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Kenley Jansen’s 2019 season ended with the Dodgers closer standing on the bullpen mound, baseball in hand, while Joe Kelly gave up a 10th-inning grand slam to Howie Kendrick in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals.
His 2020 season ended with Jansen wearing a hooded sweatshirt and watching from the bullpen as Julio Urias nailed down the final seven outs of a World Series-clinching win over Tampa Bay.
Jansen’s 2021 season came to a bitter end on Saturday night when the Dodgers, two wins shy of the World Series, were eliminated from the playoffs in a 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of National League Championship Series at Truist Park.
Unlike Octobers past, when Jansen’s struggles led to the team and its fans losing faith in him, the franchise’s all-time saves leader didn’t leave any messy fingerprints on this postseason, or regular season, for that matter.
The 34-year-old right-hander went 4-4 with a 2.22 ERA and 38 saves in 43 opportunities this season, striking out 86 and walking 36 in 69 innings, his only blemish a three-appearance stretch after the All-Star break in which he suffered three blown saves, two losses and gave up eight runs and nine hits in two innings.
Jansen was almost untouchable in the playoffs, giving up three hits in seven scoreless innings and striking out 14 of the 25 batters he faced.
But as he walked off the mound after a scoreless eighth inning Saturday night, Jansen headed into a winter of uncertainty. His five-year, $80-million contract has expired, and he will be a free agent at the end of the World Series between the Houston Astros and Braves.
“It’s not in my hands,” Jansen, a 12-year veteran, said after the game, when asked if he’d return to the Dodgers if he could. “I gotta thank God for the great opportunity I had here as a Dodger. I’m thankful to be here for all these years.
“This is the only team I know. They believed in me when I was 17 years old as a catcher. And then they made me a pitcher and believed in me as a pitcher. And here I am now. It happened fast. I enjoyed this journey. And I’ll always say, whatever happens, I’ll always be a Dodger.”
There seemed to be a slim-to-none chance of the Dodgers re-signing Jansen after he went 9-9 with a 3.34 ERA from 2018-20, the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder’s inability to maintain his mechanics producing a wild variance in the velocity and command of his trademark cut-fastball — and his results.
One Los Angeles Times columnist even predicted during spring training in March that Jansen would suffer another late-season meltdown and lose his closer’s job by October.
But this season — and especially this month — has been an entirely different story for Jansen, whose resurgence and ability to adapt and evolve after three shaky seasons not only solidified his role as closer but could increase his chances of continuing his career in Los Angeles.
Jansen wasn’t the reason the 106-win Dodgers got bounced from the playoffs. He was one of the main reasons they got as far as they did.
“This postseason, he’s been as good as I’ve ever seen him, and he’s been dominant in the past,” said veteran left-hander pitcher Clayton Kershaw, a Dodgers teammate of Jansen since 2010 and another of the club’s many high-profile free agents this winter. “He’s been huge for us.”
Jansen didn’t quite return to his 2017 level of dominance, when he went 5-0 with a career-low 1.32 ERA and 41 saves, striking out 109 and walking seven in 68 innings, but he was one of the top closers in the game.
His transformation began shortly after the 2020 World Series when Brandon McDaniel, the team’s director of player performance, suggested he tweak his winter workout regimen, scrapping some heavy weight-lifting for more distance running, jumping and agility drills in an effort to be more flexible and athletic.
The velocity of Jansen’s cut-fastball improved from an average of 90.9 mph in 2020 to 92.5 mph in 2021 with 14.6 inches of vertical movement and 7.4 inches of horizontal movement, according to Baseball Savant, close to his 2017 marks of 12.6 inches of drop and 7.1 inches from side to side.
Jansen increased the use and sharpened the command of a two-seam sinking fastball that he began throwing in 2017, averaging 93.9 mph and touching 97 mph with the pitch, and he mixed in more looping, 82-mph sliders to keep hitters off-balance.
“You have to remember, Kenley didn’t start pitching until 2009, so to say he reinvented himself this season is not necessarily fair,” Kershaw said. “He threw a baseball that happened to cut, and it turned him into what he was, and then over time, he learned how to pitch, and now he has three very good pitches.
“It’s part of the process for everybody. I just think Kenley’s was accelerated because his one pitch was so much better than everybody else’s.”
Dodgers second baseman Trea Turner said that in his first three seasons (2015-17) with Washington, Jansen “struck me out every time — it was never a fun at-bat.” Facing Jansen this season was different, and still not much fun.
“I think he’s evolved from then,” said Turner, acquired in a July 30 trade from the Nationals. “Now he's got that sinker and he's mixing three pitches, which I think makes it tougher. But just the angle, how big he is, how much extension he gets, the different types of pitches he throws, I think makes it really tough.”
These are all factors the Dodgers will weigh in deciding whether to offer Jansen another contract and, if so, for how many years and how much money.
Jansen has 350 career saves and plenty of mileage — he’s thrown a combined 768 1/3 regular-season and playoff innings in 12 years — so he won’t garner another five-year offer. But he could receive lucrative two- or three-year offers.
“For me, it’s just keep competing,” Jansen said. “This game is bigger than me. You’re competing for your family. You’re competing for the organization. As long as I have a uniform on, I’m going to continue to compete and get better and do my best.”
Jansen’s drive and determination to be an elite closer is reflected in his winter schedule.
“I’m gonna take three days off and then get back to work,” Jansen said Saturday night. “Get my conditioning back down. Lose a couple of pounds. Get stronger and be healthy for a healthy season next year.”
Jansen has expressed his desire to be a Dodger for life, but there are no guarantees. He will return to Los Angeles only if the Dodgers want him back.
“Ultimately, you have to do what’s best for yourself, your family,” Kershaw said. “All of us have had great experiences here, and Kenley is no different. I know his family is settled [in Los Angeles] and everything. Whatever happens, I hope it works out for him.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.