After a Decade as the Dodgers’ Closer, Kenley Jansen Joins the Braves

© Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

On the day the Dodgers made the signing of longtime Braves star Freddie Freeman official, Atlanta turned around and poached one of Los Angeles’ high-profile free agents. Kenley Jansen, a three-time All-Star who has spent the last 10 years as the Dodgers’ closer, has joined the Braves via a one-year, $16 million deal.

The 34-year-old Jansen is coming off his best season since 2017, pitching to a 2.22 ERA and 3.08 FIP in 69 innings, saving 38 games in 43 chances, and producing 1.8 WAR. He was extremely difficult to hit, holding batters to a .153 average (his lowest since 2016) and .233 slugging percentage (his lowest since ’11). Contact-wise, he held hitters to an 84.0 mph average exit velocity, .260 xwOBA, and 4.6% barrel rate, which respectively placed him in the 99th, 93rd, and 92nd percentile.

If there was a blemish on Jansen’s season it was his 12.9% walk rate, his highest since his cup-of-coffee season in 2010; when combined with his 30.9% strikeout rate, it produced an 18.0% strikeout-to-walk differential, the lowest of his career. Jansen was able to compensate thanks to his sequencing and his ability to limit hard contact, though he took the Dodgers and their fans on some rollercoaster rides. For what it’s worth, while he walked 28 in his first 40.1 innings through the end of July (16.3%), he walked just eight in 28.2 innings (7.5%) the rest of the way, that while posting a 35.8% strikeout rate.

He carried that momentum into the postseason, where he was absolutely stifling. His performance stood in marked context to 2020, when his October struggles led to his being marginalized even as the Dodgers won their first championship since 1988; Blake Treinen and Julio Urías saved the Dodgers’ last two wins of the World Series. This time around, Jansen struck out 14 of 25 batters while allowing just three hits and walking one; he wasn’t charged with a run, though he gave up a first-pitch walk-off single to Eddie Rosario in Game 2 of the NLCS after entering with two outs and the winning run on second base. That put the Dodgers in a two-games-to-none hole from which they never really recovered, but it wasn’t Jansen who squandered the Dodgers’ 4-2 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth in that game.

Underlying Jansen’s 2021 resurgence was a reinvention. From 2010-18, he threw his cut fastball around 87% of the time, but that percentage has dropped in each subsequent season as he’s integrated a sinker and slider. He threw the cutter less than ever in 2021, just over twice as often as the sinker:

Kenley Jansen Pitch Selection, Velocity, and wOBA Against
Year FC % FC vel FC wOBA SI % SI vel SI wOBA SL % SL vel SL wOBA
2018 83.8% 92.1 .278 10.3% 93.7 .251 5.8% 82.7 .238
2019 74.3% 91.7 .301 13.4% 93.2 .237 12.3% 81.8 .170
2020 61.9% 90.9 .302 28.5% 92.3 .299 9.6% 81.6 .154
2021 58.0% 92.5 .260 26.6% 93.9 .213 15.4% 82.0 .150
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
FC = Cutter, SI = Sinker, SL = Slider

Combine that more diverse arsenal with a slightly more vertical release point and a substantial bump in velocity, and you have a pitcher who was suddenly dominant again.

Jansen’s departure ends a 17-year tenure in the Dodgers organization, the longest of any 2021 Dodger; Clayton Kershaw, who was drafted in 2006 and who already had the longest run on the big club’s roster (since 2008) now inherits that mantle. Signed out of Curaçao in November 2004 at the age of 17, Jansen spent his first five professional seasons as a light-hitting, strong-armed cacher, hitting .229/.310/.337 while throwing out 37% of baserunners. Aside from an eight-game stint at Triple-A Albuquerque in 2009, he didn’t climb higher than High-A as a catcher, though he was the regular backstop for Team Netherlands in that year’s World Baseball Classic, throwing out Ryan Braun trying to steal and helping to upset a powerhouse Dominican Republic squad twice. Just 16 months later, he was in the majors as a pitcher.

Since then, he’s been one of the game’s top relievers. His 350 saves are far and away a franchise record, surpassing the combined total of second-ranked Eric Gagne (161) and third-ranked Jeff Shaw (129). He’s 13th on the all-time list, and second among active pitchers behind only Craig Kimbrel’s 372; he’s also second in postseason saves (19) behind only Mariano Rivera (42). Among pitchers with at least 700 innings in relief, his 2.37 FIP and 36.8% strikeout rate are both tops, while his 2.37 ERA is third behind only Rivera and Billy Wagner; lower those thresholds to 600 innings and Kimbrel (2.18 ERA, 2.26 FIP, 41.3% strikeout rate) and Aroldis Chapman (2.36 ERA, 2.21 FIP, 41.1% strikeout rate) both cut the line. Jansen is now tied for 16th in R-JAWS, the experimental reliever version of JAWS that I’ve been using to analyze relievers for the past several years. He’s outside the Hall of Fame picture, but if he can milk this resurgence for another few years, he’ll have a shot at election.

In leaving the Dodgers to sign with the Braves, Jansen is joining the team he grew up rooting for. Fred McGriff and Curaçao native Andruw Jones were favorite players of his, and his older brother, Ardley Jansen, signed with the Braves and spent 2000-06 as an outfielder in their system. “It’s awesome to put this uniform on,” Jansen told reporters on Sunday. “This is where it all started for me. This is where the hope started. This is where the dream to become a Major Leaguer started.”

In Atlanta, Jansen is reuniting with general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who spent 2016-17 as the Dodgers’ vice president of baseball operations. His $16 million salary is a pay cut from last year’s $20 million, but it matches the AAV of his expired five-year, $80 million deal, and is tied with Chapman for the second-highest AAV of any closer, with Liam Hendriks‘ $18 million leading the pack.

Jansen will supplant Will Smith — who got the final outs of the 2021 World Series — as the Braves’ closer, a move that Smith reportedly gave his blessing to. Via’s Mark Bowman:

“Smith had a great season last year,” Anthopoulos said. “He was scoreless in the postseason and six-for-six in the postseason. He’s an unbelievable teammate and an unbelievable person. I told him there’s a chance to get [Jansen] and some other guys we were talking about. I was just very candid with him. I wanted him to know I wouldn’t pursue it if he didn’t feel good about it.

On a lighter note, Anthopoulos also said that Jansen would change his signature entry music from “California Love” to “Welcome to Atlanta.”

Smith, who will make $13 million this year with a $13 million club option and $1 million buyout for 2023, saved 37 games in 43 chances in 2021, albeit with a 3.44 ERA, 4.17 FIP and just 0.4 WAR. He was exceptionally homer-prone, allowing 1.46 dingers per nine, the second-highest rate of any pitcher with at least 20 saves behind Ian Kennedy’s 1.92. But as Anthopoulos noted, he didn’t allow a run in the playoffs, stepping up along with setup man Tyler Matzek. Those two will now be part of the supporting cast ahead of Jansen along with the newly-signed Collin McHugh, who inked a one-year, $6 million deal with the Braves after a stellar season with the Rays. The Braves also added Kirby Yates, who’s working his way back from a March 2021 Tommy John surgery.

As for the Dodgers, they could turn to Treinen to close games. The 33-year-old righty notched seven saves last year as part of manager Dave Roberts‘ effort to avoid calling upon Jansen three days in a row. Treinen has 79 saves for his career, including 38 with the A’s in 2018. Last year was his best since that campaign, as he pitched to a 1.99 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 72.1 innings. Daniel Hudson also has experience closing, with 27 career saves plus four more in the 2019 postseason, including one in Game 7 of the World Series as the Nationals clinched their championship. The team could also look to acquire a closer from outside the organization, with Kimbrel, now in the same White Sox bullpen as Hendriks and making $16 million himself in the final year of a three-year, $43 million deal, one option — albeit a pricey one.

Indeed, if the Dodgers are to add an experienced closer from outside, they’re going to have to get creative, as the free agent market doesn’t offer any obvious solutions; the free agents with closer experience who are still available — Greg Holland, Andrew Miller, Sergio Romo, Neftalí Feliz, and Shane Greene, the last two of whom briefly pitched for the Dodgers last year — are well past their days as ninth-inning stalwarts. The team is also only about $4.5 million from surpassing the $290 million fourth threshold of the Competitive Balance Tax, where every dollar above that line is taxed at an 80% rate. The bet here is that the Dodgers will use their considerable depth to trade for someone, though not necessarily immediately. With Jansen gone, whoever takes over the ninth inning for the Dodgers will have some pretty big shoes to fill.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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CC AFCmember
2 years ago

Pretty strong looking bullpen. Luke Jackson and AJ Minter are both guys I like, too. I still hold out some hope that someone from the Toussaint, Wright, Newcomb group could find something as a pure reliever. Law of bullpens requires that the whole thing is going to implode and Darren O’Day will be closing games by July because I said nice things now.