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2021 Dodgers in review: Kenley Jansen

NLCS: LA Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

There’s no better way to end our 2021 season reviews than with Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who by the end of the season looked as good as he has in a few years.

The last two seasons have been a transition away from the cutter, what has been Jansen’s bread and butter in his 12 years in the majors. His cutter usage is down only in a relative sense. He threw the pitch 58 percent of the time in 2021, but that stands out since Jansen threw the pitch 83.8 percent of the time from 2011-19.

That meant more time this year for Jansen’s sinker, which he threw 26.6 percent of the time. Opponents hit .147 with a .221 slugging percentage in plate appearances ending with that pitch. He also threw his slider 15.4 percent of the time, holding opponents to an .093 batting average and .209 slugging percentage.

Having more options helped Jansen stay effective, posting his best ERA (2.22) in four years and kept his strikeout rate above 30 percent (30.9, ranking 29th among the 138 major league relievers with at least 50 innings).

There were danger spots, however. Jansen’s command was off, his 12.9-percent walk rate was his worst since 2010. He also blew three saves in a five-day span in late July, getting booed off the field at Dodger Stadium in a loss to the Giants on July 22.

The last two of those blown saves were to first-place San Francisco, after which manager Dave Roberts stuck by Jansen as closer.

“Four days ago he was one of the top two or three closers in baseball. It’s interesting how things change over two games, albeit two games in a row,” Roberts said. “He and other guys in our pen have picked up a lot of guys this year. I just don’t think two games causes for me to question a role.”

The faith was warranted, as Jansen cut his walk rate by more than half and didn’t blow another save the rest of the season.

Kenley Jansen 2021 splits

Months IP Sv/BS BB rate K rate ERA FIP
Months IP Sv/BS BB rate K rate ERA FIP
April-July 40⅓ 22/5 16.3% 27.9% 2.90 3.59
August-September 28⅔ 16/0 7.5% 35.8% 1.26 2.37
Source: Baseball Reference

2021 was a big moving year for Jansen up the all-time saves leaderboard. He started the year in 25th place, and moved up to 13th by the end of the season, with 350 saves. Among the pitchers Jansen leapfrogged were former Dodgers Roberto Hernandez and John Wetteland, and Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers.

On May 19 against the D-backs, Jansen saved his 321st game, passing Fingers for the third-most saves with one team. The only pitchers with more saves for one team are Mariano Rivera (652 saves, with Yankees) and Trevor Hoffman (552 with Padres).

On August 25 in San Diego, Jansen retired Padres catcher Aaron Nola for the 1,000th strikeout in Jansen’s career, the 12th pitcher in major league history to reach that milestone in relief.

Jansen kept his good run going and then some into the playoffs. He pitched in eight of the Dodgers’ 12 games, allowing only three hits and no runs in seven innings. Jansen’s only postseason walk was intentional, and his 14 strikeouts represented 56 percent of his batters faced.

Though Jansen reclaimed his closer role and by October was pitching as well as ever, an odd quirk continued. Jansen pitched a scoreless ninth inning and was the winning pitcher when Chris Taylor walked off the wild card game. In Game 5 of the NLDS, Jansen pitched the eighth, with the ninth inning reserved for starter Max Scherzer, which came with ripple effects.

Since 2018, the Dodgers have won eight postseason series (in this case, counting the 2021 wild card game as a series). Outside of the wild card game this year, the only one of those series that saw Jansen record the final out on the mound was the NLDS in 2018.

Final pitchers in Dodgers postseason series, 2018-21

Series Opponent Game Final LA pitcher Comments
Series Opponent Game Final LA pitcher Comments
2018 NLDS Atlanta 4 Jansen LA won Game 4, 6-2
2018 NLCS Brewers 7 Kershaw Jansen got 4 outs in 7th & 8th
2018 World Series Red Sox 5 Jansen Jansen entered down 4 in 9th
2019 NLDS Nationals 5 Jansen Kelly used over Jansen in 9th & to start 10th
2020 wild card Brewers 2 Graterol Jansen did not pitch
2020 NLDS Padres 3 Floro 12-3 blowout to complete sweep
2020 NLCS Atlanta 7 Urías Urías final 9 outs; Jansen did not pitch
2020 World Series Rays 6 Urías Urías final 7 outs; Jansen did not pitch
2021 wild card Cardinals 1 Jansen LA walk-off win in 9th
2021 NLDS Giants 5 Scherzer Jansen pitched perfect 8th
2021 NLCS Atlanta 6 Jansen Jansen pitched scoreless 8th, down 2 runs

The last time Jansen recorded a save in the final game of a postseason series was Game 3 of the 2017 NLDS.

The Dodgers signed Jansen in November 2004 out of Curacao as a catcher, but after switching to the mound he quickly ascended to the majors. Jansen, who ended the season as the longest-tenured Dodger, has more saves (350), games (701), and relief strikeouts (1,022) than anyone in franchise history.

He’s the greatest relief pitcher in Dodgers history, but as of now whether his tenure in Los Angeles will continue beyond 12 seasons.

2021 particulars

Age: 33

Stats: 2.22 ERA, 2.83 xERA, 3.08 FIP, 38 saves, 69 G, 69 IP, 86 K, 36 BB, 2.3 bWAR, 1.8 fWAR

Salary: $20 million

Game of the year

In the third game of the season, Jansen made his first appearance of 2021, entering a precarious position at Coors Field on April 3. With runners on first and second with one out in the eighth, and the Dodgers clinging to a one-run lead, Jansen was summoned. He got the final two outs of the eighth, and avoided a scare when CJ Cron’s drive had bad intentions but fell harmlessly into Zach McKinstry’s glove in left field rather than in the seats.

“I thought there was some good contact, and here if you just get the right trajectory, sometimes it just keeps going,” Roberts said. “There was a little bit of a sigh from me, for sure.”

Jansen worked around a walk in the ninth, completing a five-out save. It was one of seven games in 2021 recording at least four outs, his highest such total since 2018.

Roster status

Jansen is a free agent.