A recent pregame conversation on the Dodgers bench turned to the subject of the volatility of bullpens, how relievers who are dominant one season often are hittable the next.
Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds and Craig Kimbrel of the San Diego Padres were mentioned as notable exceptions before Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly interjected.
Kenley Jansen also belongs in that group, Mattingly said.
And why not?
Jansen’s performance might be lost these days by the failings of the otherwise inconsistent Dodgers bullpen, but the 27-year-old converted catcher from Curacao might be more dominant now than he was in his previous three seasons as the Dodgers closer.
Entering a three-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Jansen has converted 31 of 33 save opportunities. He has a 2.06 earned-run average in 45 games and 70 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings, an average of 14.4 per nine innings.
“I think he’s gotten better each year,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said.
The noticeable change this season has been his ability to limit walks.
Jansen has walked only six, an average of 1.2 every nine innings. It’s by far his career low and down from 2.6 last year.
“Just attack,” Jansen said.
Setup man J.P. Howell agrees.
“There were times in the past he nibbled when he didn’t have to nibble,” Howell said.
But he sensed the more comfortable Jansen has become on the mound the more he has learned he doesn’t have to be perfect.
Jansen is afforded that luxury by the natural movement on his cut fastball.
“He has that late movement in the zone that misses bats or gets weak contact just by being in the zone,” Honeycutt said, comparing the pitch to Mariano Rivera’s.
Jansen has given up fewer walks but given up more home runs.
He has already served up five, as many as he gave up in 68 games last season. Howell doesn’t view this as a negative.
In fact, Howell, said, “That’s the unselfish thing.”
Jansen has often entered games with multi-run leads so, Howell said, it’s better to give up an occasional solo home run than to walk batters.
“He may even have a lower ERA, but that wouldn’t make sense,” Howell said. “He would put himself in more jams.”
Jansen said he is pleased with his consistency this season. His two blown saves were more than two months apart.
“I feel like mentally I got stronger,” he said.
In Honeycutt’s view, the 6-foot-5 Jansen used to be susceptible to occasional rough stretches because his mechanics would unravel if he went too long between appearances.
Now, Honeycutt said, “He understands what he has to do in between to stay somewhat sharp.”
The Dodgers have increased their dependence on Jansen with their other relievers frequently stumbling.
Jansen pitched four times in a recent five-day stretch, once in a non-save situation and another time in a game in which Pedro Baez was threatening to blow a four-run lead in the ninth inning.
Jansen said he doesn’t mind the workload.
“Being a closer is being a leader,” he said. “Whenever things catch on fire, you’re the one that has to go in and stop the fire.”
Jansen was sidelined the first six weeks of the season recovering from a foot operation and believes that the layoff could be benefiting him now.
Jansen’s presence eliminates at least one late-game dilemma.
“It’s a good feeling because you know what you’re working to,” Mattingly said. “With Kenley, if he’s available, you’re going to try to get the ball to him. You’re looking at the innings as, ‘How do you piece it together to get there?’”
Left-hander Alex Wood (3-3, 3.43 ERA) will face Robbie Ray (3-11, 3.72) and the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday at 6:40 p.m. PDT at Chase Field. TV: SportsNet LA; Radio: 570, 1020.