Kenley Jansen, tucked in a corner inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Thursday night, expressed a blend of excitement and relief. Things were clicking. For real this time. He was positive of it.
Minutes earlier, the Dodgers closer, for the first time in too long of a time for his liking, resembled a dominant reliever again. He discarded three batters in order for his 29th save. His stuff was crisp. The velocity touched 96 mph. He needed 19 pitches for the three outs — and it came against the cellar-dwelling Baltimore Orioles — but it was, unequivocally, an encouraging performance with three weeks remaining until Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
“Trying to click at some point, man,” Jansen said as he took off his cleats.
He was even better in his next appearance Sunday night against the New York Mets — stiffer competition. Jansen plowed through the eighth inning of a tie game. After Juan Lagares flied out on six pitches, All-Star Jeff McNeil popped out on the first pitch and major league co-home run leader Pete Alonso, another All-Star, struck out on three pitches.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts stood at the dugout entrance with a smile and a fist pump. He grabbed the 6-foot-5 Jansen with both arms, shook him and patted him on the back. He was elated.
“He’s peaking, I think,” Roberts said, “at the right time.”
Clean outings had become rare for Jansen. After beginning the season with two, Jansen allowed at least one baserunner in 39 of his next 51 appearances when called on to record more than one out. The key, as Jansen often repeats, is in his mechanics. He insisted his velocity wavers because of his delivery.
“That’s the most annoying thing,” Jansen said. “When [my] mechanics are off, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, he lost his fastball.’ It’s not [it]. It’s just if I’m out of whack mechanically.”
He said he has regularly studied tape of himself from 2016 and 2017, hoping to mimic the delivery he repeated with resounding success. He said the turning point finally came during a long-toss session in Baltimore on Wednesday. He was thirsting to get in the game that night, hoping to bottle the delivery and spill it onto the Orioles. He had to wait a day but found that he still had it.
“It’s just muscle memory,” Jansen said. “I just felt it click. Just got to keep repeating that.”
On top of the delivery inconsistency, this season has pushed Jansen, who turns 32 on Sept. 30, beyond his comfort zone. He can’t just overpower hitters with his cutter anymore. The pitch that made him baseball’s best reliever in 2016 and 2017 isn’t the same. The Dodgers’ brass knew that, and the club instructed him to incorporate his secondary pitches — a slider and two-seam fastball — more frequently to avoid a drastic regression.
But Jansen didn’t take to the advice immediately. In his 14 appearances in March and April, 86% of his 170 pitches were cutters, according to Brooks Baseball. Seventeen were sliders. Ten were two-seam fastballs. In May, Roberts said Jansen “can be stubborn at times.” The reliever had allowed nine earned runs in 20 1/3 innings to that point.
The pitch mix changed over the course of a rocky summer — by Jansen’s standards — as rumors swirled about the Dodgers’ pursuit of elite late-inning relief help ahead of the trade deadline. They ultimately didn’t acquire a top-tier reliever — left-handed specialist Adam Kolarek was the only bullpen addition — and Jansen continued his transition.
“It’s just an experience that made me become a better pitcher,” Jansen said.
In 10 games over the last month, Jansen has thrown 175 pitches. The cutter share has dropped to 66%. He has thrown 35 two-seamers (20%) and 25 sliders (14%). He is willing to throw the secondary pitches in any count. He has worked at becoming less predictable. He allowed a run in four of those outings, but the last two have generated optimism. Roberts said Jansen hasn’t had better consecutive outings this season.
“I know he was excited after that,” Roberts said after Sunday’s game. “And the needle’s moved in the right direction.”
Perhaps Jansen’s best work this season came against Alonso. His 10th and final pitch of his appearance was a 95-mph cutter up and away from the right-handed hitter. Alonso lunged and whiffed. He was overwhelmed and uncomfortable. The national broadcast play-by-play announcer‘s voice rose with the strikeout as Jansen, emanating confidence, strutted off the field.
“Let me tell you: If that’s the Kenley Jansen the Dodgers see in October,” ESPN’s Matt Vasgersian declared, “it’s going to be a different story this fall.”