It’s that time of the year again for the Dodgers and Kenley Jansen when he gets in a slump with his mechanics and starts allowing runs. The big man gets into trouble in spurts over a season just like any pitcher in baseball. But when you’re the guy who is employed to ensure the final outs of a close game, that rough patch is going to get a closer look.
Going back to June 10, Jansen has allowed nine runs and five homers in his last 18⅔ innings. Jansen has also allowed three inherited runners to score of the seven that were given to him. He has allowed runs in three straight games twice this season, the first two times in his career Jansen has done that.
As bad as those numbers sound, the Dodgers have only lost three of the 28 games that Jansen has appeared in. Two of those three losses (June 23, July 26) came in situations where the odds of success were highly stacked against him.
After dealing with a virus for most of last week, Jansen didn’t look like himself in the series with the Angels, allowing a solo homer to Mike Trout on Friday and a run on two hits and a walk on Saturday. It’s not clear how much of the ineffectiveness can be blamed on sickness. But it’s probably safe to say that played a part.
Outside of the long ball, Jansen is having a great year with the highest strikeout rate (45.6%) and lowest walk rate (3.9%) in his career. The .173 that opponents are hitting against him is the lowest batting average against Jansen since the .145 he posted in 2012.
The only area of concern for the Dodgers is the amount of home runs Jansen has already allowed in 2015. The five Jansen has given up this season match his total in 2014 and is only one away from tying his career high of six.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn’t seemed overly worried when he was asked about the topic on Sunday.
"I think the main thing with Kenley when he struggles at all, he just gets out of line," Mattingly said. "When he’s in line and his direction’s good, the ball comes out differently. He’s really like a lot of different guys. If the delivery’s not right and he’s getting a little out of sync, the ball doesn’t come out the same way, and you can see that."
At one point last season Dodgers assistant pitching coach Ken Howell drew a straight line on the bullpen mound with chalk. Howell made Jansen repeatedly throw with the line, with a direct correlation between velocity and keeping the body straight.
"The concern is more the direction than it is the result of that," Mattingly said. "If his direction’s right then the ball’s going to come out differently and they’re not hitting home runs. The concern is making sure that he stays in line as far as mechanically where the ball comes out."
Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt spent a great deal of time working on mechanics with Jansen in June of last season. The pair were able to identify a flaw in his delivery while the club was in San Diego and the two fixed the problem. Jansen had given up 15 runs in 29⅔ innings up to June 20 but surrendered only five runs the rest of the season after a productive side session with Honeycutt.
Last season Honeycutt talked about Jansen to reporters saying, "He’s gotta get his release point a little bit better, so the ball has that cutting action. His hand has been a little bit late at times. It’s usually a timing issue for him."
This year there also seems to be an issue with the lower half of the body and getting the drive of the legs back into the delivery.
"My velocity is down sometimes when I get to that funk where I’m not driving as much with my lower half," said Jansen on a recent pregame interview with Rick Monday. "I’m not staying taller and I spin off quick. (Honeycutt) just tried to make me use my lower half again to just drive to home plate."
Jansen’s cutter is wildly deceptive and one of the best pitches in baseball when everything is working right. But hitters are able to pick it up out of Jansen’s hand when the mechanics aren’t as sharp.
"I’m definitely more concerned with the movement," Jansen said. "Anytime when my velocity is low I keep getting a big cut where the ball cuts earlier and not late. Whenever I’m behind the ball and my velocity is a little bit up there you get that late cut at the end. Thats what I want, that short late cut at the end."
When the ball cuts early for Jansen it comes out flat and is a pitch that hitters can handle. Since Jansen doesn’t have great command on location, hitters like Trout and Bryce Harper have recently proven what they will do when you make that mistake to them over the plate.
All the other numbers are there for Jansen if he can cut down on homers. Sounds a little like Clayton Kershaw earlier this season, especially in that 16.1 percent of Jansen's fly balls have resulted in home runs, up from 9.0 percent in his career.