Dodgers waiting for Kenley Jansen’s velocity to return
The concept of baseball trauma does not faze Dave Roberts. During his first two seasons managing the Dodgers, Roberts made do with a historic number of players sidelined because of injury and spent extended time without the pillars of his roster. At each turn, Roberts and the Dodgers front office devised solutions culled from the depth of the organization’s talent pool.
Roberts managed without Clayton Kershaw for 10 weeks in 2016 and nearly six weeks in 2017; the team won the National League West both seasons. The Dodgers set a major league record for players on the disabled list in 2016. They survived Rich Hill’s battles with blisters, Yasiel Puig’s troubles with pulled muscles and the never-ending churn of middle relievers. They won a playoff series without Corey Seager.
Yet the first week of the 2018 season offered Roberts a challenge seismic in its complications and implications: What happens if Roberts cannot trust Kenley Jansen, his two-time All-Star closer, in save situations?
“It’s hard, because when he has a bad day, you lose, for the most part,” Roberts said. “That’s the easiest way to look at his role versus anybody else’s role. If anyone else has a bad day, you can still find a way to win. If he doesn’t, you lose.”
The first week of the season unfolded lamentably for the Dodgers, who are 2-5. They were shut out three times. Yasiel Puig batted .179 and Seager went without an extra-base hit. The team lost all four games in which either Kershaw or Jansen appeared.
Kershaw gave up three home runs in two starts. All three were swatted by left-handed hitters, a troubling trend that mirrors his start to 2017, when Kershaw gave up four homers in his first two starts. Otherwise Kershaw has been solid, with a 2.25 earned-run average and 13 strikeouts in 12 innings.
The situation with Jansen is murkier. Jansen lost his first outing, when he gave up a solo home run to San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik. He blew a save in his next appearance, serving up a three-run homer to Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Chris Owings.
On both occasions, the velocity of his cutter was below previous seasons. His velocity has averaged 90.6 mph this season, according to FanGraphs. He sat at 93.3 mph in 2017 and 93.6 mph in 2016.
During those seasons, Jansen had 95 regular-season save opportunities. He converted 88. He was just as trustworthy in the playoffs, saving eight of nine. The playoff outlier, in Game 2 of the World Series last October, swung control of the series to the Houston Astros.
The Dodgers pushed Jansen to expand his role inside the clubhouse and be open to unorthodox assignments. Jansen embraced his status as the team’s closer and fireman, willing to pitch multiple innings or non-save situations, even during the regular season. His reliability and eagerness provided a safety net as the Dodgers determined which other relievers they could trust in high-leverage spots.
That safety net looks more porous in 2018. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt expressed confidence that Jansen’s velocity would improve. To Honeycutt’s eyes, Jansen was still unsettled after being sidelined because of hamstring tightness during spring training. The medical staff cleared Jansen to pitch. But Jansen has yet to find the proper timing in his delivery, Honeycutt said.
“I don’t think he feels it,” Honeycutt said. “I think that subconsciously it got him enough out of whack to where he’s in between.”
After brushing off questions about his velocity last weekend — Jansen’s “Who cares?” could be the motto for the Dodgers’ opening-week malaise — Jansen conceded this week that he was sorting out his mechanics. “I definitely know I’m fighting with some stuff,” he said after Monday’s defeat.
For a pitcher as well established as Jansen, a two-game sample is not nearly large enough to incite reasonable panic. But multiple scouts and executives from rival clubs noted how troubling the trend would be if Jansen cannot reconfigure his delivery and rediscover his velocity. Unlike other pitchers who have seen their fastball velocities dip in recent seasons, such as Kershaw and Alex Wood, Jansen relies upon his cutter. He used the pitch 92% of the time last season, according to FanGraphs.
Jansen aims his cutter in the upper portion of the strike zone. The velocity and movement of the pitch allowed him to miss barrels, even as he permitted fly balls. His difficulty commanding the baseball and throwing it with the necessary speed are a problematic combination, rival talent evaluators said. One described it as a “perfect storm for ineffectiveness.”
The Dodgers felt the weight of that storm Monday. They were up by three runs in the ninth inning when Jansen coughed up the lead. The game did not end until the 15th. Over the next two games, the offense scored one run.
The lineup’s malaise is not Jansen’s fault. But it underscored the value of his performance in recent years. In times of strife, the Dodgers could rely on Jansen. This year has been different.
“A lot of it does start from him, and work down from there,” Roberts said. “When you lose games late, it’s a little bit tougher on your ballclub than losing a game earlier.”
Return to L.A. for Thompson?
A little more than a week after the Dodgers designated him for assignment, outfielder Trayce Thompson was claimed off waivers for a second time. This time the Oakland Athletics picked him up after the New York Yankees tried to slip him through the waiver wire.
The A’s would open up a few intriguing possibilities for Thompson. His brother, Klay, is a Golden State Warriors star. And the A’s travel to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers next week.
The Dodgers made a move of their own Thursday, claiming pitcher Alec Asher off waivers and designating pitcher Zach Neal for assignment. Neal gave up a homer in an inning of work against Arizona this week. Asher, a right-hander, had a 5.25 ERA for the Baltimore Orioles last season.
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