2.35 ERA 2.40 FIP 65.0 IP 13.71 K/9 3.05 BB/9 1.7 fWAR A
2012 in brief: As expected, took over closer’s job from Javy Guerra and was outstanding before being sidelined once again by recurrence of cardiac issue that required October surgery.
2013 status: Will make the minimum for one more year before becoming arbitration-eligible. Won’t start the season as closer thanks to the new contract bestowed upon Brandon League, but it’s not hard to see him finishing it there.
I’m pretty sure we saw Kenley Jansen taking the closer role away from Javy Guerra as such a given all winter that it was practically treated as a running joke. For example, on the very first day of camp:
* Javy Guerra starts camp as the closer. (Hernandez) Again, no surprise here, because Guerra took hold of the job last year after no one else could and did little to force the team to make a move. If he can be effective again this year, then fantastic, because Kenley Jansen is arguably more valuable as a “fireman” type who can come in and dominate when the situation dictates, rather than tether him to the 9th inning. Still, I see Jansen moving into the 9th inning at some point this year.
It didn’t take long. After a rough outing in the first game of the season, Jansen blew through the rest of April, putting up a 23/7 K/BB in 13.2 innings, allowing just four hits. That line looks even more dominating when you realize it includes a poor performance against the Padres on April 13, where he gave up a game-tying homer (in a game the Dodgers ended up winning anyway, and it’s not like getting beat by Chase Headley is embarrassing) and made us shake our heads at the ridiculous reaction he received from Dodger fans.
By the end of April, Guerra had predictably lost his hold on the job, and Jansen moved in. I’d like to offer more analysis than “he was great,” but… he was great. Between May 1 and the All-Star break, Jansen pitched 24.2 innings over 25 games. He allowed eleven hits and had a 39/6 K/BB. Think about that for a second. What can I really do to make that seem more impressive than that already looks?
That’s not to say he was perfect, because no closer ever is. On May 18, he blew a save by allowing Lance Berkman to hit a game-tying homer – the Dodgers won anyway – and then again on June 13 against the Angels, pitching for the third day in a row. Those are minor quibbles, because again, it’s not realistic to expect any player to be 100% perfect all of the time. If there was really anything to ding him on, it was his second appearance after the break, in which… oh, that:
There’s a lot of things I love about baseball, and one of them is that you absolutely never ever know what you’re going to see on a given night. Maybe you’ll see a no-hitter, or four homers in a row, or a pinch-hit dinger on a player’s own bobblehead night. Those are all rare and wonderful things, but they exist within the plane of reality; I’m not sure I can say that having two runners steal home on the same play with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning falls under that category.
I barely even know how to talk about it. Sure, it was a gut punch. But we’ve seen blown saves and tough losses before. We know how to get over those. This? This… was on a level I’ve never seen before. The worst part is, Kenley Jansen had battled through a tough inning to get to two strikes and two outs on Alexi Amarista, before turning his back on Everth Cabrera, allowing the tying run to score, and making a poor throw to the plate, allowing the go-ahead run to score. I don’t want to hear a damn word about how Jansen doesn’t know how to close out games – over his last nine games, he had allowed exactly zero hits while striking out 14, making him one of the most dominant closers in the game – but the mental error in a situation like that is just shocking. Given that Jansen threw 26 pitches tonight after 15 yesterday, I’m sure he’ll have a day or two to think about it.
Awful as that was, it didn’t slow Jansen down at all. Over the next month, he pitched 14.2 innings over 14 games, and continued to cruise, putting up a 21/5 K/BB ratio with only two earned runs. There was some concern over the fact that his velocity was down somewhat from 2011 – and more on that in a second – but since his performance hadn’t suffered at all, little was made of it.
But as we all know, it didn’t quite end that way. Jansen came into a game the Dodgers were already getting crushed in against Colorado on August 27 and allowed four runs in 2/3 of an inning, an outing which single-handedly increased his ERA from 1.93 to 2.54. At the time, it seemed like a blip from a rusty reliever in a non-save situation; two days later, we were told that Jansen was dealing with a recurrence of the heart condition which had cost him a month of 2011. At the time, the concern was more for Jansen’s health than anything baseball-related.
Jansen missed nearly a month, and when he returned on September 20, things had changed. Brandon League, new and improved off his recent mechanical changes, had taken over the ninth inning, and Don Mattingly – understandably, in a playoff push – didn’t want to fix what was working, especially after Jansen’s missed time. Jansen got into 8.1 innings over 9 games before the season ended and once again was dominant: 13/3 K/BB, two hits allowed. For the season as a whole, he struck out a massive 99 in 65 innings, and improved his BB/9 rate from 4.4 in 2011 to 3.0 in 2012.
Despite all that, he’s once again going to open the season as the second banana. As we’ve talked about several times in the past, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I’d love to have a guy like Jansen available to nail down the highest leverage situations rather than being chained to the ninth.
Oh, and there’s this: he might even be better next year, as I looked into in a post for FanGraphs in November:
Despite League’s great finish, I doubt there’s too many who would argue that he’s better than Jansen, who trails only Craig Kimbrel in K/9 rate over the last two seasons. (Yes, even more than Aroldis Chapman.) That’s especially so considering Jansen has the opportunity to be even better in 2013. Not only is he hopefully past the cardiac issues, look at his velocity charts over the last two years:
As you can see, for most of 2012 he’d had difficulty maintaining his 2011 heat, leading to no shortage of hand-wringing despite the fact that it hadn’t hurt his effectiveness. But see how it clipped up noticeably at the end of the season? There’s a reason for that:
“I was just playing around with the two-seamer and saw some great late movement,” Jansen said. “I took it into a game against Colorado. I threw a 90-mph cutter, then A.J. [Ellis, catcher] asked me for a two-seamer and I hit 95. That’s when I realized that I was staying behind the two-seamer but wasn’t staying fully behind the cutter.
“From that point, my cutter got to 96 and touched 97.”
That game against Colorado was on September 29. Jansen saw 15 batters between that game and three more, striking out eight of them and allowing only two hits.
Jansen’s heart procedure went smoothly and not only is he expected to be ready for spring training, he was reportedly feeling great just a few days later. With his heart concerns behind him (hopefully) and a fix to regain his lost velocity, Jansen’s poised to be one of the most dangerous relievers in baseball, no matter what inning we see him in. I can’t wait to see it.
Next up! Wait, Jamey Wright was decent?