How Kenley Jansen became one of Dodgers’ most respected leaders
His job requires him to finish what someone else starts, so Kenley Jansen proposed a solution. Major League Baseball wants to improve the pace of games? Here’s an idea.
“Start fining organizations,” he said.
He was serious. Set a length of game that is unacceptable — say, 3½ hours, he said. Tally up the teams who exceed the limit most often. Punish them. “I’m telling you, they would start developing guys in the minor leagues. That makes more sense than to put in a clock, or all this.”
Jansen, the 30-year-old Dodgers closer, was sitting on a cart in the shade of Camelback Ranch as a handful of teammates pitched behind him. His teammates wore their uniforms; Jansen sported a T-shirt and shorts. In his hands he palmed a Wilson football, the only object he would throw on this day. His schedule afforded him the time to ponder other people’s problems.
His suggestion was radical and thought-provoking and utterly farfetched. It illuminated Jansen’s theory on what ails baseball. The problem, he explained, is not the proliferation of mound visits. It is an industry that promotes pitchers before they are ready and demands they sink or swim. Jansen can see himself in these neophytes. He knows he could have sunk, too.
A few years ago, Jansen would not have spoken up. Empowered by his perch of leadership within the Dodgers clubhouse, he feels comfortable expounding on the game’s hot-button issues. He suggested players may need to go on strike to force owners to spend more. He called the pitch clock threatened by commissioner Rob Manfred a “ridiculous” idea. Among the Dodgers’ constellation of stars, Jansen has emerged as an unlikely mouthpiece.
One of the lasting images of 2017 occurred after the team clinched the National League West for the fifth season in a row. Corks popped and cleats squished inside a soggy Dodger Stadium clubhouse. Jansen called the room to order. His teammates went quiet around him.
“From the bottom of my heart, I’m desperate for that ring, dog,” Jansen said. “We all should be desperate for that ring.”
The Dodgers erupted. Jansen disappeared inside a blizzard of bubbly and Budweiser. He had solidified his place of influence alongside ace Clayton Kershaw, All-Star third baseman Justin Turner and veteran sage Chase Utley. Jansen might be the most outspoken of the group.
“Once you get older, you get a voice,” outfielder Matt Kemp said. “He’s put up the numbers to be vocal and be a leader.”
The debate over the game’s best reliever begins with Jansen. Since 2015, he leads all relievers in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement. He led all relievers in WAR in 2017, which was his best season. Jansen posted the lowest full-season earned-run average of his career (1.32), plus his best strikeout-to-walk ratio (15.57 strikeouts per walk). He led the National League in saves (41) and finished fifth in the Cy Young award voting.
Jansen has known only success in the major leagues. He arrived at 22, a converted catcher with one wicked pitch and 61 1/3 innings of experience as a pitcher. He was raw, uneducated in the nuances of off-field maintenance, disinterested in doing much besides flinging cutters and gobbling up outs. His evolution into the spokesman of a pennant winner required him to overcome physical limitations, answer challenges from manager Dave Roberts and process the sting of failure on the game’s grandest stage.
Surgery on Jansen’s foot in 2015 afforded him time to refine his preparation. In 2016, Roberts galvanized Jansen to develop the work ethic befitting a leader. The pain of 2017, in which Jansen blew a save in one World Series game and lost another, left him hungry for another opportunity. Two days after Game 7, Jansen was in the weight room at Dodger Stadium.
“The more and more success he’s had, the more and more influence he’s had on the bullpen, and the harder he’s worked,” Kershaw said. “Because he wants to continue to be at that level.”
Jansen and Kershaw met as teenagers in the Gulf Coast League in 2005. For Kershaw, Jansen evoked the image of “a big 12-year-old,” unsure of his own ability, obsessed with video games and sleep, hungry for heaping bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Kershaw reached the majors at the age of 20 in 2008. Jansen joined him two years later, although by then he had converted from catcher to reliever, boosted by a cutter that overwhelmed hitters.
Jansen lacked a fixed routine between appearances, and did not see the need to develop one. Strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel often had to coax Jansen into working out, and lobbed “friendly reminders” about Jansen’s diet that “weren’t received so well,” McDaniel said. “Not that he was a jerk, but just like ‘Come on, man. Let me be me.’”
The tone changed in the spring of 2015, when he underwent foot surgery. As he recuperated, Jansen took suggestions about his diet. No longer did McDaniel have to drag him into the weight room. After the New York Mets bounced the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, Jansen doubled down on his effort away from the mound.
The Dodgers hired Roberts that winter. He believed the most talented players set the tone for their teammates, and identified Turner, Kershaw and Jansen as bellwethers. He had heard Jansen sought a bigger presence. During a meeting at Camelback Ranch, Roberts suggested Jansen look inward before he spoke outward.
“He needed to take accountability on how he was, and not just talk it, but walk it,” Roberts said.
Roberts asked Jansen to remain dedicated to his diet and his exercise. He challenged Jansen to adapt to uncomfortable situations. When Roberts asked Jansen to pitch multiple innings, or enter in non-save situations, Jansen needed to answer. To Roberts, it took a few months, but by the late summer of 2016, Jansen had claimed his clubhouse mantel.
The game rewarded Jansen for his diligence. He made his first All-Star team. He pushed himself to the brink of collapse in Game 5 of the National League division series against Washington. In the offseason, the Dodgers lavished him with a five-year, $80-million contract.
Financial security did not soften Jansen. In 2017, he surpassed himself once more: another All-Star campaign, another preposterous strikeout-to-walk ratio, another dominant first two rounds of the postseason.
Which only made what transpired in the World Series more shocking. In Game 2, with the Dodgers leading by a run and about to claim a 2-0 series lead, Jansen surrendered a tying home run to Astros outfielder Marwin Gonzalez. Four days later, in the final moments of a riotous Game 5, Jansen buckled in his second inning of work and permitted a walk-off single to third baseman Alex Bregman.
The two moments tainted an otherwise brilliant campaign. Jansen logged 8 2/3 innings against the Astros, willing to pitch multiple frames on consecutive days, his body backing up the desperation he spoke about before the postseason began. Four months later, he had learned how to process the defeat.
“Tip my cap to Marwin,” Jansen said. “0-2, I made a mistake. He got me.
“The game back in Houston, I mean, we were up by four, then by three. They scored seven, eight runs off Kersh. And then scored runs on Brandon Morrow, and I got a tie game. They were good. They were really good.
“I look at the bright side. Game 6, I threw two innings to force Game 7. That’s all I remember. And that’s all I will remember from that World Series. I forced that Game 7.”
For 48 hours after the final defeat, Jansen bristled with anger. Unsure how to direct his energy, he met McDaniel at the ballpark. McDaniel ran Jansen through exercises aimed to improve his mobility and stabilization. Jansen wanted to lay the groundwork for another year. “I can’t express enough of how proud I am for him continuing to grow, learn, want information, want to get better,” McDaniel said.
The organization recognized the stress on Jansen in 2017. He logged 85 innings, most of them under duress, between the regular season and October. A similar workload awaits in 2018, which is why Jansen will appear in only one or two Cactus League games. He did not pitch in February.
Jansen invited the team’s chef to live with him this spring to keep his diet in order. He is usually one of the last players to arrive at Camelback Ranch most mornings. He spends about half an hour on the treadmill, stretches, does exercises for his core, and otherwise runs amok.
One day he flung a football around the clubhouse with such abandon he nearly brained a reporter. A week later, he tackled a radio personality. He drew the ire of Kershaw for changing a meeting time without consulting anyone. “He still has to be called out every once in a while,” Kershaw said with a smile.
Jansen retains his playful spirit. During a trip to Wrigley Field last April, the Dodgers resurrected the ancient custom of tapping one another below the belt. After a victory over the Cubs, Jansen extended the ritual to the front office. He delivered a concussive blow to the groin of Andrew Friedman, which left the team’s president of baseball operations curled in a fetal position on the bright green carpet of the visitors clubhouse.
A rivalry blossomed. Earlier this spring, Jansen surprised Kemp by felling Friedman with a chopping blow. Kemp recoiled with laughter, and remarked how the organization had changed since his departure in 2014. Friedman vowed revenge. A few minutes later, Friedman fired a rubber ball that connected with Jansen’s lower half. Jansen crumpled to the ground, and Friedman was triumphant.
Jansen turned serious when discussing pace of play. He dislikes what he perceives as Manfred meddling with the flow of the game. He cannot understand why teams rush pitchers to the majors before the pitchers are ready to compete. Few understand the challenges of development at the big-league level better than Jansen.
“I’m telling you where the game is going,” Jansen said. “I’m not the smartest guy on the planet. But when they’re doing this [adding a pitch clock], and guys can’t throw strikes, the game is going to become longer. And they’re going to going to drive themselves crazy. Like ‘What else should we do?’”
Jansen hopped off the cart and walked toward the clubhouse. The clock had not reached 11 a.m., and his day was done.
“Did I make sense, or not?”
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