At the start of lunch today, I watched Kenley Jansen’s eighth-inning outing from Sunday’s Dodger game. It didn’t take long: only five minutes, because Jansen only needed 10 pitches. (Click the video above if you want to see.) The performance generated raves online and articles speculating whether this was a turning point for the somewhat beleaguered behemoth.
I’ve been mostly quiet online about the Dodger bullpen in general and Jansen in particular over the past 3 1/2 weeks since expending a ton of energy on the subjects. It was just too exhausting to keep revisiting. The essence of my take was that whether or not Jansen was the closer didn’t matter, because inevitably, he would be pitching critical postseason innings for the Dodgers even if they weren’t critical postseason ninth innings.
It didn’t mean Jansen hasn’t been struggling this year — he clearly has been, as I wrote in the first paragraph of that piece and repeated lower down. My main point was that the obsession with the “closer” tag was misplaced.
The focus needed to be less on Jansen’s role and more on his process.
For all the fuss over how much velocity Jansen has or hasn’t lost on his pitches, the central issue for him is his command. When Jansen is living on the edges, whether that pitch is just inside the strike zone or just outside of it, batters can’t resist swinging. And when those pitches have any movement at all, he thrives.
Things go wrong for Jansen not when a pitch is off by a mile or two per hour, but when the pitch is so far out of the zone that a batter can simply ignore it. That leads to walks, which in turn leave him little margin for error when the breaks don’t go his way, such as nights when his defense lets him down. Not to mention the fact that almost any baserunner is a threat to steal second against Jansen.
So let’s take a look at Sunday’s game, which he entered with the score tied at 2. Jansen retired the side in order on the aforementioned 10 pitches, but there were significant highs and lows within.