Before we start talking about Kenley Jansen and what his signing means to the Los Angeles Dodgers, I want to talk about his journey to this point in his career. One, because it’s amazing and fascinating, and two because you rarely see such a huge position switch. The last time a transition like this happened was Tim Wakefield.
Kenley Jansen grew up Curacao, as the youngest of three. When he was 12, Jansen’s father passed away after he suffered a stroke, leaving his mother to take care of him and his three brothers. In 2005, the Dodgers signed Jansen to a minor league deal as a catcher. From 2005 to 2009, Jansen never really progressed into a threat at the plate, posting a .229 batting avaerag over his 8 full seasons in the minors. However, behind the plate, Jansen was the a star in the making.
In 2009, Jansen was the starting catcher for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. What you’re probably thinking is “The NETHERLANDS HAVE A BASEBALL TEAM THAT COMPETES?!” Yes. They do. And in 2009, they upset the Dominican Republic. If you can, I’m sure it’s on youtube, give the highlights of that game a watch, it’s amazing. In that game, Jansen threw out Centerfielder Willy Taveras in the third inning from his knees. That’s when the Dodgers began to transition Jansen fro behind the plate to the on the mound.
Six years later, Kenley Jansen has become the crown jewel of the Dodgers bullpen. After signing a hefty 5-year, $80 million dollar deal to return to Chavez Ravine, Kenley Jansen must now prove that he is the Clayton Kershaw of the 9th inning. It’s that simple. Jansen’s contract is $2.5 million dollars cheaper than the one Aroldis Chapman, arguably the most effective closer in the game, so he’s got a lot to live up to.
I’m not saying he hasn’t lived up to the hype. Kenley Jansen is the best closer to wear a Dodger uniform since Eric Gagne won the Cy Young. He is the hype. However, by signing this contract he’s either going to become the savior of the Dodgers bullpen, or the issue within it. What’s the issue? Well, the Dodgers bullpen saw action in 590.2 innings this year, 40% of the innings they played. The league average is 530 innings a season, or roughly 36% of innings played.
What do I mean by that? The Dodgers bullpen gets used a lot, and that shouldn’t be surprising. You don’t lose Zack Greinke, and have your other 2015 starters take a down turn without having battle back to fighting shape. The Dodgers started off looking like their starting pitching was on point. Kenta Maeda went off in his first few starts, and Ross Stirpling almost threw a No-Hitter in this MLB debut. Kershaw was his normal insanely gifted self, so there seemed no reason for alarm. They looked good. Really good. But then they looked really injured, and tired and flawed. Scott Kazmir looked to be very hittable and his $40+ million dollar deal looked like a huge mistake. Kenta Maeda looked good through the first few weeks of the season, but he also looked in consistent. For example, Maeda went 4-1 in August, but that record was sandwiched in between a 2-2 July and a 3-3 September.
The starters were floundering, and the bullpen would have to pick up the slack. The average number of outs pitched in a relief appearance for the Dodgers was 2.9, almost one whole inning. Back to our math, if Dodger relievers pitched 40% of all innings played in 2016, that means 3.2 innings a game. If Kenley Jansen pitches one full inning, that’s still almost three innings for what on paper becomes three different Dodger pitchers. There was no other pitcher on the 2016 Dodgers to earn a regular season save other than Jansen, who pitched 11% of the relief innings this season.
So what I’m saying is that Kenley Jansen could receive a bigger role in the bullpen now that he’s been paid like a top tier reliever. Having him complete 4 or 5 out saves shouldn’t be out of he question. It’s almost a necessity, but if the starting pitching can hold it’s own again, Jansen will flourish. We’ve seen it happen before.
Craig Kimbrel burst onto the scene in 2011 when he recorded 46 saves for the Atlanta Braves and won the Rookie of the Year Award, beating out Freddie Freeman, Wilson Ramos and… KENLEY JANSEN. For the next two years Kimbrel dominated the 9th inning, recording 40+ saves the next two years. Kimbrel was effective, and during that time period the starting pitchers for Atlanta went 6 innings on average. The Dodgers starters in 2016 went 5 innings on average. Without effective Starters a Closer cannot do his job.
That’s what this contract boils down to. Kenley Jansen will be able to pitch for the Dodgers for the next five years, that’s all. Whether he becomes like the Aroldis Chapman who pitched for a struggling Reds of the Aroldis Chapman who pitched for the Champion Cubs is yet to be determined. If he doesn’t, it’s likely it won’t be his fault. If he does, he’ll turn into the next Eric Gagne. Only time will tell.