Finding Kenley Jansen’s place in the Dodgers bullpen

Kenley Jansen is struggling. That’s not really news as he’s been fighting it in some form or another since 2018. But it almost seems like he’s sorta hit rock bottom last night, to the point where he was getting pep talks on the bench, which I don’t think I’ve seen him get ever.

Last night he blew his 7th save of the season, which ties his career high from 2012 back when he wasn’t even a closer yet. His ERA on the year now sits at 3.73, and his previous career high in ERA was last year at 3.01. Quite frankly, the fact that fans are fed up with him isn’t all that surprising at this point.

I get it.

Still, the closer title itself isn’t important to me. The Dodgers need outs from their pen and they’re going to need them from Kenley, so wherever he pitches the rest of his time in Blue, he needs to be effective. Jon Weisman pointed out as much in a recent post discussing the clamoring for his demotion from the role.

As many headlines as it would generate, demoting Jansen from the closer position really would have very little impact on the team’s chances of winning tonight, tomorrow or in October. He’s going to pitch, and he’s going to pitch in critical situations, no matter the inning. And if he is demoted, someone else is going to have to step into the breach, even though no one on the Dodgers is infallible.

I defend keeping him in the role for similar reasons to the ones Jon argues, but anybody who wants to remove him because they think there are better options isn’t crazy or anything. The role isn’t what worries me, what worries me is that Kenley’s pitching worse when they need him to be getting better.

Here’s the thing though, despite that, he’s still unquestionably needed by the Dodgers. I know social media is to the point now where you can’t even say obviously true things without being dogpiled with Jansen hate, but whether fans like it or not, at the moment he’s absolutely going to be one of the guys in October.

Who is actually pitching better than Jansen this year? Maybe 2-3 guys are arguable, but the uncomfortable reality is that Jansen is still one of the best relievers on the team.

Sure, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, Ross Stripling, and Kenta Maeda may leave their mark, but they respectively haven’t converted yet (and got shelled once already), is in the process of converting (maybe), is still hurt, and is still starting (heck, even Julio Urias is suspended at the moment). Taking them over Jansen or Baez at this point would likely be more of a gamble than either of the duo happening to hit a hot streak at the right time.

But what about Jansen’s second half, right?

True, he has struggled recently. Pitchers like Joe Kelly, meanwhile, have been elite. However, relievers are generally inconsistent in results over whole seasons due to sample size, much less a month and a half.

Regardless, as many who watch the games have observed, a lot of Kenley’s ERA balloon has been bad luck.

For better or worse, he’s basically been the same pitcher all year. It’s easy to look at that as a positive as he’s the midst of his struggles, but the worrying thing is that for as many adjustments as they say they’ve made and for as much as they’ve tried this or that, there isn’t a split that I could find where there’s a significant change in his stuff or results. Essentially, the homers just keep on coming.

The point of all this isn’t a defense of Jansen, at least in the sense that nobody is denying that he’s diminished. But the perception is generally that he’s pitching significantly worse than somebody like Baez just doesn’t track, as he’s now essentially close to becoming a pitcher as effective as Baez, and that’s the problem in itself.

——

I began this post with the idea of seeing if there was any way to salvage Kenley Jansen’s season (or even career trajectory at this point), but there was nothing pointing in that direction. Rather it pointed towards the bleak reality of the pen more than anything. Because for as much as fans believe Kenley is an unmitigated disaster, he’s still better than almost all of what the rest of the pen has to offer at the moment.

The Dodgers front office took a risk at the trade deadline, essentially saying that they could solve the bullpen problems internally and replicate the formula used by the Astros in 2017 and the Red Sox in 2018. There’s still time for that to come together, but in the month that has passed since then, there’s been more movement backwards than forwards in terms of attaining that pen fix.

That said, with the tiny samples of October being even tinier for relievers, all it takes is one quality run (like Joe Kelly’s last year) to make a difference. And the Dodgers will have to hope that Kenley Jansen can get the job done, though hope is perhaps now the best word to describe it.

About Chad Moriyama

Chad Moriyama
"A highly rational Internet troll." - Los Angeles Times