As fans and the Dodgers front office look ahead to the 2020 season, what does the future hold for Kenley Jansen and the back end of the Dodgers bullpen?
Obviously the Dodgers’ bullpen did not perform well in the NLDS, namely in Game 5. Now that the dust has settled, in retrospect, it’s easy to see that Dave Roberts should have known not to throw Joe Kelly out on the mound for the tenth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS.
The reasoning behind this is that Kelly had not been used for multiple innings since August 24th, and an elimination playoff game in extra innings doesn’t seem like the time to experiment. Kelly also didn’t look right in the ninth.
Even though he threw a clean inning, he did it with 15 consecutive curveballs (he normally throws his curve 37.4% of the time). This likely indicated he was lacking command of his fastball and changeup. Perhaps this was a warning sign that should have been acknowledged by the Dodgers manager.
Maybe Kelly’s success against the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series was still resonating with Roberts, but he at least should have brought in Kolarek to face Soto and then brought in Kenley to finish the inning, as opposed to sticking with Kelly.
Roberts even left Kelly in the game after Kendricks’ grand slam, which was promptly followed with an opposite-field single to catcher Yan Gomes, before turning to Kenley.
In contrast to Roberts’ playoff strategy, Nationals manager Dave Martinez used a one-two punch of Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson in high-level situations in the series, whether to preserve a lead or maintain a deficit.
Even though Doolittle and Hudson did not know which inning they would be called upon in a game, they knew they’d be in late when it counts. Martinez didn’t hesitate to call on these guys, despite the fact that Doolittle had an up and down season, and that Hudson had been acquired from Toronto at the deadline with little closing experience.
The contrast of such a strategy, as compared to Roberts’ more spontaneous plan, was painfully apparent to Dodgers fans everywhere at the end of Game 5.
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What does this mean for next year? Roberts needs to rebuild his trust in Kenley. I’m not advocating that Kenley should be the end-all-be-all closer, regardless of the strength of his performance, but Roberts needs to trust him in high leverage situations when he’s on.
After a lackluster July and August, the big right-hander rebounded with a strong September. However, even after the late-season turnaround, Roberts was reluctant to go to Kenley in clutch situations in the NLDS.
Even though Kenley had a disappointing season, he has the tools to be a viable late-inning reliever in 2020, especially if he continues to develop his slider. He only threw it 12.3% of the time, and that number should increase with his decreasing fastball velocity.
He tends to use the slider as a chase pitch, throwing it out of the zone 60% of the time, and the pitch’s more than 4 inches of vertical break more than average makes it an effective one. Even with throwing the slider so infrequently, Jansen was very good at limiting hard contact in 2019, ranking in the 98th and 99th percentiles in opposing exit velocity and hard-hit %, respectively.
With a more slider-heavy Kenley Jansen and a better-utilized Joe Kelly (not to mention any possible off-season acquisitions and/or Kenta Maeda stays in the bullpen), the Dodgers bullpen should be more of an asset than a liability in 2020.