Kenley Jansen chuckled as he took off his cleats. He had thrown a scoreless inning in his Cactus League debut minutes earlier. The result was good, but the timing was strange.
“It’s February and I’m pitching in games,” Jansen said. “That’s never happened before. It’s weird.”
Jansen operated at a slower pace during spring training when he was at his pinnacle, carrying the torch as the best reliever in baseball in 2016 and 2017. But reaching that level created expectations he didn’t fulfill the last two seasons.
Jansen was good by most standards in 2019, but his 3.71 earned-run average and eight blown saves in 41 opportunities rendered last season his worst as a major leaguer.
So to regain at least some of his previous form, he exited his comfort zone after the Dodgers were bounced from the playoffs in October. He began his offseason by visiting Driveline Baseball’s headquarters in Washington a month after his 32nd birthday to diagnose his troubles. He said seeing other major leaguers, including Trevor Bauer, touting the company’s tactics piqued his interest.
“Why not?” Jansen thought.
He was shown clips from his time as the sport’s top closer during his visit. They taught him drills and gave him a program to follow through the winter. The chief goal was to minimize fluctuation in his mechanics.
He and the Dodgers have maintained a hamstring injury he suffered in spring training two years ago on the heels of a heavy workload in the Dodgers’ World Series run produced inconsistent mechanics, which generated the unsatisfactory results. He found his arm slot and his stride often went astray without him noticing. It was a different approach to prevent veering off track for long periods.
“I never thought that things could change like that and you don’t even know,” Jansen said. “It feels normal, but it’s not. I learned something new.”
The ensuing recommended regimen included throwing earlier and more in the offseason than ever before. Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood and Walker Buehler are among the Dodgers who kept their arms active all winter. Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior explained the approach allowed Jansen and the others enough time to hone different things in spring training before pitching in games.
“The older you get, the harder it is to take significant chunks of time off and then get going,” Prior said. “As much as you hear about, ‘Oh, I’m working on this, I’m working on that,’ not a lot actually happens in this two-week window. Because, at the end of the day, games are starting and guys are going to compete.”
The early results are encouraging. After tossing a scoreless inning in his first outing Sunday against the Chicago Cubs, the right-hander needed 11 pitches to strike out the side in the second inning against the Angels at Camelback Ranch on Wednesday. Jansen said he looked up at the stadium’s radar gun reading on the scoreboard once during the outing, after throwing a two-seam fastball. It read 94 mph. The number was encouraging a year after sitting at 87 mph in his first few spring appearances.
More importantly, he said, he could repeat his delivery when throwing his cutter, the pitch he rode to stardom after beginning his professional career as a catcher.
“I still believe he can be one of the elite closers in the game,” Roberts said. “So whether he’s throwing a 94-95 [mph] cutter, I can’t speak to that. We haven’t seen that in quite some time.… But I think that for him, if he’s feeling well, he’s going to be an elite closer.”
To approach those heights again, Jansen tried something different over the winter. He might never again resemble the dominant force he was at his peak, but the Dodgers aren’t counting on that to win a World Series. Getting close is enough. So far, so good, even if it’s earlier on the calendar than ever.
Pitching prospect Dustin May, still dealing with soreness in his side since the beginning of spring training, recently played catch at 120 feet but has taken a step back, according to Roberts. “Reality is he’s a little behind,” Roberts said. … Roberts said right-hander Jimmy Nelson, a career starter before injuries limited him to 10 games in the last two seasons, is expected to begin the season as a reliever. … Clayton Kershaw is slated to throw two innings in his spring debut Friday. … Walker Buehler will start the Dodgers’ split-squad game at Salt River Fields on Saturday against the Colorado Rockies and Ross Stripling will start at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Both are slated to log two innings.