The Dodgers barely defeated the Cubs on Thursday afternoon by a score of 2-1 to stave off a sweep at Wrigley Field. In the bottom of the ninth Kenley Jansen entered the game to record the save and gave up a two-out solo home run to Albert Almora Jr. that cut the lead to one run. The Dodgers were up 2-0 entering that inning, so the margin was pretty slim. Kenley did strike out David Bote to end the game however but it got me thinking. Kenley Jansen is getting old, man.
I hear people talking about Kenley a lot these days, on this site and others. It’s all over social media at times especially during the ninth inning of a close game. I watched Kenley pitch on Thursday and during his last couple of outings closely and I can tell you all that this Kenley, this modern version of Kenley is nothing like the peak Kenley that we have been used to. And that’s ok.
Jansen is 31-years old. The Dodgers signed him to a 5-year 80 million dollar contract in 2017. At that time Kenley was still in peak form. During that 2017 season Kenley posted a 1.32 ERA in 65 appearances. He struck out 109 and walked only 7. Jansen allowed just five home runs that year and struck out 14.4 per nine. He gave up just 5.8 hits per nine and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young voting as well. He was the usual dominant Kenley that we all knew and loved. Even though he gave up a game-tying home run to Marwin Gonzalez in game 2 of the World Series we still loved him.
He is still the greatest closer in Dodgers history. He’s saved 276 games over the course of his brilliant Dodger career. But let’s be honest with each other. Kenley is not the same pitcher he once was. He’s in his tenth season as a Dodger and has pitched in a lot of games. There’s a lot of mileage on that body, including battling a major heart problem too. It’s just a fact of life folks. Father time cares not for how talented any player is. Nobody can avoid getting old. Not even Kenley Jansen.
That’s why it’s important to understand this. It’s a good idea to temper our expectations with Kenley. For what it’s worth Kenley is still a pretty darn good pitcher but we can’t pretend that he’s anywhere near the level of dominance that he used to be at. It started in 2018 and it’s still happening this season as well. Last year Kenley allowed 13 home runs after never having a season where he gave anymore than 6. Through 69 games in 2018 Kenley posted a 3.01 ERA. Before that he had never posted an ERA over 2.76. This year he has a 3.55 ERA through 12.2 innings. His strikeout rates have decreased. His ERA has gone up and he’s giving up more home runs and more base runners that usual. Advanced metrics agree that his pitching is not as good as it once was. His FIP in 2018 was 4.03, compared to 1.31 the year before. His FIP this year so far is 3.98. That tells you something.
His pitches just don’t move as much anymore, or so I originally thought. There’s not as much cut on his cutter. Sure his velocity is down maybe a tick. He’s still throwing in the 92-94 range, which was not far from what he used to be at. His four-seamer never reached above 95 normally anyways. But it seemed as though his cutters weren’t you know, cutting as much.
But looking at the data it seems it’s not as prevalent as I thought. Yes he’s lost a little bit of movement on his pitches, but not a lot. So far in 2019 his cutter has a spin rate of 2593, according to the data. In 2018 his cutter had a spin rate of 2601 and in 2017 it registered a spin rate of 2611. He seems to be throwing his cutter and four-seamer more than ever and using his slider less and less. He’s only throwing his slider 4.1% of the time in 2019. In 2017 he threw it 8.0% of the time. That’s a pretty big drop-off.
So why is Kenley giving up more hits if his cutter is moving normally and his velocity is stabilized? It’s location basically. That and poorer pitch sequencing. I think Kenley should try and throw more sliders and I don’t know why he’s stopped throwing them as much as he used to. He’s leaving to many pitches up in the zone because he can’t locate as well as he used. That’s probably from general age and decline and nothing more.
Kenley is still a pretty good pitcher. He’s not as dominant as he once was and maybe he never will be again. That’s why it’s important for the Dodgers to surround Kenley with good middle relievers in front of him. In the meantime everyone should give Kenley a break. He’s still the greatest closer in franchise history that pitched with a major heart problem. He’s just getting old, but aren’t we all?