As a whole, fans of the Dodgers are often discredited for their gut reactions and passionate criticism when trying to evaluate the overall performance of their favorite club. However, this year, many followers of the team appear to be right on the money with their assessments. While the club has been rumored to be making strong pushes for several possible position player upgrades, the glaring needs are with the relief corps. And while it’s getting to the point when many folks start chattering about the playoffs, it’s hard to think the Dodgers can succeed with the options they have in house—even with one of the best closers in the game as their anchor.
Kenley Jansen has come under fire lately, as many critics continue to bring up that he’s not competing to the level he performed in 2017. This is obviously accurate, but the numbers that Kenley recorded last season were ridiculously phenomenal and may never be attained by him again. I’m not a big believer in using ERA as a measuring stick for relievers, but while it does stand for something, Jansen’s ERA of 1.32 last year was indeed remarkable. Even the great Mariano Rivera, a future Hall-of-Famer who Jansen is often compared to, never recorded an ERA below 1.40. A more reliable stat for relief pitchers is Fielding Independent Pitching or FIP. Jansen’s insane 1.31 FIP last year shattered Rivera’s career-best 1.88 FIP from 1996, which puts Kenley’s exceptional 2017 campaign into even better perspective.
And, while Jansen’s 14.4 K/9 in 2017 was the second-best of his career, Rivera’s best was 10.9, which also came in 1996. I’m not using these comparisons to claim that Jansen is the better reliever; I’m just trying to illustrate how special his 2017 campaign actually was. And while it wouldn’t be surprising if he never reached those 2017 numbers again in his lifetime, it’s really not fair to keep drawing comparisons to what may end up being the benchmark season of his career.
Looking at the here and now, there’s the issue of velocity. While some make it sound like his pitch-speed has tanked drastically, it’s really not as bad as many perceive. Sure, his average cutter speed of 89.83 for the first several games of the year was horrific, but it was somewhat excusable considering that he saw limited action in Cactus League play, thanks primarily to a tender hamstring. In spite of that, according to Brooks Baseball, Jansen’s cutter during July of 2018 has averaged 92.56, which is down just a bit from his 93.84 mark measured from July of last season. Although 1.28 MPH can be seen as a significant amount of speed, it’s certainly not as drastic in the way that many are clamoring. Furthermore, he’s been using the two-seam much more this year, which may be affecting the release point of all his pitches, thus impacting his velocity.
Consequently, Kenley has also been denounced for his susceptibility to the long ball. Balls are flying out of parks at alarming rates this year, and Kenley’s not the only one with an increased HR/9 ratio. We’re all familiar with Clayton Kershaw‘s increased number of home runs surrendered, but even if we look at last year’s Cy Young Award winners, it seems to be happening everywhere. Max Scherzer has already given up 15 this year after allowing 22 last season, and Corey Kluber has been tagged for 19 this year after allowing just 21 in 2017. It’s a growing epidemic which can probably be attributed by the swing approach of the majority of sluggers, despite the claims by some that the baseball itself has been altered in some fashion to travel farther.
To go along with the adjusted plan of attack of the hitters, the pitchers are also altering their location strategies, which likely could be the cause of the increased number of walks. Jansen has already given up 12 free passes this year after only allowing seven in 2017. Kenley himself has admitted that he’s missing locations. His loss against the Angeles in the first-round of the Freeway Series stung immensely, and he was the first to admit that he was missing his targets.
“I just feel like I almost lost my feel on the fastball up in the zone,” he explained. “I couldn’t get it where I wanted. That caused that walk. That kind of irritated me. I just have to keep my composure in the game.”
Regardless, there was a stretch from May 3 to July 4 when Kenley did indeed show a few glimpses of his 2017 self. During that period, he tossed a full 29 innings while only surrendering three earned runs on 15 hits and three walks, which calculates to a 0.93 ERA and a .621 WHIP—impressive numbers any way you look at it, despite the undependability of a reliever’s ERA. And during that particular time frame, there was hardly any criticism at all, as many believed he was nearing those extremely magnificent stats from 2017. Yet, once the erroneous outing against the Angels occurred, the naysayers reappeared in full force once again.
Maybe three appearances over the last four games also has something to do with his alleged lethargy. He’s been used at that rate all year—he’s already made 43 appearances this season after making just 65 regular season appearances the entirety of last year.
Nonetheless, the biggest problem with Jansen this year could be the fact that there’s nobody else to rely on in the Dodgers’ relief corps—almost like the way a legit slugger struggles without any protection around him in the batting order. Fans are tired of hearing about it, but last year Los Angeles had a legitimate Plan B in Brandon Morrow. This year, in terms of effectiveness, there’s nobody even close to Jansen—or Morrow, for that matter. Seemingly, Kenley’s shouldering the entire load of the bullpen himself. Undoubtedly, as there isn’t much bonafide firepower in the Dodgers’ relief crew, opposing clubs are expending more and more energy on ways to conquer Kenley, and it’s starting to show. That in itself should be a key reason why Dodgers management is doing their best to find more than one significant relief upgrade before the trade deadlines pass this summer.
Indeed, Jansen’s not the same pitcher as he was last year. But, the Dodgers are also a completely different team, especially in the way Kenley’s supporting cast is constructed. Perhaps we’ll see a different bullpen and a different Jansen come August 1, as it could be the determining factor of just how far the team goes in 2018.