Kenley Jansen settled in with Red Sox, but savors 'beautiful history' with Dodgers
Kenley Jansen got up from his locker in the home clubhouse at Fenway Park on Monday afternoon and announced a request.
"Guys, I need a new hat. This hat stinks. I gave up six runs in it," the pitcher called out to clubhouse attendants across the room, before punctuating it with a four-letter expletive.
Laughter erupted. Jansen was relaxed, even fresh off blown saves on consecutive days last weekend. Those two appearances, both against the St. Louis Cardinals, were by far his worst of the season. He was untouchable until last Friday, giving up just one run with 17 strikeouts to three walks in his first 12 games. He had reached another peak at age 35.
“It was the best I’ve ever felt,” Jansen said.
Just two days before the first stumble, he had experienced one of the highlights of his career, becoming just the seventh player in major league history to compile 400 career saves in a 5-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.
After the game, Red Sox designated hitter Justin Turner gathered the team to present a video to the closer.
Former Dodgers teammates Clayton Kershaw, Austin Barnes, Russell Martin, A.J. Ellis, and Eric Gagne congratulated him in the video, as did former Dodgers manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. So did Turner and Kiké Hernández, Jansen’s teammates in Boston after years together in Los Angeles.
Turner then gave Jansen the lineup card. Hernández presented him with a guitar. The team raised a toast.
“It meant a lot, man,” Jansen said. “Those are the guys that went through that pain, those sad moments and the happiest moment of winning the championship with me” in 2020.
Turner did the math. He's been on the field for almost 300 of Jansen's saves. He was there for No. 100, 200 and 300 when they wore Dodger blue. Being his teammate for 400 in their ninth season together offered a chance to reflect.
"To have been on the field for those milestones," Turner said, "was pretty cool."
A moment Kenley will never forget. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/BpnD8jZHhr
— Red Sox (@RedSox) May 11, 2023
Jansen accumulated his first 350 saves over 12 years with the Dodgers. He evolved from a converted catcher to the best closer in the majors, a fan favorite with his vicious cutter and signature walk-out song. He became synonymous with the franchise’s historic stretch of success since 2013. He hoped he would never leave.
But the business of baseball has a way of snuffing out its romanticism and Jansen instead signed a one-year deal with the Braves last year. Jansen publicly beamed about the opportunity to play for Atlanta, the team he grew up watching on television in Curacao. Fred McGriff was his favorite player. Andruw Jones, Curacao’s first All-Star, was a hero. And yet the breakup stung. He acknowledged wondering whether a reunion with the Dodgers was possible when he reached free agency again after the season.
“It was hard,” Jansen said. “It was hard for me to be like, 'Will you be there? Will you be back?' ”
A return made sense on paper. But the Dodgers didn’t feel the need to have a designated closer. Jansen, meanwhile, was ready to shut the door for good. This time he entered free agency, as he put it, “neutral.” He had moved on, hunting for the best opportunity wherever it was. The Red Sox and their two-year, $32-million offer emerged in early December.
Jansen said Los Angeles always will be his home outside of Curacao. He spent most of the offseason there. His family still lives there year-round. But he is content closing that chapter of his professional life.
“It's a beautiful history that I had there,” Jansen said. “I'll forever cherish those moments. But I'm OK if I don't go back again.”
Hernández was Jansen’s teammate for six seasons with the Dodgers. He was around to witness Jansen’s best two years — 2016 and 2017 — when his cutter overwhelmed hitters over and over and over again. But he never saw what he saw from Jansen the night the closer reached 400 saves.
Jansen entered in the ninth inning to protect a three-run lead and immediately began pumping 97-mph cutters. Later, with two outs and a runner at second base, he fired another 97-mph cutter to begin a clash with Atlanta's Travis d’Arnaud. Then a 98-mph cutter. Then another one. Then a 99-mph cutter. Then another one.
Hernández was playing shortstop. Turner was at second base. Neither could believe it.
“I get J.T.'s attention and I'm like, 'Look at the gun,' ” Hernández recalled. “And the shock on his face was hysterical. He's no pup. He's no kid. And I've never seen him throw 99. Then he ended it with a nasty slider. It was cool to see.”
Jansen attributed the velocity spike to an adrenaline rush knowing a milestone was within reach. The boost was noticeably absent two nights later against the Cardinals when he came out throwing 93 and issued a four-pitch walk to begin his appearance. He was pulled after surrendering three hits, a walk and three runs without recording an out. The next day, two pitch-clock violations led to a costly walk and he unraveled.
“I was flat, man,” Jansen said. “Not gonna lie. In the first one, I came back to earth. The second one, I just let [the violations] get to me. Learn from mistakes, yeah, and move on.”
The Dodgers became familiar with occasional lapses from Jansen, sometimes for multiple appearances, over his final four years with the team. He remained, on the whole, effective but not able to meet the unsustainable expectations he previously set.
His cutter’s average velocity plummeted 3.3 mph between 2016 and 2020. The Dodgers became more careful with his usage. Both he and the team often cited mechanical trouble. He remained the closer, but he wasn’t on the mound for the final out of the World Series in 2020. It was Julio Urías.
The humbling twist prompted Jansen to throw more sliders and two-seam fastballs in 2021 with free agency around the corner after being reluctant to change. The adjustment continues paying dividends two years later.
“He's someone that has a special talent that probably got to the big leagues before he really even knew how to pitch and learned as he went,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said. “And that's why he's had staying power. That's why he continues to do this at an elite level.”
Jansen quickly surfaced as a clubhouse leader for the Red Sox, assuming the role alongside his fellow former Dodgers. Bloom noted Jansen’s willingness to open up about his experiences. About needing to adapt. About what is required physically and mentally to continue excelling. Bloom called the revelation “eye-opening.”
“I'm proud of who Kenley has become because he had not always been the most vocal guy,” Hernández said. “He's a guy that with what he's done on the field, every time he talks, people listen.”
Jansen said he needed to leave the Dodgers to dive into that role. In Los Angeles, he said, he was always “Kenley the kid.” He offered advice to younger pitchers, especially Latinos, toward the end, but it wasn’t a focus. The Braves received him differently, as a veteran who’s been through it all and could be a mentor. He became more confident.
“Routines, the mental side of it, has been huge,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “He believes in all that and he's been open about it. It's needed to be a big leaguer. It's not only your physical ability, it's the other part of it, right? I think him connecting with guys, it has actually helped our mental skills coach, as far as he has more customers now than probably in the past.”
For Jansen, it’s a thrill to play in Boston and at historic Fenway Park, the way it was to play in Los Angeles for Jackie Robinson’s franchise. The vibes are different, but he’s comfortable. He loves playing for Cora. He’s enjoyed reuniting with Turner, Hernández, and Alex Verdugo. He’s at ease, smoothly fitting into his surroundings with one notable exception: It’ll always be Lakers over Celtics.
“L.A. will forever be my home,” Jansen said. “That's where I'm raising my kids. But I love being in Boston right now. This is the place I want to be and play every day.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.