Potentially the best of Major League Baseball’s four Division Series matchups begins Tuesday night with the San Diego Padres facing the Los Angeles Dodgers. The series became even more intriguing with the announcement that Mike Clevenger, injured for the Wild Card round, will start for the Padres.
The Dodgers still appear to have a pitching advantage for the series with Walker Buehler tapped to start Game 1, followed by Clayton Kershaw in Game 2, and an armada of relievers including Tony Gonsolin (who will likely start Game 3), Dustin May, Julio Urias, Joe Kelly, Pedro Baez, Blake Treinen, and Brusdar Graterol. Dylan Floro was added to the NLDS roster as well.
But Los Angeles goes into this NLDS with the anchor of its bullpen looking as uncertain as he’s ever been. This year, Kenley Jansen hasn’t been the same dominating closer he’s been for his 10 previous MLB seasons. He’s looked especially unreliable since September, during which he posted two of the worst outings of his career.
On Sept. 8 versus the Diamondbacks, Jansen gave up three runs (two earned) on three hits (including a home run) in 1.1 innings. His next outing was even worse — much worse. Facing the Astros on Sept. 12, Jansen didn’t record a single out while giving up six consecutive hits and allowing five runs.
Fact: Kenley Jansen has a 20.17 ERA against the Astros in Dodger’s Stadium pic.twitter.com/iCT169zCdw
— Apollo Media (@ApolloHOU) September 13, 2020
Though he hasn’t allowed a run in his subsequent seven appearances (including one in the postseason), Jansen isn’t throwing with the same velocity and hasn’t been able to put away opposing hitters as he once did.
In Game 1 of the Wild Card series against the Milwaukee Brewers, he didn’t allow a run in the ninth inning. But he walked Jace Peterson, bringing Christian Yelich to the plate as the tying run. Yelich continued what was an awful 2020 season by striking out and ending the game. But Jansen threw seven balls among his 16 pitches. And most concerning was his average pitch speed of 88.1 mph. One of his cutters was clocked at 86 mph.
Kenley Jansen's first good cutter of the night ends it. pic.twitter.com/zgo0RcGrN6
— Chad Moriyama (@ChadMoriyama) October 1, 2020
After the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts acknowledged what everyone had seen, saying Jansen’s stuff had no “teeth.” And with that, Jansen’s place as the team’s closer appears to be in jeopardy. Roberts can’t put a postseason game on the line with a reliever he can’t trust, especially when he has so many other options in his bullpen.
Too much is at stake. The Dodgers were the best team in baseball this season and are a strong favorite to win the World Series. The team’s two concerns going into October were Clayton Kershaw’s postseason history and the downward trend of Jansen. Kershaw appears to have righted himself, based on his Wild Card start versus Milwaukee. But Jansen hasn’t alleviated any concerns yet. As a result, the ninth inning is no longer his.
In Game 2 against the Brewers, Brusdar Graterol got the nod to protect a 3-0 Dodgers lead. Yet he allowed a leadoff single and didn’t strike out any of the four batters he faced. Lockdown performance? No, but apparently it didn’t make Roberts as nervous as Jansen had the night before. Afterward, Roberts said he chose Graterol because Jansen had faced the same Milwaukee batters in Game 1. But Yelich was the only batter up in the ninth that Jansen pitched to.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) October 2, 2020
Roberts insisted Jansen was still the Dodgers’ closer. Yet two days later, he said Jansen won’t necessarily pitch the ninth inning against the Padres.
From the Los Angeles Times:
“‘Not in every game,’ Roberts said on a video call in advance of the best-of-five NLDS, which begins Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas. ‘[He] might, but putting ourselves in that situation, where I can’t use him in a situation where I feel he’s the best option, isn’t the best decision for the Dodgers right now.'”
Maybe Roberts is putting Jansen on notice. Perhaps he feels that Jansen could benefit from pitching in a non-save, yet high-leverage situation earlier in a ballgame. Yet if Jansen can’t be trusted to pitch the ninth, will Roberts want him on the mound with runners on in middle or late innings?
Using your best reliever earlier in a game when he’s arguably needed most can be a sound strategy. And several Dodgers relievers could surely pitch the ninth inning, although the pressure is much more intense during the postseason. Once upon a time, the Dodgers thought a winning postseason formula was Kershaw pitching seven innings and Jansen pitching two. But that feels like a very long time ago right now.