How do you solve a problem like Kenley?
The Los Angeles Dodgers have been burdened by bullpen woes all season. Early in the year, it seemed the only relief pitcher the Boys in Blue could rely on was closer Kenley Jansen. Boy, what a difference a few months make.
Flash forward to today, and their greatest strength has arguably become one of their glaring weaknesses.
At 31-years-old, Jansen is starting to decline. His signature pitch—the cutter—doesn’t cut like it used to. At least not consistently. His fastball velocity has been steadily declining over the last five years, and he’s on pace for career lows in 2019.
The latest thrill ride that has been Jansen’s rollercoaster season came on Saturday afternoon against the New York Yankees. Mostly due to some soft contact and fielding mistakes, Jansen loaded the bases with one out and a one-run lead in the ninth before striking out Mike Tauchman and Gary Sanchez to escape with the save.
The outing before that, Jansen allowed a game-tying home run on to Blue Jays slugger Rowdy Tellez, recording his sixth blown save of the season. It was the second time in his last five appearances he had allowed a game-tying homer.
On the season, Jansen has blown six saves in 33 appearances, tied for third most in the National League. However, he has the most blown saves out of any designated closer in all of MLB.
After the homer to Tellez, Jansen’s ERA ballooned to a career-low 3.62. It was the eighth homer he allowed this year, second most in a season, and just five behind his career-worst 13 in 2018.
Last year, Jansen had a career-low FIP of 4.03 and a career-worst strikeout per nine innings ratio of 10.3. Jansen’s current WHIP of 1.048 is the second highest of his career, and worst since 2014.
All of this mounting evidence speaks to Jansen’s inevitable decline, and begs the question:
Should Jansen remain as the Dodgers closer moving forward?
On its face, the question sounds preposterous. Jansen is without a doubt the best closer in Dodgers franchise history. That includes Brooklyn and Los Angeles. He’s the all-time franchise leader in saves (294) and ERA at 2.32.
He will likely enter the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown wearing Dodger blue, but that doesn’t mean fans have forgotten his inability to close out four separate games over the last two World Series combined.
With the current rendition of the Dodgers on pace to be better than both of the last two NL Pennant winning teams, Dodger fans across the globe understandably have concerns about Jansen come October.
Many of those fans that booed Joe Kelly and Pedro Baez in May, booed Jansen off the field on Wednesday, and are now calling for Kelly or Baez to take over the closer role. The irony in all of that is outright comical.
“I get it,” said Jansen when asked if he heard the boos and how he felt about them. “Boo me. I’d boo myself. I didn’t want the results. I was hurting myself out there.”
Irony aside, there’s a point to their argument. Kelly has been lights out over the last three months. Since June 1, he’s 4-1 with a 1.33 ERA with 39 strikeouts. Over that same span, Jansen has an ERA of 4.13 with 30 strikeouts and six walks. The most glaring statistic however is Jansen’s four home runs allowed compared to Kelly’s one.
“At this point in time, I’m not tempted,” said Roberts about removing Jansen from the closer role. “I do think that this is a performance based business. I expect him to work through things. But there’s no guarantee for anyone—nor should there be—if performance doesn’t warrant it. That’s something that from Day One I’ve said that my job is to do what’s best for the Dodgers, not for an individual player.”
Jansen and Kelly could swap roles, but there’s not much difference in allowing the tying home run in the eighth inning compared to the ninth inning. When asked about perhaps surrendering his stranglehold on the closer’s role, Jansen was defiant in his response.
“Why would I worry about not being the closer? asked Jansen flippantly. “I’m going to be there…’Oh let me worry about not being the closer…’ Why? I’m putting a drama that is not there.”
The Dodgers have 22 blown saves this season. That ranks in the bottom five in the league, and their 59 percent save percentage is among the lower half of all teams in MLB.
Jansen is a big part of those numbers. His individual save percentage stands at 81 percent, good for the 33rd best in baseball, not numbers you want to see from an All-Star closer.
The Dodgers failed to acquire another closer or dominant backend reliever at the trade deadline and it could cost Los Angeles come October. On one hand, having another reliable arm like Felipe Vazquez, Shane Greene, or Ken Giles could have fortified the pen even further, but the front office made it known that Jansen would remain the closer no matter who the team acquired at the deadline.
If the price of any of those pitchers is a bounty of prospects that could turn into future All-Stars, the Dodgers were right in standing pat. Sure a combination of Kelly and Vazquez could have bridged the gap to Kenley, but what’s the point if Jansen still surrenders the game-tying or go-ahead homer in the ninth?
It’s too late for Los Angeles to add another elite reliever now. Their only option is to get Jansen back to form as quickly as possible. He may not as dominant as he was in 2016 or 17, but with a few adjustments, he can still be effective.
The changes Jansen needs to make begin and end with his cutter. His trademark pitch doesn’t have the same movement or velocity as it once did and Dodgers’ pitching coach Rick Honeycutt has noticed.
Between 2011 and 2017, opponents had a slugging percentage of just .315 off Jansen. In 2018 it rose to .403, and this season it’s over .465. Over the last nine seasons, Jansen has thrown his cutter 90 percent of the time, this year, he’s thrown it just 76 percent of the time. That’s because Honeycutt and the front office are encouraging Jansen to incorporate a mixture of pitches, including his slider, in order to keep hitters off balance.
“Guys know it’s coming,” said Dodgers’ catcher Will Smith about Jansen’s cutter. “When he misses, usually the cutter doesn’t stay up, but it still has depth to it. It’s kind of a work in progress.”
Despite the insistence that he changes his style like many pitchers before him have when entering the back half of their career, Jansen has been reluctant to change. Sticking with “old reliable,” whenever he gets into a jam. A fact that was evident by what happened against the Blue Jays on Wednesday.
Jansen began the ninth inning with three consecutive cutters to Randal Grichuk. He overmatched the veteran hitter as Grichuk didn’t come close to making contact on all three.
“Sometimes I get myself in trouble, because when I blow hitters out like that with a few pitches, it’s like, ‘Aw s—, I got it today,” said Jansen. “And it’s like, ‘Hey use your mind.’ It gave me all the signs to change [on Wednesday], and I didn’t do it. You know what? It’s okay. It’s a mistake, you learn from it. No excuses, man.”
Jansen proved he could change on Saturday. After six straight cutters to start the ninth, Jansen began incorporating his slider and two-seamer. Players made soft contact on the slider, but he didn’t surrender any back-breaking home runs like he has previously.
“I have one goal and that is to just have fun and enjoy the moment,” said Jansen after the save. “I need to stop worrying about the results. We’re having an unbelievable season this year and I need to enjoy watching all my teammates doing really well and let that motivate me. That’s what I did today.”
Jansen’s change in attitude came after a long meeting with Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts and President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman after the game on Wednesday. Both people gave the closer a vote of confidence and told him to go back to having fun and enjoying himself, and not allow his anger to consume him.
“The biggest step for me is to be happy and stop being angry and worrying about the results,” said Jansen. “People need to understand with Doc and the front office and all that, we’re in this together. We want to win a championship. When we have a meeting, today with Andrew, people are pulling for you, they believe in you. Andrew believes in me. Doc believes in me. My teammates believe in me. Why should I worry about what people think or fans or media?”
For now, Jansen is determined to ignore the outside noise and focus solely on what he can control: changing his pitch sequence, and living in the moment. When he does that, and the adrenaline is flowing like it was on the mound against the Yankees, good things can happen.