So when Robert Ray and Brett Cecil made their first starts in Blue Jays uniforms, we took a bit of a close look at each by way of introduction. Although Casey "Tek" Janssen has some big-league experience under his belt, he didn't pitch at all last season so folks may need a bit of a re-introduction.
Robert Casey Janssen was born in 1981 in Southern California. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles and was selected by the Blue Jays in the 4th round in 2004, yet another very good pick by Ricciardi to snag a major-league pitcher out of college in the middle rounds. Janssen was very well regarded as a prospect in the Jays' system - Baseball America ranked him the 6th best Jays' prospect by January 2006, ahead of, among others, Brandon League and Shaun Marcum. By the end of 2006, Janssen was no longer ranked as a top prospect, because he was a major-league pitcher.
With the Jays rotation in disarray in 2006, Casey Janssen made his first major-league start on April 27, and continued to start every 5 days for the next 3 months. The end results, a 5.07 ERA with 44 Ks and 21 walks over 94 innings (a 1.31 Whip) doesn't look amazing, though it's by no means bad for a 24-year old pitcher getting his first taste of the majors. But if you look a little closer, Janssen had a knee and back injury that he attempted to pitch through without disclosing to the team (are you listening, JP? Don't let starters lose their jobs to injury!) When Janssen's injury started acting up coincides almost exactly with when his pitching started to worsen - when he was pitching healthy, his numbers were fantastic - a 3.07 ERA over 9 starts and over 3 times as many strikeouts as walks.
In 2007, Janssen made the bullpen out of spring training and eventually found his way into the 8th inning role (a job he beat Scott Downs out for, by the way), where he was great. Janssen appeared in 70 games and again succeeded with low K but even lower walk rates, striking out 39 while walking 21. He ended up with a 1.20 WHIP and a 2.35 ERA (the latter not that important for a bullpen pitcher).
In 2008, Janssen entered spring training as a starter and pitched great in the spring. He had a very good chance at claiming the starting job when the Jays lost him to labrum repair surgery, a very serious shoulder surgery from which not many pitchers return successfully. Casey rehabbed all season and again competed for a starting job in 2009 (with all accounts saying that he was looking as sharp as he did pre-surgery), but he had to gradually build himself up because he was coming back from surgery and a minor shoulder issue apparently unrelated to his previous surgery set him back far enough that he didn't make the rotation out of the spring. We know what he's done in A+ and AA this season -- a 0.77 ERA over 5 starts and a 17/5 K/BB ratio in 23 1/3 innings. Now he make his long awaited first start since 2006. Did pitching on multiple successive days (when he was less effective) out of the bullpen or his generally heavy workload in 2007 cause his shoulder woes? I don't think anyone can answer that question.
What to look for from Janssen? You may have been able to tell from the stats above that he doesn't overpower batters. Casey features plus control of his pitches, throwing a few different fastballs (4-seamer, 2-seamer, cutter) as well as your standard arsenal of offspeed/breaking stuff: curve, changeup, slider. He didn't use the change much in 2007 as a reliever but look for him to go back to using it now that he's starting again. Casey very rarely walks batters (he has a 2.21 BB/9 ratio in the majors, even lower in the minors), and that makes his middling strikeout rates look a lot better. His real weapon is the groundball - Casey induces a ton of groundballs -- he put up a 1.69 Groundball/Flyball ratio in 2006 as a 24-year old starter, which is very good and, with our infield defense, screams success. Using a distinctive drive-and-drop delivery, Casey pounds the strike zone away to get grounders and rarely leaves one over the plate or makes a mistake inside. He put up a 105 tRA+ as a 24-year old starter in his first taste of the bigs (meaning his true pitching level that season was 5% better than a league average pitcher) and he was rushed to the majors for a mid-level prospect, so I'm not too concerned about him starting as opposed to relieving so long as his shoulder can handle the workload.
Anyway, I know the past 4 games haven't gone as well as we would have hoped, but I'm excited to see Janssen make his start tonight. He's long been a guy who I think could make a solid major-league pitcher. I'm also hoping that being reunited with former teammates like Aaron Hill, Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, and Alex Rios will energize some of the guys and maybe wake up some bats. Casey, welcome back to the big leagues, now help us end this 4-game losing streak!