Greatness elevates you to a certain level of expectation. It’s easy to lose perspective and not pay enough attention to what for all intents and purposes is a great opportunity. Kenley Jansen in his peak was unhittable. He operated and produced at a level in which in any given season you might not even see from the best major league reliever. Jansen is no longer that guy, but he’s still elite, and he should be a primary target for the Yankees.
One of the reasons why the Dodgers closer’s presence on the open market could fly under the radar in a way is that it’s easy to assume he’ll simply return to Los Angeles like he did following the 2016 season, when he agreed to a five-year $90 million contract. At the peak of his powers, Jansen took less money in order to pursue that much alluded championship with the Dodgers — it was reported that Mike Rizzo and the Nationals offered him a bigger contract.
Why would this time be different? Beyond the reasons that may or may not play a role in his decision, such as having already won the World Series with the Dodgers and also the desire to simply maximize his earnings, there’s also the report from Jorge Castillo of The LA Times that the expectation is this the end of the closer’s tenure after 17 years with the organization.
Jansen had been steadily declining following the 2017 season, although he remained a good reliever in the grand scheme of things. He was falling short of his own standards, which prompted a change in approach that began in 2020 and really elevated him back to top of the line status this season.
From Jansen’s sophomore season of 2011 all the way through 2018, Jansen threw his cutter at least 80 percent of the time in every campaign, and much like Mariano Rivera, that’s all he needed to be dominant. Jansen’s walk numbers were always superb, illustrated by him breaking the previous record of most consecutive strikeouts before a walk. Jansen had 51 in 2017, shattering the previous mark held by Adam Wainwright (35 in 2013).*
*NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes broke Jansen’s mark this past year with 58.
Jansen got a reputation for impeccable control, but in a way, that was sort of misleading, as the effectiveness of his cutter meant he didn’t have to work at or near the edges of the strike zone like virtually every other pitcher in the game. Jansen lived closer to the heart of the plate and if asked to, most pitchers could do that, except they’d get hammered without that cutter. This is all evidenced by the changes to his K-BB% following his new pitch mix.
Jansen incorporated the sinker and slider to his repertoire at a bigger rate, throwing it 26.6 percent and 15.4 percent of the time respectively, in 2021. Those two pitches had a lower In-Zone% than his cutter. The Dodgers closer subsequently walked 12.9 percent of batters in comparison with his career average of 7.3 percent. It is not as easy, as he didn’t throw as many cutters and now he walks a lot more people, but there is some correlation there and also with the way in which he threw his cutter.
Post-prime Jansen percentile rankings in 2021:
xERA: 91st (2.87)
xwOBA: 91st (.260)
wOBA: 99th (.220)
Even without all-worldly walk numbers, Jansen has more or less reinvented himself while remaining an elite reliever. He limits hard contact like no other, and since 2018 Jansen has ranked in the top one percent of the league in terms of hard-hit percentage. That’s the very pinnacle of baseball’s pitching talent for five straight seasons.
Jansen seems willing to leave Los Angeles, and if so, every contender should be ready with an offer on the table. The Yankees’ bullpen might already be a strength, but there’s no reason to avoid trying to get better if a deal with a proven performer like Jansen makes sense.