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The Dodgers Have a Kenley Jansen Problem and No Clear Solution

Dave Roberts needs to figure out a new bullpen hierarchy, and fast, with his longtime closer no longer the best option at the end of games

When the home team enters the ninth inning in a tie game, it usually calls upon its closer to preserve the tie and set the stage for a walkoff win. By that point, with no more possibility of a save situation, there’s no better time to insert the team’s top reliever. But in Game 1 of the NLCS on Monday, the Dodgers entered the ninth inning in just that spot, and longtime closer Kenley Jansen was nowhere to be found.

Instead, Dave Roberts used Blake Treinen, who promptly allowed a tie-breaking home run to Austin Riley. Treinen and lefty Jake McGee combined to allow three more runs in the inning, as Atlanta took a 5-1 lead and grabbed Game 1. The Dodgers still have plenty of time to come back in the series; they had the best record in baseball for a reason. But they’ll need to figure out their bullpen hierarchy, and what to do with Jansen, to bring that comeback to fruition.

While the primary pessimistic playoff narrative for Dodgers pitchers belongs to Clayton Kershaw, Jansen isn’t far behind as a dominant regular-season player with an ignominious postseason track record. Since 2013, when the Dodgers’ streak of NL West division titles began, Jansen leads all relievers with an average of 35 saves per year; he’s the franchise’s career leader in saves, total games pitched, and a host of rate stats. He is one of the best closers in MLB history, having converted 89 percent of his career save opportunities, ninth best among pitchers with at least 100 saves. Among all pitchers with 500-plus career innings, Jansen ranks seventh in park- and league-adjusted ERA, third in adjusted FIP, and third in strikeout rate. In the latter two stats, only Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel are better.

Jansen’s numbers suggest a very strong playoff career, too. His 2.26 playoff ERA is actually better than his 2.39 regular-season ERA, and his strikeout, walk, and home run figures are all in line with his typical marks.

But that success is concentrated in the early rounds, during which Jansen has been nearly perfect. The World Series has been a different story.

Kenley Jansen in the Playoffs

Statistic Early Rounds World Series
Statistic Early Rounds World Series
Wins + Saves 16 2
Losses + Blown Saves 0 4
ERA 1.85 3.55
IP 39 12 2/3
HR 1 4
K% 41.1% 22.4%
WPA 2.1 -0.3

In early rounds, Jansen has never blown a save or lost a game; in the World Series, he’s had twice as many negative results as positive. His strikeout rate in the World Series falls by half; his home run rate skyrockets like, well, all the home runs he’s allowed. He has collectively hurt his team’s chances of winning in the final round, according to win probability added.

In the 2017 World Series, he surrendered a game-tying home run to the Astros’ Marwin González, preventing the Dodgers from taking a 2-0 series lead. Four days later, he allowed a walk-off Alex Bregman single in Game 5 in Houston. The next year against Boston, Jansen blew two saves in two nights at home, on home runs by Jackie Bradley Jr. and Steve Pearce.

Jansen, Chapman, and Kimbrel are the three most effective per-inning closers in MLB history; they also can’t be trusted in important playoff games, given their postseason résumés.

In 2020, Jansen didn’t wait until the World Series to start making a mess of save opportunities. After arriving late to summer camp following a positive COVID-19 test in July, Jansen excelled in this regular season, fulfilling a bounceback campaign after several years of decline from an All-Star level. In one awful outing against the Astros, he allowed five runs without recording an out; in all other games, he recorded a 1.48 ERA while posting his best strikeout rate since 2017.

But those results masked a concerning drop in velocity, continuing a multi-season trend: Since 2016, the average velocity of his cutter has dropped 3 miles per hour. For most of his career before this season, Jansen threw his cutter about 85-90 percent of the time; in 2020, his cutter usage was down to 63 percent. In its stead was a newly developed sinker, as Jansen—like Chapman—added more variety to his pitch mix to compensate for declining zip on his go-to offering.

Yet Jansen’s velocity has dropped alarmingly further of late, to the point that variety can’t save his strikeouts. Baseball Savant has tracked just 10 games in Jansen’s career in which his average cutter sat below 90 miles per hour—nine of them are from this season, and seven of the top eight have come since the start of September. (The outlier came in March 2018, in Jansen’s first appearance of that season, when he was still building up to his typical level.)

Lowest-Velocity Games of Kenley Jansen’s Career

Date Average Cutter Velocity
Date Average Cutter Velocity
9/30/20 88.1
3/30/18 89.0
9/24/20 89.1
10/7/20 89.1
9/27/20 89.3
9/1/20 89.4
9/25/20 89.5
10/6/20 89.7
8/25/20 89.8
7/26/20 89.9

In Game 1 of the wild-card series against Milwaukee, Jansen permitted only a walk and secured the save by striking out Christian Yelich. But his average velocity in that outing was the lowest of his career, with his fastball dropping to 86 miles per hour at one point. Roberts expressed concern afterward, despite the completed save.

Against San Diego in the divisional round, Jansen retired both hitters he faced in Game 1, but disaster struck in Game 2. Like he had hundreds of times before, Jansen entered with a simple save situation: start of the ninth inning, up 6-3. Yet he allowed a single to Jake Cronenworth, a double to Mitch Moreland, and a two-out single to Trent Grisham that cut the Dodgers’ lead to 6-5. His cutter’s velocity topped out at 90 mph. And Roberts saw enough, pulling Jansen with the tying run on base so that Joe Kelly could tightrope-walk toward a save of his own.

After the San Diego debacle, Roberts wouldn’t outright say that Jansen was no longer the team’s primary closer, but it wasn’t difficult to read between the lines. “I understand, and I’m very sensitive to what he has accomplished on the baseball field as a closer, as a premium All-Star,” Roberts said. “But we also have to look at real time and do what’s best for the Dodgers, and he understands that.”

If Jansen can no longer be trusted in the ninth inning, it’s unclear where he fits into the L.A. bullpen hierarchy. He came into just one game before the ninth during the 2020 regular season, and that was in the seventh inning of a seven-inning game, shortened as part of a doubleheader. In his playoff career, he’s entered before the eighth inning just four times, all in the final games of series when the typical order of pitchers was disregarded because all hands were on deck.

It’s also unclear where Roberts will turn in the ninth inning with the closer role in flux. His first move, to Treinen, backfired spectacularly Monday. Roberts might stick with Treinen through another game, given that one rough outing shouldn’t outweigh a fine season to date. He could also turn to Pedro Báez, who makes for a laborious viewing experience but is effective between all his long pauses, or—avert your eyes, Dodger fans—Kelly, who seems to keep pitching in important situations despite mixed success.

A trio of rookies could also play a role, each with positives and negatives in their column. Brusdar Graterol recorded a save in Game 2 of the wild-card round and might have the best pure stuff in the Dodgers bullpen, but his triple-digit heaters curiously don’t translate into strikeouts. (He also would have coughed up a lead against the Padres if Cody Bellinger hadn’t robbed a home run.) Víctor González had a remarkable season and escaped a bases-loaded jam in Game 1 against Atlanta, but he’s most effective against left-handed batters. Dustin May has pitched well in high-leverage innings, but the Dodgers might need him to provide more length in a series that could last a full week without any off days.

The irony is that after years of bullpen problems plaguing their playoff efforts, the Dodgers actually built an elite relief corps this season, as the pen tied for first in the majors in adjusted ERA. And even with Jansen’s decline, one man isn’t wholly responsible for the Dodgers’ sparkling 2.74 bullpen ERA from the regular season; that’s a group effort, and the group is still around. But every flaw is magnified in the playoffs, or small samples just get in the way and foul situations of their own accord. The team that the Dodgers tied atop the league in adjusted bullpen ERA was the A’s, yet in the playoffs Oakland relievers combined for a 5.08 ERA, nearly double their regular-season mark.

Even before the Game 1 loss to Atlanta, the Dodgers’ bullpen was a concern; now it’s a blaring alarm, overshadowing all the other reasons the Dodgers dropped their first game in these playoffs. (The team’s high-powered offense, for instance, managed to score only one run.) That’s not a new situation for the club, nor for Jansen, the avatar of the pen for years, who is battling as poisoned a playoff narrative as anyone else on the team. Kershaw is still starting, with Game 2 against Atlanta bringing yet another chance to revise his personal postseason story. But Jansen may no longer have such opportunities, if Roberts has decided the longtime closer isn’t fit to close.