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What is happening to Kenley Jansen?

Harper being Harper; Clevinger becoming elite; Mahle shows upside
April 3, 2018

In many ways, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has been the surest thing in baseball the past few years. There have been numerous comparisons to the incomparable Mariano Rivera, which isn't fair at all, since I just called Rivera "incomparable." But you can understand why. Jansen's cutter, like Mariano's, is ridiculous.

In many ways, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has been the surest thing in baseball the past few years. There have been numerous comparisons to the incomparable Mariano Rivera, which isn't fair at all, since I just called Rivera "incomparable." But you can understand why. Jansen's cutter, like Mariano's, is ridiculous. Jansen's consistency is staggering. He strikes out 14 batters per nine innings, he walks almost nobody, his 1.91 career FIP is second lowest in baseball history (minimum 200 innings) behind only Craig Kimbrel.
So what the heck happened on Monday night?
Jansen came in with the Dodgers up by three runs, he got the first two outs on ground balls and … it's kind of inexplicable from there. He threw six pitches to Paul Goldschmidt and -- boy, this was strange -- Goldschmidt didn't swing at any of them. Now, when you consider all of Jansen's amazing gifts, you would probably put "control" at No. 1. Last year -- this will look like a misprint -- he did not walk anyone until late June. That's right, 31 innings, 50 strikeouts, zero walks. So you're telling me Jansen threw six pitches to Goldschmidt with a three-run lead and he didn't throw three strikes?
Yep, that's what I'm telling you. Four were out of the zone (five, really, but the umpire gave Jansen a break on one of them) and that brought up A.J. Pollock. Again, Jansen threw six pitches. Four were called balls (one was borderline), but in truth, none of the pitches was an obvious strike.
Jansen had not walked two batters in an appearance since October 2016. He had not walked back-to-back batters since May 2014. Yeah, that's right -- May 2014.
And then Jansen did what Jansen never does -- he panicked. He clearly wanted to get ahead of the next batter, Chris Owings. So the first pitch he threw was a middle-middle 91 mph cutter and Owings crushed it for the game-tying three-run home run. Jansen has now allowed a home run in both of his appearances this year, and he has not struck out a batter.

To say that two appearances is a small sample size is to insult the very definition of small sample size … but this is still very weird. And the harsh part is that already people start the narrative talk about Jansen's muddled World Series last year and how his velocity is way down and how at age 30 he has a lot of mileage on his arm, and so on.
The sooner Jansen can find his groove, the easier it will be on everyone's nerves in Los Angeles.
Harper is perfectly playing role of admirable villian
Can I just say that I love what is happening with Bryce Harper this year. It has been way too long since baseball had a sort of admirable villain, someone you could boo happily. The admirable villain is a tricky concept -- villains are quite common in sports. Anytime a player in any sport does something wrong or says something that offends or plays on the edge, he or she becomes a villain.
But the admirable baseball villain -- well, think Reggie Jackson or Peyton Manning or maybe Stephen Curry -- someone who is good, someone who knows he is good, someone who flaunts his goodness, someone you would boo, not out of contempt, but because it's flat out fun to root against them. Well, we don't see many of those. Reggie hit the balance perfectly. Pete Rose was one of those guys before he destroyed himself. Roger Clemens was one of those guys before he became a symbol of something else.

Harper is the admirable baseball villain of our time, and it's so much fun. A couple of days ago in Cincinnati, he came to the plate and you can plainly hear a fan shout out "overrated" about one second before he tattooed a monster home run to straightaway center field. That's perfect villain stuff. Then on Monday in Atlanta, they played "Imperial March" from "Star Wars" when Harper came to the plate -- that's the song that always plays when Darth Vader is involved -- and he crushed another ridiculous home run to center field.
Players have different reactions to booing. Most don't care or at least say they don't care. Some take it a little bit to heart. And every now and again, there's a player who loves the boos, who feeds off of them, who enjoys being the pro wrestling heel. Kobe Bryant seemed to love them. Tom Brady seems to love them.
And Harper sure seems to love them. He's off to his typical amazing start with just six walks and zero strikeouts. Harper now has more four-walk games in his career (5) than Joey Votto, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie Mays. Harper is batting .417 with three homers in his first four games. And it seems to me that the better he is, the louder the boos will get, and the better he will be.
Reggie himself once said, "It's great if they cheer and it's great if they boo. The only bad sound is silence."
Clevinger's sliders reaching an elite level
There's a very cool Statcast™ stat from last year that shows that Cleveland pitchers ranked first, second and third in breaking ball swing-and-miss rates. Corey Kluber, it will not surprise you, led all starters as hitters swung and missed on 30 percent of his breaking balls. Carlos Carrasco was next at 24 percent, again, no surprise, everybody knows about Carrasco's nasty stuff.
Mike Clevinger was third.
That is a surprise -- Clevinger was mainly known for his hair. Cleveland picked him up in 2014 in a minor deal for Vinnie Pestano; Clevinger was coming off Tommy John surgery, but he had a live arm and the Tribe decided to play the Clevinger slot machine.

Well, it looks like Clevinger is coming up all sevens at the moment. He overwhelmed the Angels for five-plus innings, striking out five and forcing a whole lot of weak contact. Clevinger threw 27 sliders and 11 of them were either called or swinging strikes. The average exit velocity on his sliders was 70.9 mph, which is basically the speed of broken-bat balls.
If Clevinger is for real -- and signs point to yes on that one -- look out. That gives Cleveland four potentially dominant starters in Kluber, Carrasco, Clevinger and Trevor Bauer.
Mahle showing promise of a front-line starter for Reds
I am higher on the Cincinnati Reds than … well, just about anyone. Most people have them being absolutely terrible -- the superb Joe Sheehan has them as the 28th-best team in baseball ahead only of Miami and Detroit -- and I guess I understand why. Still, I see something potentially very good here.
For that to happen, some of Cincinatti's plentiful young pitchers have to develop. I'm not alone in thinking that the Reds are going to score runs with Joey Votto and a bunch of youngish power hitters in the lineup. But they need to get something out of the many, many talented young pitchers in the system, something they have failed to do for years now.
Early signs were not good. Robert Stephenson, their onetime top prospect, couldn't throw strikes in the spring and was sent down. Amir Garrett, another super-promising starter talent, was sent to the bullpen. Luis Castillo, perhaps their most talented young pitcher, got absolutely lit up in his first outing against Washington. So that doesn't help at all.

Monday, though, Tyler Mahle took the mound against the Cubs. He has been a much-debated pitcher in the Minors. Mahle had success, but his secondary stuff -- he throws a slider and a changeup -- has generally induced yawns. He came to Reds camp this year as a long shot to make the team, and he wowed them with his command and his natural ability to change speeds -- something you don't often see in a 23-year-old.
Mahle made the rotation, and Monday he was fantastic, pitching six innings and allowing one hit while striking out seven. He was in complete control -- even the hit, a triple by Javier Baez, was fluky, with only a 16 percent Statcast™ hit percentage.
Yes, a lot has to go right for the Reds to begin their turnaround. Mahle developing into a front-line starter would be a very nice place to start.

Joe Posnanski is a columnist for