Dodgers’ pending free agents, Part III: Kenley Jansen

Editor’s note: This is the Wednesday, Sept. 22 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter from reporter J.P. Hoornstra. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

The first time I can remember committing the all-time saves leaders to memory, Jeff Reardon was the first name on the list. Lee Smith and John Franco and Dennis Eckersley would pass him before long. Then, of course, came Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera. As of this writing, Reardon is 11th all-time in saves.

The fallacy of nostalgia is not simply that we mistake the world of our youth to be set in stone, the ideal era against which all other eras should be judged. Our first impression of the world causes us to mistake some things as fixed, and other things as dynamic, when in fact all things are dynamic and change at their own pace. On or around Jan. 1, 1993, I would have guessed that Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs would remain the all-time record forever. I did not think Jeff Reardon would be the all-time saves leader forever. One leaderboard appeared static; the other did not.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that “closer” is a title, not a position like “catcher” or “left fielder.” A closer is a pitcher who happens to be the last pitcher in a game in which certain criteria are met. It’s all quite arbitrary. The best team in the American League this season has used 13 different closers. (They used 12 last year en route to the World Series.) If a hitter thrives while playing multiple positions, he can still compile home runs at a historic rate. If a pitcher thrives while pitching the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth inning, that’s great. But pitching only one of these innings can help him climb the all-time saves leaderboard.

The Dodgers have had nine closers this season, but 34 of their 49 saves belong to one man, Kenley Jansen. I continue to marvel at how anachronistic this is – in part, I think, because it is so typical of the “closers” of my youth. That’s why I am so conflicted about how to evaluate Jansen.

On one hand, Jansen has persisted in his job longer than any of his peers, aside from Craig Kimbrel (who passed Reardon on the all-time saves leaderboard earlier this year, then was traded to the Chicago White Sox, for whom he is not the closer). To the extent that saving baseball games is his job, Jansen has been better at his job over a longer period of time than all but perhaps one active pitcher.

On the other hand, is Jansen even the best relief pitcher on the Dodgers anymore? His strikeout-to-walk ratio is the lowest of his career. His pitch velocity, while not a liability, is perplexingly inconsistent. That was more true at the beginning of the season, when Jansen seemed to need at least one day (preferably two) to recover from each outing. Generally speaking, Manager Dave Roberts has been increasingly unafraid to use other pitchers in save situations as Jansen’s existing five-year, $80 million contract neared its finish. When the Dodgers needed a save in their last clinching World Series game, Roberts gave the ball to Julio Urías. Both versions of WAR agree that if the Dodgers needed a save this year, their best option is Blake Treinen.

Jansen is a free agent at the end of this season. For this series, I’m nominally trying to assess each player on his own merit, and assess his value to the Dodgers separately. The former is usually easy, the latter easy enough. With Jansen, I find both things incredibly difficult. The maddening inconsistency has something to do with it. History invites even more trouble.

With that in mind, here goes nothing.


If we were to assess Jansen’s 2021 season in a vacuum, it looks good. Really good, actually. His cutter and sinker are still above-average pitches in terms of velocity. Once he began incorporating his slider more, opposing hitters seemed less comfortable in the box and had a difficult time making hard contact. Jansen has allowed just four home runs in 63-2/3 innings this season. When hitters fail to clear the fence, they rarely find holes in the Dodgers’ defense (.214 BABIP). Those are elite numbers.

Any team can find a place in their bullpen, ninth inning or otherwise, for a relief pitcher that good. The ninth inning became more practical as Jansen’s stamina gradually improved. It was probably unfair to draw sweeping conclusions about a pitcher one week shy of his 34th birthday based on his stamina over a one-month sample early in the season – especially following the weird 78-game 2020 season.

Since Aug. 4, Jansen has pitched on back-to-back nights eight times. He’s pitched on three consecutive days once. Over that span (22 games) he’s 12 for 12 in save opportunities with a 0.81 ERA, and 26 strikeouts compared to eight walks. History says that’s probably closer to Jansen’s true ability at the moment.

History plays an interesting role in this debate. We can’t look at Jansen’s 2021 season in a vacuum. If I’m his agent, I’m reminding Andrew Friedman that Jansen is one of the best closers of all time. That’s a good thing, right? Well, here’s where that gets tricky …


Jansen probably wants assurance from his next team that he will be their closer in 2022 and beyond. That’s not unreasonable, given his recent and historical track record. As for the money, $16 million per year seems to be the baseline rate for a proven closer these days. That’s what Jansen averaged over the life of his current deal with the Dodgers. It’s what Kimbrel is getting from the White Sox this year and next (assuming they exercise his option for 2022). The Dodgers can afford Jansen at that price.

The question is whether having one of the best closers of all time matters to the Dodgers’ front office. A progressive front office like theirs, or Tampa Bay’s, does not prize the capital-C closer title like the most progressive front office in, say, 1993. Granted, the Rays have some roster shortcomings. But they did not lose the 2020 World Series because they lacked a designated closer. The Dodgers out-hit the Rays so badly, having a designated closer didn’t make a difference.

If you’re paying Jansen to be one of the best closers of all time, it’s a different discussion than if you are paying him to be an essential cog in your Bullpen Machine. Both pitchers might have the same stats on paper, but one is asking for a lot more money than the other. I imagine some teams are attracted to the idea of letting Jansen chase Mariano Rivera in their uniform – maybe even some good teams that could use a singular closer. I have some doubt the Dodgers will be one of those teams. They’re trendsetters, and the game is trending away from singular closers.

Jansen’s free agency will be a fascinating test of how baseball’s collective thinking has evolved on this issue. He isn’t eligible to receive a qualifying offer, so he ought to get paid fair-market value wherever he lands.

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