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Dodgers

Kenley Jansen isn’t the same pitcher, but he’s still the Dodgers’ closer

Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen reacts to a two-run home run from Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly to tie the score 2-2 during the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium on Friday.
Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen reacts to a two-run home run from Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly to tie the score at 2-2 during the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium on Friday.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

A fired-up Kenley Jansen stood in front of his locker last month. The Dodgers’ closer was frustrated, and ready to let off pent-up steam.

“Enough is enough,” he said after a save July 19. “I’m sick and tired of getting beat around, talking at the end of the game about different stuff. It’s not fun. I’m just trying to have fun again.”

Jansen’s first half-dozen seasons as the Dodgers’ closer were joyous. Recognized for his long black dreads and revered for his tailing trademark cutter, he simply “overpowered the league,” manager Dave Roberts said, en route to 230 total saves. From the back of the bullpen, he helped anchor a Dodgers franchise now chasing its seventh straight 90-win season. Every trot to the mound was met with crazed, confident applause.

But since last year, Jansen’s firepower has diminished. In that span, he’s blown 11 saves (including the playoffs). Though his 26 saves in 31 opportunities this year rank fifth in MLB, he’s on pace for his most blown saves and lowest save percentage since 2012. He entered Saturday with a career-high ERA (3.83) and career-worst wins-above-replacement rating -- 0.0, considered exactly replacement-level production.

One 9-year-old Dodger fan was about to quit baseball, until he saw a couple of Instagram videos featuring Cody Bellinger and Clayton Kershaw.
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“The last couple years have probably been the most difficult for him, as far as maintaining his delivery and consistency,” Roberts said. “He’s not afraid of putting in the effort to work through it. That’s what we’re betting on.”

Jansen’s cutter is no longer his only crutch. Its average velocity has dropped to 92 mph and its pitch value (effectively a pitch-specific earned run average, where zero is average) is negative-1.6, both career-lows.

As a result, Jansen has thrown the cutter just 77% of the time, opting for more sinkers (11.6%) and sliders (11.3) instead. Roberts said Jansen has also suffered from an inconsistent delivery, leading to pitches that “flatten out” and “lose their life” at the plate.

That’s what happened to Jansen during his latest blown save Friday, when he was punished for pitches that were missing their typical late movement. He gave up the tying two-run homer to Arizona’s Carson Kelly in the ninth inning.

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“It’s tough when you’ve been a one-pitch pitcher your entire career,” Roberts said, “and you’re still trying to evolve and have comfort sequencing, and keeping hitters honest.”

The Dodgers appear to be peaking this season anyway, bolstered by the combination of an emerging young core and steady veteran group. Jansen is trying to maintain his place among the latter group, even if his presence on the mound doesn’t instill the dread it once did.

Benches cleared after the Dodgers’ loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night, the result of a controversial call and clash of former teammates.

“Do I have any concerns? No,” Roberts told reporters, unwavering in his support of Jansen as the team’s closer.

That said, “I know he’s working through some things.”

Rediscovering that rhythm remains an ongoing process. It continued Saturday with a scoreless inning in a non-save situation and 10-pitch pregame bullpen session focused on getting his lower body more engaged.

After the game, he spoke with wisdom acquired only after a decade in the big leagues. He’s not trying to recapture what he used to be. He just wants to maximize the tools he has now.

“You can’t think, ‘Oh, I’m close [to getting back to where I was].’ It’s just continue to improve every day, to get better … and find a consistency,” Jansen said. “That’s what it is with me. If I find my consistency that I can hit my spots, inside corner, outside corner on that cutter, and then put the two-seamer [sinkers] and the sliders, it’s going to be great.”

Roberts will keep calling his number while he tries to figure it out.

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“He’s a guy that I know, for us to win 11 games in October, we need him,” Roberts said. “I know he’ll get there. We’re going to continue to run him out there. He’s done it many times over.”

SHORT HOPS

Roberts publicly apologized to Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Robbie Ray, with whom he spurred a shouting match during Friday’s bench-clearing scuffle. Roberts reiterated he misidentified Ray, who had already slipped out of his uniform, as a team staff member. … The Dodgers’ yearly total home attendance surpassed 3 million Friday night, the earliest the franchise has hit that milestone in a season. … Roberts was non-committal when asked if top prospect Gavin Lux would get to play when rosters expand in September. Roberts said Lux, who is with triple-A Oklahoma City, could get the same “apprenticeship” experience catcher Will Smith had last fall.


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