NORTH PORT, Fla. — Kenley Jansen was in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization for 17 seasons, longer than any other player on their big-league roster.
The Dodgers are the team that signed him from the island nation of Curacao and had him begin his professional career at age 17. They’re the team that, after four seasons, converted him from catcher to pitcher. They’re the team that brought him to the big leagues for the first time in 2010, made him a closer in 2012 and signed him to a five-year, $80 million contract in 2016 to keep him from leaving as a free agent.
In L.A., Jansen became a three-time All-Star and two-time National League Reliever of the Year. He saved 350 games, far more than any other reliever in franchise history, and recorded 19 postseason saves, a number exceeded all-time only by Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera (42). Jansen also won a World Series as a Dodger.
When Jansen walked in from the bullpen, Dodger Stadium shook from the thunderous beat of Tupac’s “California Love.”
“The Dodgers are family,” Jansen said. “From being a kid, I became a man, I became a husband, I became the father of four children. A lot happened there, both good and bad. They will always be family.”
The Dodgers are in Jansen’s rearview mirror, too. The 34-year-old is embarking on his 13th major-league season with a new team — the Atlanta Braves, who last fall eliminated the heavily favored Dodgers in the National League Championship Series on an improbable run to a World Series title.
The fit is better than you might think. In Curacao, Jansen grew up a Braves fan.
“Oh my goodness, we’re talking all the way back to Fulton County Stadium,” said Jansen, recalling the place where the Braves played until 1996 and won the World Series in 1995. “Fred McGriff, David Justice, all those names. It’s awesome just wearing this uniform when you grew up a Braves fan and watched them for so long.”
Jansen’s brother, Ardley, was an outfielder who spent seven seasons in the Braves’ minor-league system, advancing as high as Double-A. “I used to shag during BP,” Jansen said. “I came to spring training, instructional league.”
One of Jansen’s best friends in baseball, Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, is from Curacao. “I joked with Ozzie. I said, ‘Man, I’m a free agent, it’d be great, me and you,’ but I never took it seriously,” Jansen said. “It only became real just two days before I signed, when my agent told me the Braves checked in.”
“I said, ‘OK, something good is going on here,’” Jansen added. “There’s something about the Braves that made me feel better if I was moving from the Dodgers.”
Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves’ president of baseball operations who knew Jansen from the two years he worked in the Dodgers’ front office, announced that the Braves had signed Jansen to a one-year, $16 million deal, just hours after the Dodgers finalized their signing of Braves icon Freddie Freeman.
“Obviously, his career speaks for itself,” Anthopoulos said at the time of Jansen’s signing. “You see how he peaked at the end of last year, the last two months with his performance and into the postseason. I’ve seen him pitch for so long. He’s really durable.”
The Braves already had a stacked bullpen — Atlanta’s relievers called themselves the “Night Shift” last October and were difference makers in both the NLCS against the Dodgers and in the World Series against the Houston Astros. Will Smith, the team’s incumbent closer, made 11 appearances in the playoffs and finished all 11 games in which he pitched, winning two, saving six and throwing 11 scoreless innings. He allowed just five hits and three walks and held opposing hitters to a .139 average.
And now they were bringing in Jansen. Anthopoulos placed a call to Smith to gauge his reaction; Smith told Anthopoulos he was on board with the decision.
“It was what you’d expect from Will,” Anthopoulos said. “He said, ‘I want another ring and I want another parade. If this makes the team better, I’m all in.’”
Jansen called Smith to express his appreciation.
“That means a lot to me,” Jansen said. “You talk about a guy who had an unbelievable postseason last year, he closes out the World Series. No matter where I (went), I wanted to go to a contending team, and (Smith) showed me he wants to win again.
“It doesn’t matter when you pitch, but can you get the outs. I’ve come in in the seventh and eighth innings.”
In 2020, when the Dodgers won the World Series in the 60-game season shortened by the pandemic, manager Dave Roberts left Jansen in the bullpen for the final two games of the World Series. He elected to close with Blake Treinen and Julio Urias instead of the struggling Jansen, who had been knocked around by the Padres in the NL Division Series and was scored upon by the Tampa Bay Rays in his two Series appearances, which included a blown lead and loss in Game 4.
“In 2020, I wasn’t out there and it bothers me, even though we won it,” Jansen said. “My teammates picked me up, and I’m a champion.”
But he also decided he needed to make some changes.
“You try to learn how to build longevity, and longevity is learning other pitches and learning yourself,” Jansen said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing. I never stopped learning, even those years that were down years by my standards.
“I learned a lot from that. It helped me grow as a pitcher. Last year, I wasn’t afraid to use any pitch in any count.”
Jansen still featured his devastating cutter, the pitch he shared in common with Rivera. But he learned to trust his other pitches as well.
As Jay Jaffe noted on FanGraphs, Jansen, through the 2018 season, threw his cutter 87% of the time. That number has dropped in each of the next three seasons and was down to 58% in 2021 while he increased the use of his sinker (26.6%) and slider (15.4%). Interestingly, he regained nearly 2 mph of velocity on his cutter, after it had dipped to just a tick over 90 mph.
Whether it was the mix, the uptick in velocity or a tweak in his release point, Jansen was back to dominating last season, his best since 2017. He posted a 2.22 ERA, converted 38 of 43 save chances and held hitters to a .153 average. He also limited opponents to an 84-mph average exit velocity, which placed him in the 99th percentile.
And he once again owned October, except for the walk-off hit he surrendered to red-hot Eddie Rosario in Game 2 of the NLCS. Jansen struck out 14 while walking just one and was not charged with a run in seven innings in the playoffs.
A better bullpen in baseball? It’s tough to find. The Braves lost right-handed setup man Luke Jackson to a UCL injury, but they signed Collin McHugh, who had a 1.55 ERA in 64 innings for Tampa Bay last season, added veteran Darren O’Day and promoted Spencer Strider, who had Tommy John surgery in 2019 and is back throwing 100-mph fastballs. On the left side, there is Smith, Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter, who all excelled during last season’s title run.
“My impression is this is such a great group of guys, and they’ve welcomed me,” Jansen said. “Watching from the other side, I could see how devastating they were, and now I’m grateful to be part of this bullpen.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I like to see these young guys come and do their thing. I watch them and learn from them. So we’re all going to push each other.”