League & Jansen Fight For Dodger Bullpen Dominance

Of all the predictions I made heading into 2012, there was not a single one I had more total confidence in than “Javy Guerra would lose his closing job in Los Angeles to Kenley Jansen.” After all, Guerra was an unheralded prospect who collected 21 saves in 2011 largely due to being the right place at the right time on a Dodger team which had already lost Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Vicente Padilla, & Jansen to injury. Jansen, meanwhile, was merely coming off a season which he set a record for highest K/9 rate (min. 50 innings).

It didn’t take long before we saw that prediction come true; Guerra blew several April saves and lost his job to Jansen by the first week of May, never to regain it. Jansen became one of the more dominating closers in the game when healthy—and more on that in a second—and so you’d think that he’d enter 2013 secure in his role racking up saves. Well, think otherwise, at least if GM Ned Colletti’s comments to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com about Brandon League can be believed…

“We think, after what he did, closer is the role,” Colletti said. “That’s what he was in Seattle in 2011 and part of 2012. We acquired him and the last few weeks, obviously he was very, very solid. So that’s where we start.”

…and so for the second consecutive year, Jansen looks like he’ll be entering the season as the second banana to a clearly inferior teammate, ruining his fantasy value. What Colletti of course left out there is what caused League to only be the closer for “part of 2012”, and that’s that he’d flat-out lost the job to former bartender Tom Wilhelmsen with the Mariners before being traded to the Dodgers on July 31. After a good turn as Seattle’s closer in 2011—an opportunity he only received because David Aardsma was injured, it should be noted—League’s control fell apart in 2012, leading to a walk rate (9.8%) in Seattle more than twice than it had been in 2011 (4.0%).

When League arrived in Los Angeles on July 31, mainly to replace Josh Lindblom after the rookie had been dealt to Philadelphia in the Shane Victorino deal the same day, he didn’t take over the ninth inning—and he definitely didn’t make a great impression. That’s actually putting it nicely, because over his first seven games, he was atrocious, allowing 12 baserunners and six earned runs in five innings. League’s explanation was that his sinker was “flat”; Don Mattingly admitted that he was “a little skittish” about bringing League into games. Just what you want out of a trade deadline acquisition, right? Meanwhile, Jansen was humming along with a 13/1 K/BB and five saves through his first eight appearances of August. Change was not in the air.

But as it so often is, change is sometimes forced upon you. In this case, late August saw two major events which may impact the bullpen for years to come. Jansen suffered a recurrence of a cardiac issue which had plagued him in 2011, which cost him most of the last month of the season and required October surgery. (He is feeling better and expects to be ready for camp.) League, after a few days out of action, worked with Dodger coaches Rick Honeycutt & Ken Howell to fix his mechanics, as this in-depth look from Chad Moriyama shows.

With his mechanics back in sync, League looked like a new pitcher. Working mainly in the middle innings, he reeled off six consecutive scoreless innings to end August. With Jansen on the shelf, League received his first save opportunity on September 1, converting it and each of the next five he saw. In 21 games after August 17, League struck out 22 in 22.1 innings, allowing just a single earned run, and retaining the ninth inning even when Jansen returned on September 20—a stunning turnaround from the pitcher who had struggled so terribly after joining the team.

Despite League’s great finish, I doubt there’s too many who would argue that he’s better than Jansen, who trails only Craig Kimbrel in K/9 rate over the last two seasons. (Yes, even more than Aroldis Chapman.) That’s especially so considering Jansen has the opportunity to be even better in 2013. Not only is he hopefully past the cardiac issues, look at his velocity charts over the last two years:

As you can see, for most of 2012 he’d had difficulty maintaining his 2011 heat, leading to no shortage of hand-wringing despite the fact that it hadn’t hurt his effectiveness. But see how it clipped up noticeably at the end of the season? There’s a reason for that:

“I was just playing around with the two-seamer and saw some great late movement,” Jansen said. “I took it into a game against Colorado. I threw a 90-mph cutter, then A.J. [Ellis, catcher] asked me for a two-seamer and I hit 95. That’s when I realized that I was staying behind the two-seamer but wasn’t staying fully behind the cutter.

“From that point, my cutter got to 96 and touched 97.”

That game against Colorado was on September 29. Jansen saw 15 batters between that game and three more, striking out eight of them and allowing only two hits. Yet despite his continued great performance, Jansen isn’t going to begin the year as the closer for the Dodgers due to the presence of League.

From a pure baseball point of view, I’d argue that’s not a bad thing for the Dodgers. We’ve long argued that chaining your best reliever to the ninth isn’t exactly the best usage of assets, and if League can retain any of 2012’s mechanical changes to hang onto the closer role, the Dodgers suddenly have a beastly setup man in Jansen free to shut down the highest leverage opportunities.

From a fantasy perspective, it clearly hurts simply because Jansen won’t be picking up saves. That said, I’d argue it almost doesn’t matter. Knock him down a few pegs if you must, but the pure strikeout stuff makes him a must-own in any league, and the obvious benefits of holds and being the next man up if and when League falters make Jansen doubly appealing.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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