Kenley Jansen remains confident. He might have given up more home runs last season than the previous two combined. He might have stumbled in the World Series two years in a row. His velocity might have dropped off for good. But he learned that unyielding confidence was mandatory from his time as a light-hitting catcher in the minors, back when slumps were standard and he let them snowball.
“Always confident,” Jansen said outside the tunnel to the clubhouse at Dodger Stadium. “That’s something that never goes away for me. Even if things aren’t going great, I’m still going to be confident. That’s what keeps you here in the big leagues.”
The Dodgers begin their pursuit of a seventh consecutive National League West title, third straight National League pennant and first World Series championship since 1988 at Dodger Stadium on Thursday. Imagining a world in which they accomplish the feats without Jansen’s cutter overwhelming hitters for the next seven months is difficult. He is the linchpin of a bullpen that added setup man Joe Kelly and will rely on Pedro Baez picking up where he left off last fall. If Jansen reverts to his 2018 form, the bullpen could emerge as an obstacle in their quest.
Jansen, 31, reported to spring training 25 pounds lighter thanks to a stricter diet, a lifestyle change motivated by more than his job. He underwent a procedure in November to remedy the irregular heartbeat that disrupted his 2018 campaign and has been given the green light to travel to Denver’s thin air after he was advised not to following last August’s diagnosis. Once he got to Arizona, he pitched more often than the previous spring when the Dodgers decided to lighten his workload following two deep October runs.
The closer appeared in seven major league exhibitions this spring, allowing two earned runs in 6 1/3 innings. He completed his preseason work with back-to-back outings Sunday and Monday. He struggled Sunday against Angels minor league hitters, allowing three runs (two earned) and taking a ball off his leg in two-thirds of an inning. He was better Monday when he entered with one out in the fifth inning and got Mike Trout to fly out and Justin Bour to ground out.
“He came out of it healthy,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He looks great. You don’t want to get caught up in performance [in spring training], especially with guys like Kenley that have done it for quite some time. I think guys like him, whether he admits it or not, feel a little bit bored with games that don’t really matter. That’s why I wanted to get him in front of [Trout and Bour].”
Jansen’s 2018 season was not a disaster. He was, by most standards, good and was named an all-star for the third straight season. But Jansen, who is 32 saves from becoming the 30th player to reach 300 in his career, wasn’t merely good the previous two years. He was the best reliever in baseball. In 2018, his earned-run average — a volatile metric to measure relievers —- was 3.01 in 71 ⅔ innings. He had a 1.31 ERA in 2017. His Fielding Independent Pitching -- a measure that removes results from balls hit into the field of play — climbed from 1.31 to 4.03. His strikeout rate dropped from 14.4 hitters per nine innings to 10.3. His walk rate ballooned from 0.9 to 2.1. His average cutter’s velocity, meanwhile, decreased by 0.9 mph, according to FanGraphs.
What those numbers don’t take into account is the medical issues afflicting Jansen. He didn’t have a normal spring training and he emerged with a hamstring ailment that stifled him. The discomfort, he said, derailed his mechanics and he never rebounded. Then, in August, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation for the second time in six years.
Jansen’s performance suffered upon returning from the injured list. He allowed seven home runs in his final 18 regular-season appearances and two more in the World Series. This spring, Jansen acknowledged the heart condition and his looming offseason surgery weighed on him. He asserted that is all behind him. The radar gun indicated his velocity hasn’t consistently returned to pre-2018 levels and he acknowledged he’s still fine-tuning mechanics, but he disregarded any concerns. In the end, he said, his confidence doesn’t waver.
“Just getting guys out,” Jansen said. “That’s the only thing to do. They don’t pay me to throw the ball 110 miles per hour. They pay me to get guys out so that’s what I’m going to do. Just go out there and get guys out and try to help his team win. That’s all that matters.”