The Los Angeles Dodgers — owners of the best record in the National League and an 18-game lead in the division — have a problem. Well, as big of a problem as one could possibly have while remaining on track for home-field advantage at least up until the World Series.
And that problem revolves around Kenley Jansen. He has been the team’s closer since 2012, which remarkably was just a few years after being converted him from catcher in the Minor Leagues. In 2017, the Dodgers re-signed Jansen to the tune of five years and $80 million.
The deal includes an opt-out clause after this season but presuming it is declined, the contract extends through 2021. Jansen will be 34 when it expires.
From 2010-2017, he had an ERA hovering around 2.00, with 2017 being the best season of his career: 1.32 ERA in 62 games, league-high 41 saves, 109 strikeouts and a mere seven walks. In fact, the performance was so impressive that Jansen finished fifth in Cy Young voting.
Since then, however, things haven’t been as pretty. This season and last year the first two times in Jansen’s career where his ERA has drifted above 3.00, his strikeouts per innings has dipped below 13 and his home runs allowed have sky-rocketed.
Jansen has allowed 57 home runs in his career, with 22 of those coming the past two seasons.
How about a couple more points of reference? Let’s start with WAR. Beginning with 2011, here is Jansen’s WAR by season: 1.6, 2.1, 2.4, 2.2, 1.6, 3.1, 3.4, 0.3, 0.9.
What about blown saves? After converting 41 of 42 in 2017, he completed 38 of 42 opportunities in 2018, and this season has already matched a career high with seven blown saves.
The point in all of this? Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Kenley Jansen hasn’t been great.
Heading into Monday’s game, the Dodgers were in the midst of a 12-game stretch in which eight contests were decided by one-run or wasn’t resolved until extra innings. Of those, Jansen appeared in five:
Aug. 21 vs. Toronto Blue Jays: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 1 K, BS
Aug. 24 vs. New York Yankees: 1 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 3 K, SV
Aug. 28 @ San Diego Padres: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, BS
Aug. 30 @ Arizona Diamondbacks: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 1 K
Sept. 1 @ Diamondbacks: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 K
In his last five high-leverage appearances, Jansen has had just one reassuring outing. And here’s what is fascinating: it came in the eighth inning of a non-save situation.
That was Sunday, when he entered a game the Dodgers were trailing 3-2 — one they went on to win thanks to a game-tying homer from Cody Bellinger and then a game-winner from Joc Pederson.
Which brings us to the million-dollar question that the season might hinge on for the Dodgers: Should Kenley Jansen still be the team’s closer?
For me, the answer is no, and a change must be made for two clear reasons.
The first has nothing to do with the actual gripping and ripping of baseballs, but is entirely rooted in the clubhouse. If the Dodgers remove Jansen from the closer’s role, there are going to be shockwaves.
So why not rip the band-aid off now, with one month remaining in the season? Let things settle back down between now and October — when the mood internally will be magnified.
The second reason is based on the on-field results.
One argument against removing Jansen from the closer role is you’re going to need him to be one of the two or three best relievers in the playoffs, so does it really matter when he’s deployed? Actually, yes.
The Dodgers could move Jansen into a setup role of sorts and allow him get his confidence back by getting easy outs. If the team is up by two in the seventh inning and the 6-7-8 hitters are due up, get Jansen in there for a confidence booster.
Maybe he gets a few of those under his belt and things settle back into place for an elite playoff run.
In the meantime, the Dodgers do have a solid option to replace Jansen in resurgent off-season signing Joe Kelly. Since June 1, Kelly has pitched to a 2.17 ERA with six extra-base hits allowed and 39 strikeouts over 29 innings.
Over the same stretch, Jansen has pitched 28 innings with a 4.17 ERA, allowed 11 extra-base hits and struck out 35. Even Pedro Baez has been more reliable (3.50 ERA over 36 innings pitched).
Yes, Kelly had a rough start to the season, but it sure seems like he has figured some stuff out. Add to it he’s repeatedly proven he’s not afraid of big moments and the playoffs.
So why not make the switch now, give Jansen some confidence-boosting appearances, provide Kelly some reps as a closer and approach the whole thing with a tad more flexibility?
Now, there’s an underlying sentiment that removing Jansen from his role would appear unlikely. However, a compromise can be struck, and it revolves around the just-mentioned flexibility.
If Jansen is left in the ninth-inning role, so be it. But the rigidity with which the Dodgers handle their closer should be done away. When Jansen comes in for the ninth, he’s remaining in the game until the Dodgers win or he blows a save.
Why be so foolish?
Anyone who has followed Jansen for the past decade knows that within three pitches you can generally determine which direction his appearance will head in. Can he locate the cutter? Are batters swinging through it or making hard contact?
Once it’s evident Jansen is struggling, why not call an audible and bring in another option? Sure, his pride would be hurt and he wouldn’t be happy — but with two straight World Series losses, there’s even more reason to be aggressive with adapting.
Aren’t there more important things to be worried about?
Kenley Jansen has been great for the franchise. He’s been an elite closer for a long time, and he’s being paid accordingly — but for a team with aspirations of hoisting a trophy in a couple of months, those things need to drift from mind as we focus on the present.
It’s not to say that a month from now Jansen won’t have figured some things out, kicked it into another gear for the postseason and become the best reliever on the team — but right now? He’s not — and if the Dodgers want to win, some things need to change.