After spending a few years as a very effective middle reliever, Jansen has made a quick, dominant transition. Thanks to his fantastic stuff and consistent production, the Dodgers should never be concerned when handing him the ball in close contests.
Originally, Jansen was signed out of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to become a catcher in the bigs. Eventually, though, it became clear that the 6'5", 260-pound right-hander wasn't going to cut it in the batter's box. In order to save face on the signing, the Dodgers decided that they should try him out on the mound.
What a decision that was.
After giving up on catching in 2009, Jansen quickly ascended to the bigs in 2010. Since then, he has compiled a nasty 2.17 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. Those are elite numbers, closer or not.
Fast forward to June 11 of 2013. The Dodgers are struggling and Brandon League certainly hasn't helped with his 6.00 ERA. In the ninth inning, Mattingly hands the ball to Jansen, who promptly retires the side in 10 pitches for his first save of the year.
They haven't looked back since then.
As Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times reports, his statistics since the switch have only gotten better: "Jansen has been almost unhittable. He had a 2.53 ERA and opponents were hitting .224 against him at the time of the switch; since then, he has a 1.42 ERA and opposing batters have hit .144."
That's pretty remarkable. What's even more impressive is that he has retired 25 consecutive batters, with a recent stretch of striking out 10 of the last 12. The Dodgers' Twitter account is pretty impressed, too:
THIS GUY! Kenley Jansen strikes out the side. He has retired 25 consecutive hitters faced. Over that stretch, he has struck out 13.— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 4, 2013
So why has Jansen been so successful and what makes him one of MLB's elite closers? Let's take a look.
Experience in Middle Relief
With the difficult nature of the transition from catcher to pitcher, the Dodgers seem to have done everything right. It's clear that Jansen has some electric stuff—we'll touch more on that in a second—but he also has been brought around slowly.
Closers are a touchy crowd. On a basic level, they usually come in to the ninth inning to shut down the opposition and secure the victory. It sounds nauseatingly obvious, but that's a high-pressure situation.
The Dodgers have given Jansen the time to develop slowly. From 2010 through 2012, his total innings have increased from 27.0 to 53.2 to 65.0. Along the way, he's received more save opportunities, struck out more batters and lowered his WHIP from 1.00 in 2010 to 0.85 in 2012.
In this video from May of 2013, Jansen gives us a glimpse of what's to come against the hated San Francisco Giants:
When it became clear that Brandon League could no longer do the job, Jansen had already cashed in on 34 career saves and blown eight opportunities.
Having given him the chance to succeed and make mistakes as a young player, without the full responsibility that comes with the closer title, the Dodgers did something right.
Now, the 25-year-old is making his mark in a big way.
It's a complete injustice to compare Jansen to Mariano Rivera, but when your go-to pitch is the cutter, you don't have much say in the situation.
The cut fastball has been Mariano's out pitch over the years. Hitters know it's coming, but something about it just can't be prepared for. They know it's coming from Jansen, too.
As Carson Cistulli of Fangraphs says, "this pitch from Jansen was thrown at 90 mph with 1.8 inches of glove-side run and 8.0 inches of 'rise.' In fact, the pitch directly preceding this one—another cutter—was thrown both faster and with more movement." Johnson had no shot and ultimately looked downright foolish.
On June 11, the Dodgers were 7.5 games back of the division-leading Diamondbacks and Don Mattingly's seat was hotter than anyone else's in MLB. Now, they sit in first place with five games in hand on Arizona.
Much credit for the turnaround has been given to guys like Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez, but it's about time that everyone recognized just how good Jansen has been.
He's here to stay, folks.