The 2020 season was quite a roller coaster ride for Kenley Jansen. The ending destination was incredible, the Dodgers’ first championship in 32 years, but the ride getting there for Jansen specifically was turbulent as hell.
Nominally, Jansen’s regular season numbers were promising. His ERA was perfectly fine (3.33), his FIP (3.03) and strikeout rate (32.4 percent) were his best in three years, and he saved 11 of his 13 chances. Twenty-two of his 27 appearances were scoreless. Opposing hitters batted just .211/.304/.311 against him. He won National League reliever of the month for August, during which he had a 1.54 ERA and a 43-percent K rate.
Considering that his summer camp arrival was delayed by a positive COVID-19 test, the effects of which were still lingering in the season’s second month, Jansen’s performance was even more impressive.
But there were concerns, like his highest walk rate (8.8 percent) since 2011, and the average velocity on his cutter declined for a fourth straight year, with 90.9 mph the lowest of his career. Perhaps more damning is that the cutter is no longer a pitch Jansen can rely on for strikeouts. When Jansen threw a cutter with two strikes, he struck out hitters just 12.6 percent of the time. That put-away percentage was much lower than his career mark (27 percent) and down even from 2018-19 (21.4 percent).
The devil came due over the span of five days, when Jansen allowed three runs but escaped with a save in Arizona on September 8, then imploded with six straight hits allowed to the Astros, turning a three-run lead into a two-run loss on September 12.
Jansen’s hold on the closer role loosened further when, in his save of Game 1 of the wild card series against Milwaukee, his initial velocity of 86 mph on the cutter raised red flags. Jansen wasn’t used the next night in a save situation, then was pulled after allowing two runs in Game 2 of the NLDS. Joe Kelly finished that game off, one of four non-Jansen Dodgers to record saves in the postseason.
Relegated to mop-up duty, Jansen pitched only once in the next five games, entering in the sixth inning with a 14-run lead in Game 3 of the NLCS. He did however help the Dodgers’ comeback effort from down 3-1 against Atlanta, closing out wins in Games 5 and 6, retiring all six batters he faced. He struck out the side in Game 5 and his stuff looked like vintage Jansen. It was a scene reminiscent of ‘Major League 2.’
Dodgers seeing how Kenley Jansen looked in the 9th pic.twitter.com/ep4PFEm17C— Eric Stephen (@ericstephen) October 17, 2020
But the hope was short-lived. Jansen allowed a home run in Game 3 of the World Series, then blew the save in a stunning Game 4 loss, and did not pitch again. In eight postseason games this year, Jansen had a 5.14 ERA and 3.62 FIP.
Now the Dodgers find themselves in an unfamiliar situation in which Jansen is no longer the automatic choice to finish games going forward.
Most relief strikeouts, NL history
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“The best-case scenario is Kenley is our closer,” manager Dave Roberts told Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times last week, “but that is solely dependent on him.”
Jansen, the all-time Dodgers leader in saves, games pitched, and relief strikeouts, has one more year left on his five-year, $80 million contract with the Dodgers. He currently stands fifth all-time in National League relief strikeouts, and is just 64 away from joining Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman as the only pitchers with 1,000 relief strikeouts with one team.
Stats: 3.33 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 11 saves, 33 K, 24⅓ IP
Salary: $18 million
Game of the year
While his perfect inning in Game 5 of the NLCS was dominant, Jansen entered a much dicier situation the next night, with the Dodgers only leading by two runs (instead of four). But there was no time for any nervousness to set in, as Jansen retired the first two batters on two pitches total, then got Pablo Sandoval to harmlessly fly out to left field, and all of a sudden the NLCS was tied.
Jansen is under contract for one more year at $20 million, and will be a free agent after the 2021 season.