Kenley Jansen had a concerning beginning to 2018 to say the least. He came out of Spring Training grooving 89 mile per hour cutters to every batter he faced. In his first outing of the season, he gave up a home run to Joe Panik in a 0-0 ballgame, and things got worse before they got better. Through March and April, Jansen gave up 8 runs in 9 2/3 innings including two more home runs.
The good news for the Dodgers is that things eventually did get better. Janse’s velocity came back, and his command improved. For the next three months, Jansen pitched like his old-self. Then heart problems resurfaced, and he missed time in August. Clearly his health is of greater import than his ability to hurl a stitched orb, but his hurling ability took a dive around that time as well.
Overall, Jansen posted the worst full season of his career. Over 71 2/3 innings, Jansen pitched to a 3.01 ERA and 4.03 FIP. He gave up 13 home runs, which more than doubles his previous high. His strikeout rate also took a dive, compared to his typical self; other pitchers would kill to have a 10.3 K/9, but that’s three strikeouts fewer than his career average.
As my esteemed colleague Daniel Epstein wrote back in August, much of Jansen’s troubles this year have been that he’s had stretches this season where he throws more of his pitches middle-middle. Even if his cutter is thrown as hard and it’s behaving the same way, location still matters.
On the last game of the regular season, the tiebreaker against the Rockies, Jansen served up back-to-back dingers to Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story. It was an alarming sign heading into the postseason. If the Dodgers weren’t going to have good Jansen, their chances of ending their 29-year World Series drought would drop dramatically especially since the Dodgers have had issues filling out their bullpen.
Thus far, the Dodgers have seen the good Kenley Jansen. Before Friday night’s game, Jansen hadn’t allowed a run in 5 1/3 innings while striking out seven and walking two. By Win Probability Added, he’s helped the Dodgers win as much as anyone on the team, including Justin Turner who hit the game-winning homer in the second game of the series.
Win Probability Added leaders this postseason:— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) October 19, 2018
+0.7 Jackie Bradley Jr.
+0.7 George Springer
+0.6 Wade Miley
+0.6 Corey Knebel
+0.6 Jhoulys Chacin
+0.5 Justin Turner
+0.5 Kenley Jansen
+0.5 Matt Barnes
+0.5 Kyle Freeland
+0.4 Alex Bregman
+0.4 Aaron Judge
(WPA via @baseball_ref)
Jansen is doing a better job of keeping hitters off-balance. Out of 11 balls in play, only two have been hard-hit: a single off the bat of Ryan Braun, and a single from Ronald Acuña Jr. When looking at where Jansen has been throwing his pitches, it’s easy to see why.
Throughout the postseason, Jansen has kept his pitches on the glove-side part of the plate where his cutter thrives. It moves away from righties and explodes on lefties. It doesn’t exactly seem revelatory to say ‘don’t throw pitches down the middle’, but Jansen’s cutter is so supernaturally effective that it’s pretty much all he has to do.
Now, this is a sample size of five innings we’re talking about, and success in a handful of games doesn’t indicate that he’ll continue to be good just as if he had struggled it wouldn’t mean that he would continue to be bad. But if Jansen can keep his pitches on the edge, he’ll continue to be his old, unhittable self.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigelyville.