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Kenley Jansen is struggling and that’s sad

It’s not fair to ask him to be Mariano Rivera, but we’ll do it anyway.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

All of us want to witness greatness. Decades from now, we’ll still talk about Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw. We’ll root for J.D. Martinez to win the Triple Crown and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to hit .400 just to feel like we’re part of something historic, even if it doesn’t mean much in the standings.

We can spend a lifetime talking about Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001, but how many of us remember that the Giants just missed the playoffs that year? It doesn’t matter because the player and the moment were special.

But beware: wishing for greatness is dangerous. Sometimes we want so much to make something special when it’s really just pretty good. It’s like wanting to love your rebound relationship even though you’re just not emotionally connected.

For a long time, we were in love — unconditionally, completely, deeply in baseball love — with a one-pitch reliever. Mariano Rivera epitomized greatness. By any measure, he was the inarguable best reliever of all time, using nothing more than a cut fastball. Then, after setting a new standard for excellence nearly every year in the regular season, he was somehow even better in the postseason. He made a joke out of nearly every leaderboard.

Here are a few examples:

The Great Mariano

Pitcher ERA+ (min. 1000 IP) Pitcher Reliever fWAR
Pitcher ERA+ (min. 1000 IP) Pitcher Reliever fWAR
Mariano Rivera 205 Mariano Rivera 39.2
Clayton Kershaw 161 Rich Gossage 28.9
Pedro Martinez 148 Trevor Hoffman 26.1
Jim Devlin 150 Rollie Fingers 26.0
Lefty Grove 148 Lee Smith 25.8

In real life, some of us are lucky enough to find love that lasts an entire lifetime. In baseball, such a scenario does not exist. Rivera retired five years ago at the wizened age of 43, and even at that age, he was as effective as ever. True love comes around only so rarely, and we’ll never find another Mo.

In our emotionally wounded state, we naturally gravitate to the next closest thing: Kenley Jansen. The closer for the Dodgers uses his cutter almost as much as Mariano did.

But it takes more than just throwing a cutter to make us fall head-over-heels for someone. Heck, anyone with fingers can technically throw a cutter. Jansen also comes close to matching Mariano’s results on the field. His career 2.06 FIP and 38.7 percent strikeout rate are superb. In fact, through the first 535 innings of his career he’s among the best ever.

Kenley Jansen on Career Leaderboards

Pitcher FIP (min. 500 IP) Pitcher K% (min. 500 IP)
Pitcher FIP (min. 500 IP) Pitcher K% (min. 500 IP)
Rube Waddell 1.92 Craig Kimbrel 41.6%
Craig Kimbrel 1.96 Kenley Jansen 38.7%
Ed Walsh 1.97 Billy Wagner 33.2%
Heinie Berger 2.00 David Robertson 32.3%
Kenley Jansen 2.06 Brad Lidge 30.9%

Ignoring the carnival funhouse mirror numbers of Deadball Era pitchers, and the fact that he’s topped in our own time by Craig Kimbrel (who has a different mix of pitches), Jansen gives us a glimmer of hope. Could our new romance possibly match that of our old flame? Perhaps...then August happened.

Following August 7th, Jansen went on the disabled list with an irregular heartbeat. A diagnosis that has implications far outside of baseball. Two weeks later though, cardiologists cleared him to play again. In four appearances since Jansen returned, he hasn’t been anything like his former self, let alone the great Mariano.

Kenley Jansen since DL return

Date Opponent BF H R BB SO HR
Date Opponent BF H R BB SO HR
Aug 20 STL 6 3 2 0 2 2
Aug 22 STL 6 3 2 0 0 1
Aug 25 SDP 4 1 1 0 2 1
Aug 28 TEX 6 3 2 1 1 0

Over those four games, he faced 22 batters, allowing ten hits and a walk, including four home runs, while striking out just five. Clearly he’s off his game. However, looking at his Pitch f/x profile on BrooksBaseball.net, his cutter looks just as beautiful as always:

Kenley’s Cutter

Velocity (MPH) Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement
Velocity (MPH) Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement
2018 season 92.89 4.35 in. 8.70 in.
Since Aug. 20 92.86 4.80 in. 8.17 in.

Since the quality of his heavily used cutter hasn’t changed, perhaps he’s just not hitting his spots. Statcast charts every pitch into 29 different zones. Zone five is middle-middle; it’s the fat part of the plate that pitchers all strive to avoid. From the beginning of the season through August 7, Jansen threw 848 total pitches, and only 64 of them landed in zone five (7.6 percent). Since returning from the DL, he put eight of his 86 pitches in zone five (9.3 percent). That might not seem like a huge difference, and small sample size is a factor of course, but one mistake by a closer can ruin a game.

Obviously, no pitcher wants to groove pitches right down the middle, but it’s still up to the batter to do damage. For whatever reason, they’re doing a lot more damage on Jansen’s zone five pitches in the last four games than they have been all season. On those eight zone five pitches, six were put in play while one was taken for a strike and another fouled off. The average exit velocity of the six in play is 93.8 MPH, and they resulted in two home runs, two singles, and two fly outs. In other words, he’s getting jacked up.

Before August 20th, Jansen fared a lot better on zone five pitches. Only 24 out of 64 were put in play, and the average exit velocity was 88.1 MPH. 19 of the 24 batted balls became outs, two were home runs, two went for singles, and one was a double. Whether by luck or skill, Jansen somehow thrived in the very center of the strike zone. Now, batters are having their way with those same types of pitches.

This matters for all the usual reasons. The Dodgers are in a playoff race after all, and they currently sit outside of the playoffs. They’ll need to get their star closer straightened out, yada yada. But there’s a deeper realization as well. For as awesome as Kenley Jansen has been, and will probably continue to be, he’ll never match Mariano Rivera. Jansen has already surrendered ten longballs this year, and there’s a full month to go. Rivera’s career worst was seven (except for his ugly rookie year as a starting pitcher).* Incredibly, he only gave up 14 homers over a five year stretch from 2002-06!

More than likely, Jansen’s just going through a normal rough patch, typical of mortal relief pitchers. It happens to everyone, even Mariano, and he’s certainly entitled to be less than perfect once in a while.

Rationally, we know how unreasonable it is to hold anyone up to the standard of the greatest reliever ever. But fanhood has nothing to do with rationality. We’re here to witness immortality; to bask in the presence of legends (heroes get remembered, but legends never die). We learned this week that he’s human after all, and whether you care about the Dodgers or not, it’s a little depressing to know that he’s just another guy throwing a baseball.


*Here’s a Sporcle quiz about batters that went deep off of Mariano.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983