Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen calls being left out of All-Star game 'an insult'

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) delivers a pitch during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Sunday, July 4, 2021, in Washington. The Dodgers won 5-1. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Kenley Jansen was sure he would be named to the National League All-Star team. He studied the landscape. The Dodgers’ closer determined his numbers and impact on one of the best teams in the majors were too impressive to be overlooked.

But Major League Baseball’s All-Star rosters announcement Sunday didn’t include Jansen. All he could do was laugh.

“Laughing in disappointment,” Jansen said Monday at Marlins Park, lathered in sweat following a pregame workout. “It’s like an insult, kind of. I guess I gotta put up a zero ERA and have zero blown saves, probably, for me to get recognized.”

Jansen has neither of those, but the three-time All-Star isn’t far off. The 33-year-old right-hander began Tuesday with 21 saves in 23 chances and a 1.30 earned-run average across 34-2/3 innings. He hasn’t surrendered a run in 13 appearances since May 28. He’s reverted to his pre-2018 dominance, a throwback to when he was considered the best reliever in the major leagues.

The vintage performance primarily stems from increased velocity. Jansen’s signature cutter is averaging 92.4 mph — the hardest he’s thrown the pitch since 2017. He’s touched 97 and regularly reaches the mid-90s.

To unearth that level again, Jansen had to roam out of his comfort zone in the offseason. Physically, he trusted Brandon McDaniel, the Dodgers’ director of player performance, to focus him on getting leaner to become more athletic and explosive. Mentally, Jansen said, he started seeing a therapist for weekly virtual sessions immediately after last season ended — when Julio Urías, not Jansen, closed out Game 6 of the World Series for the Dodgers’ first championship in 32 years.

“Even when you have great days, man, it doesn’t matter,” Jansen said. "We learn from it. You learn from the outing. You learn from life. And I’m not afraid, shy to say that. I encourage people to be that way.”

Jansen said clearing his mind has allowed him to maximize his physical performance. He said he’s now able to easily recognize when his mechanics are off and quickly correct them before an inning combusts. Jansen displayed the ability in the ninth inning Saturday at Washington when he gave up a single and a walk before he struck out the next two batters and retired the third with a lineout.

“The last two years I was pitching with a gorilla, a huge gorilla, on my back,” Jansen said. “When you go through a rough stretch sometimes you let that gorilla get big. I got to go and learn how to take that gorilla off my back and be free again, zero weight, and go pitch. That's the mentality.”

His mechanics always start with his hips. That’s why you see him on the mound shaking them when he comes set in his delivery. Sometimes it’s a subtle shimmy. Other times it’s more pronounced. There’s no science to the movement. It’s all feel.

“It's not that I want to do that,” Jansen said. “It's just when I'm pitching out there, I'm so focused and I'm like, 'My hips got to throw. My hips got to throw the ball.' It's not my arm. My hips got to throw it. My arm is just a whip.”

Jansen’s rediscovery of velocity comes after he was forced to figure out a way to become less reliant on his cutter the last two years. That included adding a pitch that’s widely called a slider but acts more like a slurve or even a curveball. Which is it?

“A distraction pitch,” Jansen said, “so they don't sit on my cutter all the time.”

Jansen threw three straight of them San Francisco slugger Buster Posey to strike him out last week. After the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he had never seen that sequence from Jansen. Over the weekend, Jansen debuted a high leg kick against Washington's Josh Bell to throw off his timing.

“It's been nice to see him round into a complete pitcher at times,” pitching coach Mark Prior said last month.

In the end, after two years of frustration, Jansen believes he’s a better pitcher today, in the final year of his contract, than at his peak in 2017. He’s already the Dodgers’ all-time saves leader. He thought he should’ve been an All-Star for the fourth time — and he still might be as an injury replacement — but that didn’t happen Sunday. All he could do was laugh.

“I’m in a better place,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.