Kenley Jansen has already taken over the Dodgers’ record of most saves as a Dodger. Jansen is having one of the greatest seasons for a closer but is he better than Eric Gagne in his prime?
Kenley Jansen and Eric Gagne are without a doubt the two greatest closers in Dodgers history; both pitchers are ranked one and two in career Dodgers’ saves respectively. You can make the argument that Jansen is already the all-time greatest Dodgers closer because of his sustained success and longevity.
Jansen has already nearly doubled Gagne on the amount of seasons he has been a Dodgers closer. This season is Jansen’s sixth season as closer while Gagne only was healthy enough to pitch three seasons as a closer, he only played in 16 games his last two years with the team. But this is about comparing Gagne in his prime to Jansen today.
Jansen is amazing and is having one of the greatest seasons for a closer right now. He allowed the first walk of the season yesterday afternoon while striking 51 batters. However, it’s hard to argue that any closer in MLB history was more dominate than Gagne in his prime.
In a three-year stretch from 2002-2004 Gagne recorded 152 saves converting a still MLB record 84 consecutive saves and won the 2003 NL Cy Young. Gagne only blew six saves during those three seasons, Jansen blew six saves in 2016 alone. During that stretch, Gagne had a 1.79 ERA, 13.3 SO/9, .167 OBA, and a 0.821 WHIP.
Out of those three seasons, it is the 2003 season that stands out as the best. As great as Jansen has been this season it is hard for me to argue that he has had a more dominant season than Gagne in ’03. Gagne’s ’03 season is still the greatest regular season by a closer in baseball history.
In that Cy Young winning seasons, he posted a 1.20 era with a league leading 55 saves without blowing one. He also had a 0.86 FIP, 15.0 SO/9, 0.692 WHIP. Jansen is currently posting numbers similar or better than some of Gagne’s. Jansen this season has a 0.43 FIP, 14.5 SO/9, 0.548 WHIP.
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But what makes things even more incredible for Gagne is that the Dodgers had the worst offense in the majors that season. The Dodgers only averaged 3.54 runs per game that season while the league average was 4.73.
This meant that many of Gagne’s 55 saves came in one-run games where the margin of error was so remarkably small and he still never once blew a save. The Dodgers won 85 games that season which means he closed an unbelievable 64.7 % of the teams total wins which the highest ever in one season.
At his peak, Gagne possessed three of the best pitches in baseball. He had 97-100 mph fastball, and Kershaw-esque 12-6 curveball, and 86-88 mph circle change with a devastating break. He could go to any pitch at any time in the count which made it very difficult for any batter to guess what he was throwing.
He was virtually unhittable and allowed only a .133 opponent batting average and only 56.1 % contact rate. In comparison, Jansen currently allows .153 OBA and 64.9 % contact rate this season.
Opposing teams knew they had no chance when Gagne came in. The Dodgers were so confident in Gagne’s closing abilities that the team would literally put the words “game over” on every screen in Dodgers Stadium as he entered to “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns n’ Roses.
A one-run lead for the Dodgers felt like it was ten runs to teams back then. As great as Jansen is I don’t know if he has quite reached that level of instilling hopelessness in opposing teams just yet.
Jansen is having one of those all-time years, but to say he is better than Gagne in his prime is tough to right now. If he can continue this season without blowing a save as well as keeping walks at a minimum, it will go down as one of the greatest single seasons in history. However, Gagne in his prime still was on another level.