If there’s one conversation topic among fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers that’s constant, it might be the idea of how the team can improve its bullpen. Every year, regardless of which new arms the organization adds to the relief corps, there seems to be plenty of criticism.
At the center of those perennial discussions is Kenley Jansen. Originally signed as a catcher, Jansen began his career as a professional pitcher as a shy, 21-year-old farmhand back in 2009 at High-A Rancho Cucamonga. When he was first recalled in 2010, he often hit triple digits on the radar gun (although his infamous cutter was not fully unleashed), and fans of the club thought his pitching talent was the greatest thing since sliced bread. There was no question he was a keeper.
Undoubtedly, 2016 and 2017 were Kenley’s two greatest seasons. We hardly ever use WAR to measure the success of a reliever, but both those years Kenley lurked right around 3.0. It seems an incredible feat, as perhaps the greatest reliver in the history of the game, Mariano Rivera, eclipsed a 3.0 WAR in 10 of the 19 MLB campaigns he threw.
In 2017, Jansen posted a 1.32 ERA, which was the best of his career. Some fans argue with good reason that ERA is not the greatest measuring stick for a reliver, but with Kenley, it has always been a good indicator where he’s trending. Regardless, his 1.31 FIP and 0.746 WHIP that year were marks that some Hall of Fame relief pitchers never even approached (see Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, and Rich Gossage).
2018 was the season when things started to go downhill. It was Kenley’s age-30 campaign and his eighth full season in the bigs. Some felt that his age and arm mileage had gotten the best of him, but Jansen ultimately underwent open heart surgery that November after dealing with an irregular heartbeat for a number of years. It was his second heart surgery, as the first came in 2012 when the issue initially became problematic.
Indeed, things have gotten better since the surgery, but his numbers as a 30-something reliver have never approached the Hall-of-Fame stat lines he put up in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, his FIP was a career-high 4.03, but those marks have trended downward after he logged a 3.48 and 3.03 FIP in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Moreover, his K/9 increased from 10.4 in 2018 to 11.4 in 2019 to 12.2 in 2020.
Using the cutter, velocity does not necessarily mean a ton, but many pundits know that Jansen’s sweet spot has been in the 92-93 MPH range for that particular pitch. Since using the fastball more frequently, we have seen his velo as high as 95 MPH in recent years, but his overall success rate seemingly depends on the cutter, and it’s not difficult for a fan to know when it’s working well. During recent years, Kenley’s cutter drifted downward with regards to velocity. According to Brooks Baseball, it sat around 92.5 MPH at the beginning of 2019, but by October of last season, it was averaging just 90.3 MPH.
No doubt, the most important feature with the cutter is its movement, and when it’s moving well, Kenley seems to succeed. Undeniably, his biggest enemy has been consistency with his command.
Even though he dealt with a bit of a setback when contracting COVID-19 during the 2019-20 offseason, the majority of Jansen’s 2020 regular season went well. The problems began, though, in September. It started when he gave up three earned runs to the Diamondbacks on September 8, then another five earned runs against the Astros four days later. At that point, skipper Dave Roberts began using Jansen sparingly, affording save opportunities to both Blake Treinen and Pedro Baez when Kenley normally would have been on the bump.
The 2020 season culminated with Julio Urias getting a 2-1/3 inning save against the Rays in Game 6 of the World Series. Jansen, the franchise’s all-time saves leader, was nowhere in sight.
However, as with every season since 2012, Jansen has once again opened the year as the team’s featured closer. Apparently, Roberts will be using Jansen a bit more sparingly, specifically in less back-to-back outings while affording multiple-inning save chances to some of the long arms, but Jansen is still the appointed closer for all intents and purposes.
It’s a little too early to tell how Jansen looks in 2021. His cutter has looked spectacular at times, but there have been other times when he’s missing the zone badly, a characteristic that certainly was not overly apparent in his heyday. What’s more, the Athletics and Rockies aren’t exactly the best offensive juggernauts in the majors.
This season, Jansen is earning an even $20 million in what is the final year of his five-year deal. He won’t make that much ever again, but there’s no reason that Kenley won’t sign another contract somewhere this winter, even if it’s for a minimal one or two years.
The big question is whether he’ll garner an offer from the Dodgers. There’s definitely no heir apparent to Kenley as it stands, although some thought Urias might fit the bill after shutting down the Rays last October. The other thing is that Jansen, especially in his older years, doesn’t necessarily need to be a ninth-inning option to be effective.
It will be interesting to see how things pan out this winter, even though it seems to be a lifetime away. Brusdar Graterol has shown flashes of excellence, but he still has not developed a secondary pitch to put him over the top as a closer. Victor Gonzalez is coming along nicely. Corey Knebel will be a free agent after this season. Treinen will be around through at least 2022. There’s a whole slew of talented arms down on the farm. So there are options.
Nevertheless, Kenley will remain under the proverbial microscope for as long as he’s the go-to ninth-inning guy—a situation to which he’s certainly accustomed.
(Postscript: Obviously, this post was published well before the Dodgers’ finale against the Athletics on Wednesday, but Kenley’s lack of control in this game is exactly why his stock is falling as closer. One of Jansen’s most impressive stats came in 2017 when he walked just seven batters against 109 Ks in 68-1/3 innings of work. Seven walks all year. That’s a great example of outstanding command and one of the reasons that contributed to the tremendous success during his heyday.)