Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen: The best late-inning playoff weapon since Mariano Rivera
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen: The best late-inning playoff weapon since Mariano Rivera:-A sense of finality used to permeate at the ballpark whenever Mariano Rivera trotted in from the bullpen, a feeling heightened at Yankee Stadium when his entrance song, the hard rock classic “Enter Sandman,’’ blared through the loudspeakers.
Opponents essentially knew the game was over, with the main question being how many bats Rivera would break with his signature cutter.
A similar phenomenon has materialized on the other side of the country, where the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen has been toiling with Rivera-like efficiency that’s even more evident this postseason, when he has allowed two hits and no earned runs in eight innings.
Replace “Enter Sandman’’ with “California Love,’’ Jansen’s warm-up tune, and the sense of doom for opposing hitters is about the same.
Armed with a power cutter and an improved slider, Jansen has become such an imposing figure that once-sacrilegious comparisons to Rivera – the all-time saves leader who will be elected to the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible after next season – are now considered legitimate.
So says none other than Brian Cashman, the New York Yankees’ longtime general manager.
“He’s a pretty special pitcher in his own right. So no, I wouldn’t say it’s sacrilegious,’’ Cashman said. “I think Kenley Jansen is starting to earn that right to have his name come up in those types of conversations. He’s that special.’’
And he’ll present a major obstacle for the Houston Astros in their pursuit of the first championship in franchise history as they meet the Dodgers in the World Series beginning Tuesday.
Jansen, 30, led all major league relievers in ERA (1.32) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (15.57) while tying for the NL lead with 41 saves, blowing just one chance. He held right-handed batters to a .120 batting average, and it just so happens most of Houston’s top hitters – Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman – swing from that side.
Jansen has been recognized as one of the game’s premier closers for some time now, with back-to-back All-Star Game nods and a five-year, $80 million contract signed last offseason that reflects his immense value to the Dodgers.
Since becoming a full-time closer in 2012, the native of Curacao has averaged 37 saves and a 2.07 ERA while striking out 13.7 batters per nine innings. Over the years he has refined his command, to the point he struck out 109 batters while walking just seven in 68 1/3 innings this season.
“Everyone knows his ball cuts, but he’s so big and has sort of a long reach; you feel like the ball’s on top of you,’’ said veteran slugger Matt Holliday, who is 2-for-9 in his career against Jansen. “And he pitches up in the zone so effectively. While a lot of them are balls, it’s really difficult to lay off because it’s right there at the top of the strike zone, maybe a little bit higher. For a guy who’s got as much movement and velocity in that cutter, he’s got really good command of it.’’
And now Jansen is more than a one-pitch closer, as the slider and two-seam fastball have become a bit more prominent in his arsenal.
“My go-to pitch is still the cutter. I’m going to die with it out there,’’ Jansen said of the pitch he now throws about 85% of the time. “But I’m also going to be smart, and to win I’m going to use my secondary pitches.
“People are not just sitting on one pitch. I keep them on their toes now. It’s already hard for them to fight that cutter, and now I’m going to mess with their timing. That’s what I’ve been doing, slow them down or change the eye levels.’’
Like Rivera, Jansen has demonstrated a willingness to go beyond the ninth-inning duties that have become the closer’s typical domain. When Dave Roberts became the Dodgers’ manager before the 2016 season, he asked Jansen to expand his range, and he responded with five saves of more than three outs. This year that figure grew to 12.
Most memorably, Jansen threw 51 pitches in an epic 2 1/3-inning outing that helped secure the Dodgers’ Game 5 victory in their 2016 division series against the Washington Nationals. In this postseason, he has three saves in three chances – two of more than one inning – and a win.
In 24 career postseason games, he has 11 saves, a 1.91 ERA and strikes out a staggering 15 batters per nine innings. The save total is barely one-fourth of the way to Rivera’s playoff record 42.
But Jansen strikes out more than twice as many playoff batters as Rivera’s seven per nine innings.
Roberts said such a weapon forces opponents’ hands.
“Your mind-set’s different when you know you have a guy like that at the back end of the bullpen,’’ Roberts said. “You don’t know when the manager’s going to use him, so sometimes you have to be a little bit more aggressive than you might like to be, especially in a postseason setting, where we have Kenley potentially for six outs.’’
Roberts had another request for Jansen after taking over, urging him to become more of a leader, especially among the relievers. Jansen speaks four languages, including Spanish, and has a strong relationship with several of the Latin players. Roberts wanted to use that bond to help unite a clubhouse that had been fractious in the past.
After the Dodgers fell two wins short of the World Series last year and Jansen and fellow veterans like Justin Turner, Rich Hill and Chase Utley re-signed with the club, Jansen emphasized the need to strive for a common goal, even if it came at the expense of individual accomplishments.
The Dodgers not only posted the majors’ best record at 104-58, but finally reached the World Series after a 28-year absence.
“He’s a big voice in the clubhouse,’’ reliever Brandon Morrow said of Jansen. “He spoke up when we had that lull in August and September. He was one of the guys trying to fire us up.’’
It didn’t necessarily come naturally. The laid-back Jansen is the youngest of three brothers and more comfortable following guidance than providing it. But he eventually accepted Roberts’ challenge and began to exert his influence.
When the Dodgers demoted an underperforming and misbehaving Yasiel Puig to the minors in August 2016, Jansen texted him every day to encourage him to keep a positive attitude. This season Jansen has been one of Puig’s main supporters as the outfielder turned around his career, hitting a personal-best 28 home runs and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in right.
“It takes a while, to be honest,’’ Jansen said of embracing the leadership role. “Last year I was getting there, but this year I was more comfortable. I know I’m going to be here for a while. He (Roberts) is helping me become a leader in the bullpen and all that stuff. I want to make sure we have the best bullpen in the league.’’
They did, leading the National League in ERA and throwing 17 shutout innings in the NLCS. Guess who has led the way.