Kenley Jansen and April (and March) Alarm

With this generation’s Mariano Rivera on the mound last night in Arizona, and the Dodgers holding a three-run lead in the ninth, the game was over, right?

Well, it’s baseball and Chris Owings had other ideas.

Yes, it’s really early. Alarm on April 2nd is often folly. Perhaps we will look back and laugh at all this hand-wringing. But Kenley Jansen has not looked like Kenley Jansen. And unlike a batter off to a slow start, a pitcher who has a velocity decline, who has changed his release point, who seems defensive in fielding questions this early — that all combines to raise some legitimate alarm.

Jansen didn’t walk a batter until June 25th last season. He began last season by striking out 51 batters without issuing a walk, setting an MLB record. Jansen has already conceded two walks, recording no strikeouts. Jansen allowed five home runs in the 2017 campaign. He’s allowed two in two innings this season.

Jansen seemed invincible for much of 2017, so he’s provided a dramatic contrast early this year. When a pitcher that untouchable struggles to such a degree — even in a small sample — it raises reasonable questions.

Jansen is regarded by many as the best reliever in the NL, an opinion supported by FanGraphs’ projections. So what’s going on here?

Let’s start with the velocity.

According to Pitch Info, Jansen’s cutter is averaging 91.3 mph through two outings, down from 93.6 last season. He’s also throwing the pitch less often, with a 77% usage rate through two appearances compared to 85% last season. According to Statcast data, Jansen threw cutters at a 45% clip this spring. The pitch averaged 88.9 mph. In March of 2017, his cutter averaged 93.7 mph. (Jansen also didn’t allow a run and struck out six in 4.2 Cactus League innings.) Few pitchers rely upon a single pitch more often, so when Jansen throws his cutter less it bears examination.

Now, velocity will improve throughout the early season for some pitchers. Jansen’s velocity has improved each of the last two seasons, and it was up from his first appearance in his second on Monday. It’s important to note Jansen dealt with some hamstring issues this spring. Perhaps the good news is that, if there is an injury issue, it is related to his lower body and not his shoulder or elbow.

But this velocity represents a three-year low for Jansen.

After Jansen’s first outing of 2018, he brushed off a question regarding his velocity decline by asking, “Who cares?” Jansen seemed defensive, annoyed.

“Who cares?”

“Who cares?”

“Who cares?”

“It’s one game.”

Jansen’s cutter at 89-92 mph raises some eyebrows and questions, but if he’s healthy — and he claims he is — then this might be nothing but an early-season, shaking-off-rust issue. Maybe Monday was the beginning of his arm and velo rounding back into shape.

Perhaps more alarming than his velocity is a decline in movement and his curious release point.

Since PITCHf/x has been tracking his offerings, Jansen had one of the lowest vertical release points of his career Monday at 6.16 feet.

While his release point has ebbed and flowed throughout his career, it’s something worth keeping an eye on.

His horizontal release point has continued to contract over the course of his career but, again, like his vertical release point, it’s reached an extreme point early this season. Horizontal and vertical release-point changes are often tied together.

His release point through two appearances supports the idea there is a mechanical flaw with which he is dealing or that something doesn’t quite feel right in his elbow or shoulder or hamstring or elsewhere and he is searching for a more comfortable motion. We’ll have to wait and see.

The Dodgers need Jansen to be a relief ace. They don’t have another in-house alternative at the moment.

The Dodgers, a bonafide Super Team, had the NL’s best bullpen by some measures last season. Their of 81 ERA- was the best in the NL. Jansen owned an absurd 32 ERA-.

While the Dodgers did attempt to bolster their bullpen after losing Brandon Morrow to free agency by adding ground-ball ace Scott Alexander, their 2018 failed-starter-turned-reliever project, Tom Koehler, is on the 60-day disabled list with a shoulder issue.

Other 2017 contributors like Luis Avilan, Sergio Romo, and Tony Watson have departed.

While key bullpen members like Pedro Baez and Josh Fields and Ross Stripling remain — and while Walker Buehler could be summoned if needed later this season — the Dodgers’ bullpen is significantly less formidable if their anchor isn’t quite right.

It’s early. It’s two innings. It’s not time to panic. But let’s keep an eye on Jansen and his velocity, cutter usage, and release point. Maybe we’ll forget about these March and April alarms in several weeks or maybe a super team suddenly has a vulnerability.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Jansen rubbing his shoulder in the dugout has also contributed to some of the concern, in addition to everything described above.