If Kenley Jansen is no longer the most dominant pitcher in the Dodger bullpen, then it follows that Kenley Jansen should no longer be the Dodgers’ closer.
Well, maybe. But the answer isn’t as simple as it would seem.
The Adjustment Bureau
As the Dodgers greet the Yankees tonight for what will be hyped as a potential World Series preview (while also giving me an excuse to revisit one of my favorite Dodger Thoughts posts), Joe Kelly is the most dominant reliever in Los Angeles. This month, he has faced 21 batters and allowed three to reach base while striking out nine, without allowing anyone to score. Since May 4, Kelly has an ERA of 1.84 with 41 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings, allowing a grand total of two inherited runs.
But if you have any interest in this subject, you know that when the 2019 season began, Kelly was less flamethrower than gas can (weird how fire good but fire also bad). You don’t want your ERA to be higher than what a world-destroying earthquake registers on the Richter scale, but Kelly’s on May 4 was 10.12. However, Kelly made adjustments, and within a matter of weeks, the worst reliever on the Dodger staff became the best.
We know that Jansen is in the process of adjusting to his limitations. We absolutely don’t know how well or how quickly he’ll take to those adjustments, and you can argue that a less prominent role might be a better place for him to go through the process. Kelly, after all, essentially became a mop-up man on his way to his 2019 rebound.
Remember, however, that Jansen is already working in non-pressure situations without a demotion. Earlier this month, he and Dodger manager Dave Roberts agreed to ensure Jansen gets regular work — at least once a series — even if it means he pitches more often in non-save situations, as he did in Miami and Atlanta on the recent road trip.
The main thing that Dodger fans should guard against is the knee-jerk tendency to give into impatience and assume there is no hope. This year, we’ve seen Kelly turn things around. Last year, we saw perhaps the Dodgers’ least popular reliever, Pedro Baez, become one of their most popular. Certainly, the end comes for everyone in baseball, as it comes for us all, but in the name of all that is Juan Uribe, we need to resist assuming the worst at every sign of weakness.
The takeaway: It’s not clear the Dodgers need to demote Jansen from closing for him to fix what’s wrong.
Look, let’s be real here. Much of the focus on the Dodger bullpen in general, and Jansen in particular, comes from the inability of many to accept that even the best team in the National League will lose 33 percent of its games.
It’s fair to acknowledge where that anxiety comes from: the distance since 1988, compounded by the proximity of 2017-18. Every loss, no matter how inconsequential given the Dodgers’ Brobdingnagian lead in the NL West, becomes a precursor to an October failing.
Dodger fans, by and large, live in fear.
So just as some will find high stakes in a mostly meaningless pursuit of the best record in the major leagues, there will also be inevitable tearing out the hair every time the Dodgers lose a game they had come within 8/9ths of winning.
If that’s your concern, it’s worth asking what exactly moving Jansen away from the closer role would accomplish?
At his worst, Jansen is still one of the top relievers on the team. Baez has probably had a marginally better season so far, but he makes his own share of mistakes. It’s not as if Yimi Garcia or Caleb Ferguson has supplanted Jansen. I like Casey Sadler as much as anyone in any hemisphere right now, but his 1.38 ERA this season in limited work doesn’t shove Jansen into irrelevance. And while Dustin May is a thrilling prospect, I was taken aback when someone actually suggested to me on Twitter this week that May be made the closer, three days after he gave up a grand slam in relief. I mean, I admire the moxie, but that’s quite a leap.
Jansen will pitch in crucial situations for the Dodgers, whatever the inning. So take Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays, when the Dodgers were clinging to a 1-0 lead but had to remove Walker Buehler after seven innings. Does inserting Jansen in the eighth inning instead of the ninth really improve the team’s chances of winning?
Plus, if you’re making the (dubious) assumption that the pressure of the ninth is causing Jansen’s trouble, don’t you have to allow for the strong possibility that moving Kelly or Baez into that powderkeg could do the same? I haven’t seen much evidence that the psyche of either is a fortress of steel.
So again, with the goal of winning in October foremost in mind, the question becomes: What does demoting Jansen accomplish? Does it provide an environment for him to improve? Or does it create a level of disruption that could actually harm the team?
Or is it much ado about next to nothing?
With Dustin May moving back toward a start as the Dodgers temporarily employ a six-man rotation, the Dodger bullpen features the following: Jansen, Kelly, Baez, Garcia, Ferguson, Sadler and Adam Kolarek.
Come the postseason, several other names could join the reliever brigade, led by no fewer than six current or recent starting pitchers in Tony Gonsolin, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, May, Ross Stripling and Julio Urías. Throw in names like J.T. Chargois and Dylan Floro, and you realize that the Dodgers could do a complete bullpen makeover if they were so inclined.
For a bullpen whose performance really has been a mixed bag, it’s something that there are at least 15 legitimate candidates for the eight slots. (And that’s not counting Russell Martin!) It’s safe to say that the bullpen will be in a state of flux for weeks to come. But we know that Jansen, if healthy, will be a part of it.
Honestly, I think there’s a chance Kelly is closing games in October. He is trending in the right direction, and if Jansen’s pitching log continues to be pockmarked with homers, the more Kelly’s success in the World Series (six innings, zero runs, 10 strikeouts) might resonate.
At the same time, as soon as Kelly blew a single save, people would be back to calling him a charlatan, because that’s the mentality of a culture that believes that relievers should never fail and that refuses to acknowledge, “Hey, that guy at the plate facing us might actually be good.”
If the Dodgers’ walkoff success in 2019 should have taught us anything, it’s that sometimes, great offenses will prevail no matter who you throw at them. But when Dodgers are on the mound, that lesson is forgotten.
So, to circle back to the headline of this post, “What does it actually mean to demote a closer?” Well, I’ve now spent 1,000 words discussing it, only to bring you to this conclusion: Maybe nothing at all.
The importance of the closer has always been inflated. There are 51 to 54 outs in a typical baseball game, and your closer is in to get only three or four of them … a few times a week. That participation is magnified, especially in the playoffs and not without reason, but more than it deserves.
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.
At this point, it’s natural to simply sit back and hammer the Dodgers for not confronting this more last offseason and at the July 31 trade deadline. You might or might not be wrong, but what you’re really talking about isn’t the closer position as much as replacing the worst guy on the staff with someone better. For example, even if the Dodgers had over-over-overpaid for Pittsburgh’s Felipe Vazquez, 1) he’s not replacing Jansen on the roster, and 2) he has no experience whatsoever in closing a postseason game. You’d love to have him, but he wouldn’t give the Dodgers any more security than they had with Jansen, at the top of his profession, leading their bullpen in 2017.
I have no hope of changing the conversation around closers, but I feel pretty sure that in the case of the Dodgers, as with baseball in general, the question of who is closing is nearly irrelevant. Jansen has work to do — that much is clear. As long as he’s doing it, that’s all that matters. The inning he pitches in doesn’t.
And I’d leave you with this parting thought. Teams can win a World Series even without a lock-down Closer with a capital C. The Dodgers have seen that first-hand over the past two seasons. That doesn’t mean the Dodgers shouldn’t want to have one, but it does mean that their fans shouldn’t despair every single time a reliever gives up a run.