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Column: Kenley Jansen wants to be Kershaw of the bullpen

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Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) and catcher Yasmani Grandal have had plenty to celebrate this season.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

As Kenley Jansen looked into his future over the winter, he knew what he didn’t want to become.

You know the type of player he had in mind. The one who stinks after signing a big contract. The guy who periodically inspires the question, “They’re paying him how much?”

“In baseball history,” Jansen said, “you see it a lot.”

Jansen vowed to make himself one of the feel-good stories of free agency. Now, three months into the five-year, $80-million deal he signed in the offseason, the All-Star closer is pitching better than he has ever pitched in his career.

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“You think guys work hard to get that multiyear contract, but Kenley’s working harder this year than he did last year,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

Behind his trademark cutter, Jansen entered Wednesday with an ERA of 0.83 in 31 games, with 52 strikeouts in 322/3 innings. He didn’t register his first walk of the season until Sunday. His 17 saves rank third in the National League.

Rather than relax in response to his newfound wealth, Jansen has continued to bear down. Instead of feeling weighed down by his contract, he has embraced his expanded responsibilities.

Similar to how Clayton Kershaw did after he signed a seven-year, $215-million deal leading up to the 2014 season.

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“To be honest, man, I just saw Kershaw,” Jansen said. “Kershaw is always my motivation. Always. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game, well-paid, all that stuff. He wants to be the best every day. That’s what I wanted to be too.”

Jansen is as easygoing as Kershaw is intense, but their manager pointed to how similar they are.

“Clayton wants to be the best pitcher that ever pitched,” Roberts said. “He might not admit it, but that’s what he wants. Kenley wants to do the same thing as a reliever.

“With that, they have the ability to focus on each start, each appearance, each pitch. That’s a separater from good to great. A lot of people have the long-term vision, but there’s a cloudy road in between that. Those two guys are laser focused.”

On the subject of becoming the top closer in baseball, Jansen pointed to others he considered worthy of consideration: Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller.

But he thinks he has found a way to distinguish himself, which is by recording multi-inning saves.

Jansen has seven saves that required four or more outs, the most in the major leagues.

“It’s tough to get recognized on the West Coast,” Jansen said. “That’s how you get recognized.”

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The confidence to do that on a semi-regular basis was born last October. Jansen registered a five-out save in Game 1 of the NL division series against the Washington Nationals. He pitched 21/3 innings in the deciding game of that series, setting up a dramatic save by Kershaw.

Jansen pitched three times in the NL Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs, including twice for more than an inning. In perhaps the most overlooked performance of the postseason, Jansen pitched three no-hit innings in a Game 6 loss that ended the season.

“I never thought I could do that,” Jansen said. “That’s one thing that helped me become who I am today. I learned something about myself I didn’t know. You never know who you are in this game until you go through it.”

The experience transformed Jansen, with Roberts observing a noticeable increase in confidence. Jansen has stepped into the leadership void resulting from the offseason departures of veterans J.P. Howell and Joe Blanton. He wants to be to the bullpen what Kershaw is to the rotation.

“He’s the guy here,” Jansen said. “Me, in my role in the bullpen, I’m the same thing, I’m the ace and the leader in my department. I have to take care of my responsibility.”

His sense of obligation was something he learned in his humble upbringing on the Caribbean island of Curacao.

“Be respectful to people,” Jansen explained. “Respect your elders. And when people do stuff for you, you have to be grateful and give back to them.”

His loyalty to the Dodgers is what prompted him to turn down a more lucrative offer from the Nationals.

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“I wanted to be here,” Jansen said. “I didn’t feel I could take this uniform off yet. This organization means a lot to me. They gave me my first chance. They gave me my second chance. We’ve been through all this stuff together. My dream is to win a championship here.”

The new contract further strengthened that bond.

“These guys took care of my family,” he said. “This is how I’m going to give it back to them.”

And if he continues to pitch like this, not a single fan will wonder why the Dodgers are paying him as much as they are. If anything, fans will be asking why the team isn’t paying him more.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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