While it was Julio Urías getting the big late-inning outs during the postseason, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made it clear on the first day of Spring Training that Kenley Jansen was the team’s closer in 2021.
With the plethora of options in the bullpen, Roberts and the Dodgers could’ve turned to somebody else. Jansen said he didn’t have anything to prove in the last season of his contract, but that he was looking to validate the confidence Roberts and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman showed in him.
Jansen got off to a good start, delivering a vintage performance to record his first save of the season in the Dodgers’ 6-5 win over the Rockies on Saturday at Coors Field. His last five-out save came on May 27, 2019, against the Mets.
“His first outing, it wasn’t planned to be five outs coming into the season, but there were some guys we were going to stay away from tonight and the game got kind of funky,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “Kenley really stepped up tonight and threw the ball really well.”
Jansen battled command and velocity issues late last season, forcing the Dodgers to turn to Urías in save situations during the postseason. This offseason, Jansen stayed in Los Angeles, choosing not to go home to his native Curaçao, which is what he usually does after the season. Jansen started doing more cardio, and the Dodgers helped him try a couple of different workout methods in order to try and improve his velocity and command.
In Spring Training, Jansen pitched well. He allowed just one run in eight appearances and only walked two batters while striking out 13. His velocity, however, wasn’t quite where he wanted it. His cutter and sinker were mostly at 90-91 mph during the spring. When he’s good, those pitches are usually around 93 mph.
On Saturday, Jansen averaged 92.4 mph with the sinker and 91.3 with the cutter. He used those two pitches to get out of a two-on, one-out jam in the eighth inning. But most importantly for Jansen, there was some power behind them. He struck out Ryan McMahon with a 94 mph sinker to end the threat.
“You can see the swings the guys were taking, it looked much more uncomfortable,” Roberts said. “He had a very focused look when I gave him the baseball tonight, which is good to see.”
In the ninth, he got Josh Fuentes with a 93 mph sinker. He followed it by getting Dom Nuñez to pop up to first on another sinker. After a two-out walk, Jansen finished things off, getting Chris Owings to send a weak fly ball to center fielder Cody Bellinger. He threw 24 pitches, 14 for strikes.
“In spring, we saw good things at times,” Roberts said. “But just seeing the 92, threes and fours, [getting] the ball at the top of the zone, I thought was really good. He got five big outs for us.”
The fact that Jansen pitched that well at Coors Field was also a positive sign for the Dodgers. Jansen has a 3.18 career ERA in Colorado, but a heart condition makes him vulnerable to irregular heartbeats at high altitude. Jansen was pleased with how he felt, crediting his offseason work.
“It’s fun to come out here,” Jansen said. “I like this city, but sometimes I feel like the altitude doesn’t like me too much. I’m OK, I’m healthy, my heart is fine and it’s fun winning ballgames with this team.”
Throughout the spring, Roberts repeated that his Dodgers team was at its best with Jansen as the closer. He believes it makes their bullpen deeper, and helps other pitchers slot into some more comfortable roles. It’s a long season, but Jansen’s first outing was a good step towards proving Roberts right.
“It felt great,” Jansen said. “Obviously, I’m doing something right out there, and I’m just going to continue to live through the moment and all the hard work I’ve put into my body. My delivery, the tempo is still quicker and I think all those things are just helping and the ball is coming out well.”