When Major League Baseball announced plans to introduce a pitch clock for the 2023 season, curiosity about Kenley Jansen’s ability to adapt immediately spread across the baseball world. After all, the star closer — signed to a two-year, $32 million deal by the Red Sox this winter — was notorious as one of the most deliberate workers in the game. Could he remain effective working at a faster pace?
On Saturday, Jansen finally ran afoul of baseball’s pace-of-play rules in incredibly costly fashion. Yet the form his violations assumed came in entirely unanticipated form.
Jansen, who entered for the ninth inning with the Sox holding a 3-1 lead, was flagged three times for working too quickly against Cardinals DH Willson Contreras. The Red Sox closer received one warning, then was charged with two quick-pitch violations resulting in automatic balls — the last resulting in Contreras being awarded with a walk, a critical development that contributed to a three-run Cardinals rally for a 4-3 win at Fenway.
“It sucks. It sucks,” lamented Jansen, who allowed three runs and blew a ninth-inning lead for the second time in as many days. “I learned the experience today of the rule and it cost me a game. It definitely sucks. I’m taking all the responsibility about that.”
MLB’s pace-of-play rules not only dictate the amount of time a pitcher can take to begin his delivery — 15 seconds with the bases empty, 20 with runners on — but also require the batter to be in the box and looking up with eight seconds on the clock. But as the new rules were rolled out in spring training, concern mounted that pitchers would time their deliveries to quick-pitch batters before they were ready.
And so, in early March, the league issued a memo clarifying that a quick-pitch violation would be called if the pitcher started his delivery before the batter was reasonably set and alert to the pitcher. That rule played a central role in the ninth.
Jansen, after issuing a four-pitch walk to Paul Goldschmidt to open the inning, believed that meant the batter to be looking at him with his bat in a ready position — conditions he felt Contreras was fulfilling — but Jansen wasn’t looking to see if the hitter’s feet were in the batter’s box.
Jansen received a warning from home plate umpire Derek Thomas for starting his delivery before Contreras had his feet in the box. Then, with the count 0-1, Jansen started his delivery with more than eight seconds left on the clock, as soon as he saw Contreras looking up and his bat ready — but didn’t notice Contreras had one foot out of the box. An automatic ball was assessed.
Rattled, Jansen missed the zone on his next two pitches. As he started his 3-1 pitch, Jansen again saw Contreras looking at him with his bat ready, again started his delivery, and again was charged with an automatic ball because Contreras didn’t have both feet in the box.
Contreras — described by a National League evaluator as someone who frequently tries to goad opponents into rules violations — had successfully baited Jansen.
“He’s been struggling since last night throwing strikes,” Contreras said. “So I was just getting him stressed a little bit. Nothing disrespectful.
“That’s what the pitch clock allows you to do. I know that some closers like to get their rhythm, but my job as a batter is to not let him get into that rhythm. So I was letting the clock come all the way down to eight [before stepping in the box].
“It’s not my fault. It’s something I use for me in my favor, in our favor for the team. It worked out today.”
The pitcher was jarred.
“It threw me off and it just messed up my whole game,” said Jansen. “The explanation is, he’s got to have his feet in the box I guess, but you can clearly see that we cannot mess with the hitters. They’re looking at us but if one foot is out, I’m ready to come at you. That’s what I [saw]. Hitters can mess with us. That’s OK.
“He looked at me, and then when I came home, he dropped his head and he was [out of the box]. It’s really telling me that, yeah, they mess with me and it pays off. That’s my fault and my responsibility to look at that.”
With the walk to put runners on first and second, pitching coach Dave Bush visited the mound to try to calm Jansen. Thomas and crew chief Vic Carapazza eventually joined the conference. But while Jansen seemed to settle while eliciting a popup from Nolan Arenado, pinch hitter Nolan Gorman slammed an RBI double to right-center to make it 3-2.
Jansen intentionally walked pinch hitter Brendan Donovan to load the bases and create a force at any base, with the infield coming in. Pinch hitter Alec Burleson grounded slowly to second baseman Pablo Reyes.
The Sox converted an out at second, but Kiké Hernández’s relay to first was late and wild. Two runs scored, propelling St. Louis to victory and leaving Jansen to lament a second straight meltdown — this one based in part on his inability to comply with the rules once he violated them, as well as his inability to get the game under control after issuing a walk in an at-bat in which he threw three official pitches (one strike, two balls).
“I can look bad, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to continue to come out here. That’s what you get paid for,” said Jansen. “It’s grind time now.”
And for Jansen, “grind time” must come with a newfound attention to detail regarding the whereabouts of his opponents’ feet, particularly those of Contreras.