By Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen’s lofty standards, this has been a difficult season. In his latest appearance Wednesday, the 31-year-old allowed a ninth-inning solo home run en route to a blown save against the Blue Jays. The juggernaut Dodgers still went on to another victory, but Jansen’s seemingly one of their few players who hasn’t enjoyed a stellar season.
Jansen has already surrendered the second-most homers of his career (eight) and racked up his second-highest total of blown saves (six, in 32 chances) through 48 2/3 innings in 2019. And while most relievers would be satisfied with Jansen’s 3.70 ERA/3.58 FIP, those numbers rank among career worsts for a hurler who has logged a stingy 2.32 ERA/2.24 FIP since debuting in 2011.
Jansen’s dip in performance (which dates back to last year) is among the reasons the Dodgers’ bullpen has been shaky at times this season. But there’s no imminent end-of-game change coming for Los Angeles, manager Dave Roberts explained to Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, saying he’s “not tempted” to remove Jansen as closer. The two did, however, have a “long” meeting after Wednesday’s game, reports Plunkett, who writes that Jansen also met with Dodgers president Andrew Friedman. Jansen indicated Roberts and Friedman gave him votes of confidence, but Roberts acknowledged that if things don’t turn around in the coming weeks, “then there should be a conversation and then I will have to make a decision.”
For now, Roberts is betting on improvement from the three-time All-Star, as is Jansen himself. “I’m going to be there” in the ninth, said Jansen, who insisted he’s not worried about his status. Despite his issues this year, Jansen has still posted some of the top numbers of anyone in LA’s bullpen. When it comes to regular Dodgers relievers, only Pedro Baez and Julio Urias have bettered Jansen at preventing runs (though Joe Kelly has overcome a rough start to dominate in recent weeks), and no one on the team rivals Jansen’s wealth of game-ending experience.
Back in 2017, Jansen enjoyed one of the single greatest seasons any reliever has ever delivered. He fired 68 1/3 innings of 1.32 ERA/1.31 FIP ball, recording 14.36 K/9 against 0.92 BB/9 with 41 saves on 42 tries. That near-unbeatable version of Jansen also registered a career-best 18.2 swinging-strike rate, relying on his signature cutter 85.4 percent of the time (per Statcast) to stymie the opposition. That pitch is no longer as formidable, though, and Jansen has turned to it less as a result. He has gone to it at a 76.7 percent rate this year, filling in the other 23.3 percent with a four-seamer and a slider that he has relied on to almost matching extents.
Jansen’s velocity on his cutter, four-seamer and slider has fallen in comparison to his dream ’17 season, but that’s not to say hitters have teed off on any of them. In fact, according to Statcast, Jansen has produced above-average results with each offering. Unsurprisingly, the .287 weighted on-base average hitters have managed against him trumps his .263 expected wOBA – the latter of which ranks in the majors’ 93rd percentile. Jansen’s also near the summit of the league in strikeout percentage (91st percentile; he has fanned 11.04 per nine while walking only 2.03), fastball spin (96th percentile), hard-hit rate allowed (97th percentile) and average exit velocity against (99th percentile; 84.5 mph).
By Statcast’s metrics, not to mention Jansen’s 17th-ranked swinging-strike percentage (16.1), he’s still either an elite reliever or close to it. Although he’s not the Jansen who steamrolled hitters two years ago, “He doesn’t need to be the ’17 Kenley,” according to Roberts. “He needs to be the best of what he is today and going forward.”