He may not be aging in reverse, but Bobby Jenks might be the unlikliest of smart pitchers in baseball. A former HS dropout, Jenks was waived by the Angels essentially for being immature. 10 months after he was let go, he burst onto the national stage in the playoffs by blowing away batters with 100 MPH heat.
Now Jenks is saying things like this.
"This is the last time I have something to say on it, but I've dropped my velocity on purpose," said Jenks, 27, during a phone interview from his home in a western suburb of Chicago. "If you don't think this is true, look back when I was throwing more consistently harder at the end of this last season than at the beginning.
"Against Minnesota [in the American League Central tiebreaker], I was throwing 97-to-100 to get those last three outs. It's not about velocity drops. It's about getting outs. Anyone can time 100 mph if they see it enough.
"Basically, I sat down and discussed what would make me a better pitcher," said Jenks of a conversation he had a few years ago with White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. "We didn't discuss velocity, but we talked about command and consistency with all of my pitches. My strikeouts are down, yes, but my pitch efficiency is higher than ever and my walks are down. I'm getting hitters swinging early in the counts, and when they get behind, I can put them away."
Surprisingly, I believe him.
According to Fangraphs, Jenks' fastball velocity has dropped from 97 MPH in his brief '05 campaign to 93.8 last season. Though that figure may be exaggerated due to miscategorized cutters. It seemed to me that more than 1.9% of Jenks' pitches were cutters. And he's added a 2-seam fastball (generally about 1-2 MPH slower than a 4-seamer) as well.
It's a bit surprising to see Jenks use the words "pitch efficiency," but he has the stats to back it up. In 2008, he had the 5th lowest pitches-per-plate-appearance among players with at least 60 innings pitched, and tied Greg Maddux for fewest pitches per innings pitched in '08. In fact, Jenks has bettered his pitch efficiency (both P/PA and P/IP) in each of his seasons at the big league level.
Jenks added a cutter and 2-seam fastball following the '06 season, which have transformed him from a fire-balling strikeout pitcher who used his curveball to get get ground balls into a cunning-and-guile strike-thrower who can apparently dial up the MPHs when he needs them. The new Jenks seems to induce weaker contact and have some control on balls in plays, as he's allowed a BABIP of about .255 the last two season versus .340 in his first two seasons.
Jenks' transformation is not so cut-and-dry, however. If he could really dial up the velocity anytime he wanted, shouldn't we have seen some high-90s readings before September? And what happened to his slider? And what of that brief DL stint?
The Sox will have to weigh all of those questions (and more) as Jenks heads towards arbitration this winter and free agency in a few years. He'll be due an arbitration reward of $5+M this season, and that figure could climb to the 8-figure range in his 3rd year of arbitration.
In the past, I was a proponent of trading Jenks as soon as he started to get expensive. I figured it would be best to extract value from him in the form of young talent before his elbow exploded again or he proved to be ineffective. His new approach along with the closer-rich free agent market has softened that stance some. But I'd seriously consider trading him next off-season.