In 2019, Alex Wood threw just 35.2 innings, Kenley Jansen‘s ERA skyrocketed to career high 3.71, and Clayton Kershaw posted an ERA above 3 for the first time since his debut season at age 20. While they were definitely differing degrees of steps backwards, it led all three to the same place in the off-season at Driveline Baseball to try and regain whatever has been lost and even perhaps take a step forward.
Trying to fix Kenley has become a regular feature of mine on this site and of other sites around baseball, and it primarily revolves around trying to figure out why arguably the best reliever in baseball over a six-year stretch from 2013-17 is now posting just good peripherals and above-average results.
The easy answer is that perhaps he simply got older and lost a bit of edge to his cutter, and that was enough to lead to decline because it was primarily his only pitch through most of his career.
But it’s a good sign that Kenley himself has not taken that decline lying down and looked to regain his old form at Driveline, which he first mentioned on MLB Network and later talked about with Ken Gurnick.
Jansen had his delivery analyzed and adjusted by a data-driven assessment outfit, changed his winter throwing program and reported to Spring Training this week with an upbeat outlook made only brighter by the new player who lockers next to him, Mookie Betts, and the new one across the room, David Price. “I got to accept that I wasn’t at my best, and I’ve got to push through it to become a better pitcher,” said Jansen.
Jansen, 32, said that as soon as the season ended, he took the guidance of his agent and Dodgers strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel and had his delivery analyzed at the acclaimed Driveline Baseball in Washington. The result, Jansen said, is a cutter with the rising life of his best years, and not the one that tailed into swing paths last year. “Figured out some stuff. It went well,” said Jansen of his time at Driveline. “Learned to get back to where I used to be. My delivery changed so much, and you don’t even know that until they put all that stuff on your body and you figure out you lose eight percent on the cutter, eight percent on the rising. They give you exercise to put you back in position to fire the ball again. “It feels like the ball has life on it. That’s what everybody’s telling me. One thing I see: It doesn’t go down, it stays in one lane.”
Since 2016, his velocity has declined on the cutter in every year, and it certainly seems up so far and that’s relevant. However, as I have mentioned before, Kenley has succeeded with varying velocity of cutters in the past, so it’s not necessarily as simple as that.
That’s what makes the specific diagnosis of his cutter not rising interesting to me, because it’s exactly what the metrics show as well. While people talk about his horizontal movement a lot, it’s actually the vertical carry that once set him apart and has since declined over the years.
In other words, the ball still had cutting action, but the deception it thrived on was generally that his cutter would ride more than the batter’s eyes could ever hope to decipher in a split second, and losing that made him more hittable.
It seems like working on correcting that was a point of emphasis, and the early returns are promising.
For Wood, the emphasis was more about getting healthy as his 2019 was riddled by recurrent back issues. But there was also a clear velocity decline from his breakout 2017 that impacted his effectiveness, and he was looking to regain the lost 2-3 mph.
Lacking metrics to go on from Spring Training, it sure seems like the main change has been a streamlining in his mechanics, making things much more aggressive and featuring less of his famously-funky takeaway.
Like Kenley, the early returns are promising. If he’s really able to get back up to 2017 velocity levels, then his upside is tremendous.
Oh yeah, the guy who initially revealed that Wood was at Driveline? The Dodgers hired him as a pitching coordinator.
Recently, it was revealed that Kershaw also made the trip to Driveline, though perhaps predictably he was less open about discussing what he did there.
Kershaw, who turns 32 next month, was reticent to discuss his Driveline experience in detail. But he acknowledged that they have a lot to offer major-league pitchers and spoke in broad terms about what he learned on his visit. “I’m not confirming or denying anything, but I will say that what Driveline does is not necessarily just a weighted-ball program,” Kershaw said. “They’re smart in how the body works, and how to create the most efficiency with your body, and how to create the most power with your body. They have ways to apply that. I think you can glean different things from different usages of it. Some guys are going in there maybe because there’s more in there and they’re trying to figure it out. Some guys maybe lost it. … It’s definitely a good tool. I think everybody thinks of Driveline, ‘Oh, you throw weighted balls,’ but it’s a lot more than that, which I learned. It’s cool.”
While there’s nothing particularly wrong with what Kershaw was in 2019, there’s a bunch of things that could extend his career as a quality pitcher. Regaining velocity is the most obvious, but finally getting separation back on his slider from his fastball would be just as impactful, as would perhaps fine-tuning or even developing a different pitch to use (a changeup, perhaps).
Regardless of what he gleaned from the trip, Andrew Friedman seemed bullish on what’s happening.
“All pitchers evolve when they get into their 30s, and that’s what we’re seeing with Kersh,” Friedman said. “As good as he was last year, in his mind, he’s going to be better this year. And I certainly wouldn’t bet against him.”
Hell, even staving off further decline would obviously be valuable.
Of course, as the title of the article says, it’s all just “optimism” at the moment because we’re still unsure whether the work will translate to results. But just the fact that all three of them took the initiative to improve is promising, and so are the early returns we’ve seen so far.
The Dodgers lineup looks like one of the best in team history, but the staff has a lot more volatility to it. These three pitchers project to play a huge role in their 2020 hopes, and it’s their work in the off-season that could lead to the Dodgers achieving their sky-high ceiling.