Dodgers: Is It Time to Tinker with the Closing Role?

Another close game, and yet another blown chance by Dodgers closer, Kenley Jansen. This time, it came in a one-run contest against the San Diego Padres Wednesday night. The 31-year-old was hoping to build off his last outing on Saturday against the New York Yankees, and rediscover his groove. Looks like it just wasn’t in the books.

It’s now a career-high seven blown saves for someone who, not too long ago, was arguably the best relief pitcher in the game (top three at worst), and best in the National League. However, he’s become more and more mortal since the start of the 2018 season- to the point where legitimate questions are now being asked if the veteran can be trusted in the regular season.

Jansen has a 3.73 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 3.47 FIP, 0.0 WAR, and eight home runs allowed in 50.2 innings after Wednesday. All are either the worst or second-worst of his career, and a far cry from the man who led all qualified relievers in WAR (12.1), FIP (1.74), and WHIP (0.84) from 2013-2017, while posting the 5th-best ERA (2.01).

That person is long gone and has been even worse during the second half of 2019, posting a 5.14 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, an opponents’ .810 OPS, and .343 wOBA. Now, ERA isn’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to relievers, but every peripheral has shown he’s declined.

In addition to the numbers already shared, Jansen’s velocity, per FanGraphs, is at a career-low. He isn’t getting as much run on his infamous cutter or striking out batters at his previous clip. The veteran is getting hit harder than ever while allowing a career-low in soft contact, and his 15.1% HR/FB rate is well-above his career mark of 9.9% and is topped by just 2018’s 15.5%.

And per Baseball-Reference’s Wins Probability Added (WPA)- which tries measure a player’s contribution to winning based on each specific play- his career-worst 0.1 WPA this season shows he’s no longer the clutch performer we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. He’s thrown 19.2 innings that qualify as “high-leverage”, posting a 7.32 ERA in them.

Whether it’s all mental, physical, or a bit of both, Jansen’s off, and dare we say washed? His confidence looks shook, in turn, lowering the fans’ confidence in him. And while the team hasn’t come out and said it, it’s hard to imagine they trust him to be the same rock as in the past.

No more eight-inning games, per se, because Jansen was a lock to shut down the ninth. No more stretching him out over an inning because of the risk something disastrous happening. Instead, close games with Jansen on the mound have become emotional roller coasters.

After all the talk of lacking someone reliable enough to get the ball to him, who’d have thought that Jansen, and not the bridge to him, would be the Achilles heel of the bullpen, and the entire team for that matter? And who’d have foreseen legitimate discussion regarding a change in closers?

That said, it’s hard to see the Dodgers making a move anytime soon, but when is enough, enough? Relievers have small margins for errors, and the longtime closer is continually pushing its limits or going beyond them.

It’s best if they experiment by giving opportunities to the arms that are performing to see what they have. All while giving Jansen a mental breather in the lower-leverage situations in hopes of getting his groove back. And it isn’t like there aren’t any options.

The Alternatives

The popular choice among most fans is Joe Kelly. The 31-year-old has the best stuff among the Dodgers’ relievers (only Walker Buehler may top him among all pitchers on the squad), and that alone makes him an excellent candidate.

After a brutal start to 2019, the right-hander has been lights-out, earning the large contract the Dodgers handed him in the offseason and quickly turning into a fan-favorite.

Since June 1st, the hard-throwing righty has posted a 1.33 ERA, 2.14 FIP, and 1.00 WHIP with 39 strikeouts- on the back of an elite 35.4% K-rate- in 27 innings. Opponents are hitting just .163/.255/.244 off him with a .217 wOBA. He’s allowing more than double the league-average amount of soft contact, while comfortably better-than-average in hard contact.

And pairing the missed bats and softly batted balls with a 3.8 groundball-to-flyball ratio, is as perfect a recipe for success one can have.

Kelly also has the invaluable postseason experience to assume such large responsibility, owning a 2.49 ERA in 47 October innings, including two runs (one earned), nine baserunners, and 13 strikeouts in 11.1 frames last fall.

And if you weren’t a believer already, Wednesday offered this treat (courtesy of Rob Friedman):

Then there’s Casey Sadler, who received his first save opportunity Wednesday against the Padres and passed with flying colors. And you can tell he was pumped up for the occasion- both with how he carried himself and according to his pitch data.

He averaged a season-high 95.32 mph with his sinker (despite it being his first time pitching three-straight days) with drop and almost 11 inches of horizontal movement. All while his cutter and curveball were both sharp and breaking.

To start the tenth inning, he struck out the Padres’ number two-hitter, Josh Naylor, before allowing a soft single to the number three-hitter, Manny Machado.

However, Sadler wasn’t at fault, as it came via an excellent piece of hitting from the star third baseman who had to drop down and chase a sharp curveball well below the strike zone.

Then came the cleanup hitter, Eric Hosmer, who had already homered earlier in the game, which Sadler proceeded to strikeout. But the 29-year-old wasn’t in the clear, as Hunter Renfroe came to the plate representing the tying run. And the outfielder’s 31 home runs on the season (12 in 45 career games vs. the Dodgers) was more than enough to get you worried. But Sadler induced a weak infield pop fly, giving Los Angeles a 6-4 victory.

One appearance doesn’t mean everything, but it was an impressive outing in a high-leverage situation against talented hitters that continues a breakout season of sorts for the right-hander. He has a 1.70 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 37 innings on the year, with a 1.53 ERA, and 0.97 WHIP in 17.2 innings in Dodger blue.

His lack of strikeouts is what prevents him from being a dominant relief pitcher, hence his high FIP, but he relies on getting a healthy rate of ground balls, which he’s been good at doing. Besides, his lack of swing-and-miss-stuff hasn’t prevented him from stranding 90% of baserunners.

Dave Roberts should continue giving Sadler more and more chances in high-leverage opportunities so we can see what the righty is really made of. He’s at least earned that much.

And if he can’t handle it, it’s good to know before the Dodgers embark upon their October journey.

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Featured Image via Flickr/Smashdown Sports News

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