NORTH PORT, Fla. -- A few hours after Freddie Freeman officially became a Dodger, the Braves signed former Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.
The Braves announced they signed Jansen to a one-year, $16 million deal on Friday night. This deal further strengthens a bullpen that played a significant role in Atlanta winning last year’s World Series.
Jansen posted a 2.22 ERA while converting 38 of 43 save opportunities for the Dodgers last year. The 34-year-old reliever is a three-time All-Star who has totaled 350 career saves. He posted a 0.65 ERA over his final 27 regular season appearances last year and then worked seven scoreless innings in the postseason.
Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos developed a relationship with Jansen when he was part of the Dodgers front office in 2016 and ’17.
“Obviously, his career speaks for itself,” Anthopoulos said. “You see how he peaked at the end of last year, the last two months with his performance and into the postseason. I’ve seen him pitch for so long. He’s really durable.”
Jansen’s credentials are impeccable. The 34-year-old’s 2.37 career ERA is the third lowest for a pitcher with at least 700 career innings in the Live Ball Era (since 1920), trailing only Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner, and nobody in that group comes close to matching his identical 2.37 FIP (which focuses on the things a pitcher can control the most -- strikeouts, walks and home runs). Jansen also leads the group in strikeout rate (36.8%).
Then there are the saves. Jansen’s 350th save made him the 13th pitcher to reach that plateau, as well as the second active pitcher (joining Craig Kimbrel). A three-time All-Star and two-time winner of the Trevor Hoffman Award as the NL’s top reliever, Jansen has saved at least 33 games in seven straight full seasons (excluding the shortened 2020). He’s also been a workhorse as one of just three pitchers who have made at least 62 appearances in eight different seasons since 2012.
Before signing Jansen, Anthopoulos checked with Will Smith, who had been projected to serve as the Braves closer. Smith gave his blessing to give the role to Jansen.
“Smith had a great season last year,” Anthopoulos said. “He was scoreless in the postseason and six-for-six in the postseason. He’s an unbelievable teammate and an unbelievable person. I told him there’s a chance to get [Jansen] and some other guys we were talking about. I was just very candid with him. I wanted him to know I wouldn’t pursue it if he didn’t feel good about it.
“It was what you’d expect from Will. He said, ‘I want another ring and I want another parade. If this makes the team better, I’m all in.’”
Jansen called Smith Friday night to thank him for accepting his arrival as the new closer.
Jansen’s cutter velocity in 2021 (92.5 mph) was a good bit higher than in 2020 (90.9 mph), but it was hardly what it was five years earlier (94.0 mph). He compensated by decreasing his cutter usage to 58% while putting more emphasis on his sinker and slider. The adjustments seemed to have worked in 2021, with Jansen posting his lowest ERA since 2017 and then raising his game over eight postseason appearances for L.A. (seven innings, three hits, no runs, one walk, 14 strikeouts).
With the addition of Jansen, the Braves have a number of proven late-inning assets. Smith, Matzek, A.J. Minter and Luke Jackson earned the nickname The Night Shift as they consistently protected late-inning leads for the Braves throughout last year’s postseason.
The Braves also recently added Collin McHugh, who posted a 1.55 ERA in 64 innings for the Rays last year. McHugh is targeted to be a primary setup man. Another key candidate for a bullpen spot is veteran Darren O’Day, who will likely earn a spot if he proves healthy throughout Spring Training.
While the Braves bullpen found a groove near the end of last season, Anthopoulos knows the group struggled during the early part of the season, partly because it lacked depth. He is aiming to create the same depth he had in 2020 and during the final months of the ‘19 season, when he had to scramble at the Trade Deadline.
“If we could be eight deep [in the bullpen] where he has four guys one night and then four other guys the next night and we can give guys off-days, that would be really beneficial,” Anthopoulos said.