With Kenley Jansen’s Struggles, the Dodgers Have a Closer Crisison October 9, 2020 at 4:55 pm

With Kenley Jansen’s Struggles, the Dodgers Have a Closer Crisis

By blowing out the Padres to sweep the Division Series and advance to the National League Championship Series against the Braves, the Dodgers were able to skirt the matter, but by now it’s apparent that for as strong as they have looked thus far in the postseason, they have a closer problem. Manager Dave Roberts has spent the past four weeks limiting Kenley Jansen‘s exposure, even in save situations, and in Game 2 of the series, had to go so far as to pull the 33-year-old three-time All-Star because things were getting out of hand; in the end, the Dodgers barely escaped that game with a 6-5 victory. Because he had pitched two days in a row, Jansen was deemed unavailable for Game 3, but even with a vote of confidence, the question of how much longer he’ll be the automatic choice to shut the door will linger.

In the grand scheme, Jansen is an incredible success story, a Curacao-born converted catcher who spent his first eight major league seasons utterly dominating hitters; for the 2010-17 span, he struck out 40.1%, walked 6.8%, and posted a 2.08 ERA and 1.84 FIP, numbers that put him on the same tier as Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel and nobody else as far as sustained success for the period. His recent seasons have been rocky, however. In 2018, he posted career worsts in ERA and FIP (3.01 and 4.03) in a season interrupted by a bout of atrial fibrillation and then issues finding the right level of medication; in late November, he underwent an ablation procedure. In 2019, as his velocity continued to wane, he set new career worsts with a 3.71 ERA and eight blown saves, three more than he had in the previous two seasons combined.

Jansen reported late to summer camp due to a positive test for COVID-19, but was ready in time to start the season, and in fact pitched well into early September. In his first 17 innings, he posted a 1.04 ERA and 3.01 FIP, with a 35.8% strikeout rate — higher than it had been since 2017 — while converting 10 out of 11 save chances. Then came an unsettling pair of outings. On September 8 against the Diamondbacks, he entered with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game, escaped via a weird stolen base-error-baserunning blunder sequence by Tim Locastro, and after the Dodgers scored four runs in the top of the 10th, gave three back in the bottom of the inning before getting the final out.

Four days later, Jansen came in to protect a 5-2 lead in the ninth against the Astros, in what was something of a statement game, as the two 2017 World Series participants hadn’t met at Dodger Stadium since Houston’s sign-stealing scandal had come to light. Jansen gave up six straight hits and five runs, departing without retiring a single hitter. While he pitched a scoreless inning against the Astros the next night, closing out a seven-run game, and didn’t allow a run in his remaining six outings, he got just one save chance in that span, the same number as Pedro Baez and Adam Kolarek, with Blake Treinen getting called upon in the ninth inning of a tie game at home, typical Jansen territory (h/t J.P Hoornstra of the Orange County Register for pointing this out).

Here’s what Jansen’s rolling averages for cutter velocity and FIP look like; the trends show up at a more granular level as well, but I used a nine-game rolling average based on the fact that he made 27 appearances in 2020:

Jansen’s cutter velocity has been trending downwards, and while he’s hit rough patches before, and has found effectiveness at times even amid those dips, falling below 90 mph has been another matter. Meanwhile, he’s been hit harder lately:

That’s basically a tale of two seasons, with a consistent climb that began on September 8, the night of the Diamondbacks debacle. Here it’s worth pointing out that Jansen has become less cutter-reliant in recent seasons, mixing in his slider and sinker with increasing frequency. Sticking with Statcast classifications:

Those pitches have helped to mask the decline of his cutter; while batters produced a .298 xwOBA against it this year, his fastball (.224) and slider (.165) were more effective, and the trends have held in recent seasons:

As The Athletic‘s Pedro Moura summarized regarding the fastball, “While he throws it with a two-seam grip, it behaves more like most pitchers’ four-seam. The pitch helps in two ways: It’s faster than his diminished cutter, and its lack of late movement augments the cutter’s in contrast.” Statcast classifies the pitch as a sinker.

Anyway, despite his late-season woes, Jansen finished with outstanding Statcast numbers, most of which were either his best of the period or at least since 2017:

In the more traditional realm, Jansen’s 32.4% strikeout rate was his best since 2017, as was his 0.74 homers per nine; he was at 29.3% and 1.47 per nine in those two stats for the 2018-19 span. But oh, those bases on balls: from a 6.0% rate in those two seasons, he’s walked 8.8% this year, and so the overall result has been more traffic on the bases; turning to that old fantasy staple, his 1.15 WHIP was the worst mark of his career, well above his 2018-19 mark of 1.02, even with the improved suppression of hard contact.

Roberts called upon Jansen to close out the Wild Card Series opener against the Brewers, which Jansen did despite issuing a two-out, four-pitch walk to Jace Peterson that brought Christian Yelich to the plate with the game-tying run; he struck out the former MVP in a tense five-pitch battle while Brusdar Graterol warmed up:

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Jansen’s cutter plummeted as low as 86 mph against Yelich, and its average for the outing was 88.1 mph, his lowest mark of the season. Per the Orange County Register‘s Bill Plunkeett, Roberts said, “It just didn’t seem like the stuff had the teeth that I’ve seen in recent outings… I just didn’t think that the cutter – there were a couple throws that had the life but it just didn’t have the life in the zone. The breaking ball was cast more than I’ve seen it.”

Roberts said he would review the outing on video, after which he reversed course somewhat, saying, “I thought it was much better than I expected or than I thought,” though he made an exception for the Peterson walk and the velocity dip. “I just saw the 86 and I just didn’t know if Kenley was OK,” he said. “You don’t want things to spiral out. You want to have protection. It’s just making sure that you cover your bases.”

Though Roberts assured his audience that Jansen remained his closer, it was Graterol he called upon to protect a three-run lead and close out the series in Game 2. In the Division Series opener against the Padres, Treinen, who had stranded an inherited runner on second while getting all three outs of the eighth inning, stuck around to retire Tommy Pham to start the ninth before yielding to Jansen in a non-save situation, with a four-run lead — a curious choice, but one that went off without a hitch.

His Game 2 appearance not so much, even after beginning by striking out Wil Myers on three pitches. Jansen then lost an 11-pitch battle to Jake Cronenworth, who singled on an 88.8 mph cutter high in the zone, and concluded a six-pitch encounter with Mitch Moreland by yielding a ringing RBI double; his 88.3 mph cutter was mashed at 104.9 mph. Austin Nola fouled out on another low-velo cutter (88.2 mph), but after Trent Grisham finished his six-pitch at-bat with an RBI single on a center-cut 90.1 mph cutter, Roberts had seen enough.

That the Dodgers’ skipper bypassed the opportunity to go to lefty Jake McGee — who, curiously, has yet to make a single postseason appearance — for the lefty-swinging Grisham raised some eyebrows, though even amid the ex-Rockie’s resurgence with the Dodgers, he’s had small-sample trouble with same-side hitters (.362 wOBA allowed in 24 PA). If the basis of that decision was along those lines, however, the data was no more favorable with regards to his choice of Joe Kelly to replace Jansen against Fernando Tatis Jr., with Manny Machado looming (25 PA, .352 wOBA, with seven walks and five strikeouts). Kelly induced Tatis to foul one off, but couldn’t get him to offer at any of his next five pitches, and ended up issuing a walk. While he got ahead of Machado 1-2, likewise he walked him on eight pitches to load the bases. Kelly finally got Eric Hosmer to ground out, but only after Dodgers fans had chewed their fingernails raw.

Afterwards, Roberts was more noncommittal about Jansen’s status. Via the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike DiGiovanna:

“Um … I think right now, certainly, leverage matters,” Roberts said before Game 3. “I think I’m going to continue to watch the game, to talk to the pitching coaches, to talk to Kenley. I’m not gonna make that decision yet.”

…”I don’t know the reason,” Roberts said, when asked if Jansen has any physical problems. “Watching video [from Wednesday night], there were some 93s mixed in with some 89s. I think more than anything, it’s the fluctuation of velocity and lack of consistency.

“We’re still digging in on it. With Kenley, regardless of velocity, when he’s executing and making quality pitches, he’s as good as anyone. But when you’re not executing and missing to the big part of the plate, then you’re not as good, and that’s something we’re constantly trying to figure out.”

Roberts didn’t have to navigate a save situation in Game 3, though he — and, to be fair, the front office above him — found a different way to induce head-scratching and second-guessing by using Dustin May as an opener, followed by Kolarek. With two outs in the second inning and the bases loaded, Julio Urias arrived to face Tatis, an encounter the team’s plan appeared designed to avoid at least once. Urias rose to the occasion by striking him out and cruising for five innings while the Dodgers pummeled the Padres into submission.

(Allow me to pause here to pour out a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA in honor of the Padres, whose bat flips and general joie de vivre have helped to brighten this miserable year.)

By sweeping the Padres, the Dodgers have bought themselves a three-day weekend to figure out what comes next. Their bullpen might be as deep as it’s been during Roberts’ run as manager, but Takashi Saito ain’t walking through that door to replace the ailing Eric Gagne. Treinen and McGee, both of whom rebounded from sub-replacement seasons elsewhere, have a fair bit of experience closing games, while Graterol, Baez, Kelly, and Kolarek have only a smattering of saves. All of them have built-in reasons for not being elevated into the full-time role, whether it’s because they don’t miss enough bats, have significant platoon splits, or sometimes can’t find the plate.

More likely than anointing anyone as Jansen’s replacement, if that’s necessary, is Roberts taking a matchup-based approach, which isn’t to say those choices will sit easily with Dodgers fans as they ride the postseason rollercoaster. Jansen — who reportedly remains upbeat — could certainly figure into that mix, but as has been the case over the past four weeks, he may not be the automatic choice that he once was. It’s an uncomfortable reality to confront, but if the Dodgers are to win the World Series for the first time since 1988, it’s an unavoidable one.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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