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Column: It’ll be a trilogy with a predictable ending: Kenley Jansen’s October meltdown III

Kenley Jansen throws a pitch
Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen pitches against the Colorado Rockies during a spring training game on March 1 in Phoenix.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

This whole exercise feels awkward, mostly because everyone has already seen how it ends.

Kenley Jansen promises improvement. Dave Roberts voices his support. But come October, someone else is the Dodgers’ closer.

The cycle is repeating itself again.

There’s a minor twist this time. Jansen is pitching well in what could be his final exhibition season with the Dodgers, striking out nine and walking none over five scoreless innings.

Jansen posted his most recent zero Wednesday when he struck out the side in a fifth-inning relief appearance against the Chicago White Sox, his victims including former batting champion Tim Anderson.

The early spring statistics won’t change what happens in the postseason. While stranger things have happened, Jansen is unlikely to still be the team’s closer then.

Slender Dennis Santana’s ascent has been marred by injuries, but he’s healthy this spring after spending the offseason putting on weight and adding strength.

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He wasn’t in 2019, when Roberts opted to use Joe Kelly — Joe Kelly! — for a second consecutive inning rather than call on Jansen to start the 10th inning of a tied elimination game. He wasn’t again last year, when Roberts picked Julio Urías to finish the deciding games of the National League Championship Series and World Series.

However much the 33-year-old Jansen has downplayed radar gun readings, and however much he has changed the manner in which he attacks hitters, his decline in performance over the last three years has coincided with a drop in velocity of his trademark cutter. The pitch once traveled in the mid-90s. In his latest appearance, most were clocked from 91 to 92 mph.

The question isn’t whether Jansen can remain the team’s closer in October, but how the Dodgers can make the inevitable switch without compromising their championship aspirations.

Replacing a closer in the playoffs can be costly. Such moves are typically set in motion by a devastating loss or two. The Dodgers were fortunate last year because Jansen’s meltdown occurred in a victory and the team was positioned to move Urías from the rotation to the bullpen.

The more likely, and less damaging, scenario is that Jansen pitches his way out of the job in the regular season. But that will take, what, at least a bad week or two from Jansen? If the San Diego Padres are as formidable as expected, that week or two could be the difference between the Dodgers celebrating their ninth consecutive division championship and playing in a loser goes home wild-card game.

Kenley Jansen speaks to Dave Roberts as he leaves the field
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, left, takes Kenley Jansen out of the game during Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the San Diego Padres on Oct. 7 in Arlington, Texas.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

Either way, there figures to be pain involved, which is why I wrote in December that the Dodgers should part ways with their all-time saves leader over the winter.

They didn’t, and Roberts once again has to delicately balance what’s best for his team with a desire to treat Jansen with the respect he has earned over 11 major league seasons.

Asked why it was important for him to name Jansen his closer when the Dodgers have disregarded traditional roles in recent years, Roberts acknowledged it was in part to “continue to instill confidence that is deserved in the player.”

Roberts said he hasn’t spoken much to Jansen in camp, explaining how the demotion last year could be dismissed as a byproduct of a particularly unusual season. Jansen was infected with COVID-19 while the league was shut down. The regular season lasted only two months.

Reminded that Jansen was also displaced the year before, Roberts said, “I think when you’re talking about the postseason, it’s about who’s throwing the baseball the best. So, at that point in time, whether it be ’19 or ’20, I just didn’t feel that Kenley was throwing the baseball his best.”

Matthew Stafford and Clayton Kershaw grew up playing sports together in Texas, but in high school they eventually played just football and baseball, respectively, after sharing gridiron and diamond time.

Jansen hadn’t addressed reporters this spring until he participated in a video conference Wednesday. He said more than once that he wasn’t bothered by the public’s waning confidence in him — a tell-tale sign that he was bothered. He also made multiple references to how fans were spoiled by his dominance when he was at his peak.

As for his thoughts on whether the organization still believed in him, Jansen said, “Andrew [Friedman] and [Roberts] and the whole front office know what I’m capable of doing. They’re not going to go out there and just announce that I’m the closer. They see my workouts.”

Generally speaking, stars don’t extinguish gracefully. Many can’t reconcile the player they once were with the player they are now.

“I know who I am,” Jansen said, his self-image evidently frozen since 2017.

Kenley Jansen points up during a game.
Kenley Jansen reacts after getting a save against the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the 2017 World Series.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Such delusions aren’t entirely negative, as they are what drove Jansen to exhaust every possibility to rediscover the version of himself that exists only in archived videos.

“I put everything I got to get my offseason right,” Jansen said.

He didn’t visit his family in his native Curacao and remained in Los Angeles to train under the supervision of Dodgers strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel. He emphasized improving his command, believing the key to do so was in his delivery. He spent his offseason running more and heavy-lifting less.

“Trying to be more explosive, work on my quickness,” he said.

To his credit, he’s trying something new. Then again, he did last year too, when he added a slider and claimed to be transitioning from thrower to pitcher.

Chances are this won’t end well. It didn’t last time or the time before that either.


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