21-15 on this date instead of 10-19 like a year ago, the most obvious place to start is at the end.
With all due respect to the relentless offense and the emergence of youngsters like Jarren Duran and Connor Wong, the Red Sox have raced to the sixth-best record in baseball because they don’t turn wins into heartbreaking losses.
They’ve blown two saves, and then won both of those games anyway. At this point last year, they had already blown eight saves and been walked off four times. Consider some of the lowlights from 2022:
On opening day in Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox took a 5-4 lead in the 10th, but Jake Diekman and Ryan Brasier blew it before Kutter Crawford got walked off in just his second big-league appearance.
On April 23 in Tampa, the Red Sox broke a scoreless tie with two runs in the 10th, only to buckle up for Hansel Robles. With two outs and just the ghost runner on, Trevor Story fumbled what should’ve been the game-ending grounder. Two batters later, Kevin Kiermaier sent everyone home with a two-run blast to right.
Or how about April 26 in Toronto? The Blue Jays were down to their last strike in a 5-3 game before George Springer took Diekman deep for the game-tying homer. The Matts (Barnes and Strahm) then combined to lose it in the 10th.
Those were just devastating, gut-punch losses, and they seemed to come at least once a week. The Red Sox haven’t suffered a single defeat on par with any of them this year. The closest thing would probably be a 1-0 loss to the Rays as part of a four-game sweep when Chris Martin surrendered a solo homer in the eighth.
But that’s pretty much it, and it starts with Jansen. Imagine this season without him. Instead of John Schreiber and Josh Winckowski settling into their roles as workhorse setup men who know they should be ready between the sixth and the eighth, Cora would be forced to lean on one or both in the ninth. Maybe he’d have tried to shoehorn Martin in there, à la Diekman last year.
Instead, Jansen has provided order, as well as the peace of mind that comes with having a bona fide last line of defense.
It’s the way teams used to be built, before front offices started trying to outsmart one another. Sometimes the easiest solution is also the best solution, and the dinosaurs have their day.