(Photo credit to Dustin Nosler, Flickr Creative Commons)
Ever since the Royals’ vaunted “HDH” bullpen led them to back-to-back pennants in 2014-2015, the question in the baseball industry became a simple one: “How can I build a dominant bullpen?”
If you’re the 2016 Cubs, you trade the number-two prospect in all of baseball (Gleyber Torres) for half a season of Aroldis Chapman. Their opponent in that season’s World Series, the Cleveland Indians, traded a grab-bag of top prospects to the Yankees for Andrew Miller. Just like last year, the 2017 Fall Classic is a chance for another dominant reliever, and our latest Plucked From Obscurity winner, to show off. However, he didn’t cost the Dodgers a single prospect. So where did they find him? Surprisingly enough, as the receiving end of their Triple-A team’s battery.
Signed as a 17-year-old undrafted free agent in 2004 from the small island country of Curaço, Kenley Jansen was originally a catcher, and based off initial results, a talented one. He hit .304 in 37 Rookie-Class games, but soon began to struggle. After five years of meddling results, Jansen had a breakthrough of sorts in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. After throwing out Willy Taveras of the Dominican Republic at third base, coaches took notice and Jansen was convinced to switch to pitching for the second half of the 2009 season. The initial results were less than encouraging, as he allowed six runs in 11 2⁄3 innings. However, he would soon become the dominant closer he is today due to one simple realization.
When Jansen started the transition, the first pitch he attempted was naturally a four seam fastball. He tried pitching with the flat point-to-point trajectory that pitch has in mind, but quickly realized his fastball was different. It had a natural cut, and thanks to Mariano Rivera, we all know just how devastating a pitch that can be for a reliever. Once he understood the trajectory his pitch would take, he was able to effortlessly locate it wherever he wanted. Also in Jansen’s favor was his knowledge of just how hard hitting can be. A lot of pitchers seem to think that everyone can hit, but due to his failures at the plate, Jansen knew that simply wasn’t true. Armed with this inside knowledge and gifted with a natural plus pitch, Jansen began his journey of utter domination.
Jansen quickly raced through the Dodgers’ system and made his major league debut in July 2010, pitching a 1-2-3 inning; striking out two. Interestingly enough, he walked and scored in his first major league at-bat. Jansen quickly became a key part of the Dodgers’ pen as a setup man, and starting in 2012, became the team’s on-and-off closer until he solidified the role in 2014. He was an extremely effective pitcher from 2010-2016, accumulating 11.8 WAR and even earning the Trevor Hoffman Award as the best reliever in the National League. No longer obscure, Jansen signed a 5-year, $80 million deal to continue pitching in Chavez Ravine in December 2016. With a deal of that size came new doubts about whether or not Jansen could live up to that immense dollar figure. Suffice it to say, his 2017 season provided a resounding “yes” to that question.
Jansen’s season began inconspicuously enough, with a save on April 5th against the Padres that included a strikeout and no walks. His next game garnered him another strikeout and, once again, no walks. Before anyone realized it, he had started his season with 36 strikeouts and no walks, a major league record for most strikeouts without a walk to begin a season. The streak would eventually reach an eye-popping 51 before he gave up a walk on June 21st. He would eventually record a K/9 of 14.4, a 1.32 ERA and 318 ERA+, as well racking up 41 saves and 2.9 WAR on the season.
So how did Jansen reach another level after reaching tremendous heights? By employing that inside information he acquired as a failed catcher.
Knowing that many hitters actually can’t hit all that well, Jansen is incredibly comfortable throwing pitches in the strike zone. So much so that only six pitchers threw more strikes in the zone then he did during the 2017 season, while throwing his trademark cutter more than ever before – 90% frequency. As a high-spin pitch (out of 143 qualified pitchers, only six had a higher spin rate) with an average velocity of 93.3 mph, all the while aiming his pitch up upon release, Jansen used his cutter to record the fifth lowest contact rate in the zone and the 12th highest rate of swings outside the zone.
Put it all together, along with Jansen’s trademark control, and you have a nearly unhittable pitch. Where exactly have the Dodgers gone with this dominant force in their bullpen? Merely the brink of immortality.
Having long escaped obscurity, Jansen has led the Dodgers to the 2017 iteration of the Fall Classic. Jansen has given up zero runs in eight postseason innings, striking out 12, and of course, walking one. There is still work to be done, heroes to be made, and chapters to be written. The young Astros are an immensely talented team and boasts one the best offenses baseball has ever seen. If you’re the Dodgers, you can rest easy knowing you’ve plucked from obscurity perhaps the only pitcher that can cut into their lineup.