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 shouted to the clubhouse attendants across the room, before punctuating it with a four-letter swear word.
Laughter broke out. Jansen was relaxed and even parried fresh saves on consecutive days at the weekend. Those two performances, both against the St. Louis Cardinals, were easily his worst of the season. He was untouchable until last Friday, giving up just one run with 17 strikeouts and three walks in his first 12 games. At the age of 35 he had reached another peak.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever felt,” said Jansen.
Just two days before the first stumble, he had experienced one of the highlights of his career and became only the seventh player in major league history to make 400 career saves in a 5-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.
After the game, Red Sox-designated batsman Justin Turner assembled the team to present a video of the conclusion.
Former Dodgers teammates Clayton Kershaw, Austin Barnes, Russell Martin, AJ Ellis and Eric Gagne appeared to congratulate him, 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 line-up card. Hernández gave him a guitar. The team offered a toast.
“It meant a lot to me, man,” said Jansen. “These are the guys who went through that pain, those sad moments and the happiest moment of winning the championship with me in 2020.”
Turner did the math. He was on the field in almost 300 saves by Jansen. He was with the numbers 100, 200 and 300 when they wore Dodger Blue. Being his teammate for 400 in their ninth season together offered a chance for reflection.
“Being on the field for those milestones,” Turner said, “was pretty cool.”
Jansen collected his first 350 saves in 12 years with the Dodgers. He went from transformed catcher to the majors’ best closer, a fan favorite with his vicious cutter and signature walk-out song. He became synonymous with the franchise’s historic success since 2013. He hoped he would never leave.
But the baseball business may erase his romance, and Jansen signed a one-year deal with the Braves instead. Jansen publicly beamed at the opportunity to play for Atlanta, the team he watched on TV in Curacao as a kid. Fred McGriff was his favorite player. Andruw Jones, Curacao’s first All-Star, was a hero. And yet the separation hurt. He admitted he wondered if a Dodgers reunion would be possible if he was given a free hand again after the season.
“It was difficult,” said Jansen. “It was hard for me to ask, ‘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 specific closer. Jansen meanwhile was ready to finally close the door. This time he entered the free hand, as he put it, “neutral.” He had moved on, looking for the best opportunity, wherever it was. The Red Sox and their $32 million two-year bid hit the market in early December.
Jansen said Los Angeles will always be his home outside of Curacao. He spent most of the off-season there. His family still lives there year-round. But he is content to close this chapter of his professional life.
“It’s a beautiful story that I experienced there,” said Jansen. “I will always remember those moments. But I’m fine if I don’t go back one more time.”
Hernández was Jansen’s teammate with the Dodgers for six seasons. He witnessed Jansen’s best two years – 2016 and 2017 – as his editor overwhelmed the batsmen time and time again. But he never saw what he saw of Jansen the night he made 400 saves.
Jansen came into play in the ninth inning to secure a three-run lead and immediately started at 97 mph. Later, with two outs and a runner at second base, he fired another cutter at 97 mph to start a clash with Atlanta’s Travis d’Arnaud. Then a 98-mile cutter. Then another. Then a 99-mile cutter. Then another.
Hernandez played shortstop. Turner was at second base. Nobody could believe it.
“I get JT’s attention and I’m like, ‘Look at the gun,'” Hernández recalled. “And the shock on his face was hysterical. He’s not a puppy. he is not a child And I’ve never seen him throw 99 before. Then he finished it off with a nasty slider. It was cool to see.”
Jansen attributed the increase in speed to a rush of adrenaline, knowing a milestone was within reach. The impetus was noticeably lacking two nights later against the Cardinals when he went out on a 93 throw and hit a four-pitch walk early in his performance. He was retired after giving up three hits, a walk and three runs without recording an out. The next day, two pitch clock violations resulted in a costly walk and he failed.
“I was floored, man,” said Jansen. “I won’t lie. In the first part I came back to earth. I just allowed the second one [the violations] Come to me. Learn from mistakes, yes, and move on.”
The Dodgers became accustomed to occasional errors from Jansen during his last four years with the team, sometimes across multiple appearances. He remained broadly effective but was unable to live up to the unsustainable expectations he had previously set.
His cutter’s average speed dropped 3.3 mph between 2016 and 2020. The Dodgers were more careful with his use. Both he and the team frequently cited mechanical problems. He stayed at the bottom, but it wasn’t him who stood on the mound in the 2020 World Series Finals. It was Julio Urías.
The humiliating turn of events prompted Jansen to throw more sliders and two-seam fastballs in 2021 while the free hand was at hand after he was reluctant to make a switch. The adjustment continues to pay dividends two years later.
“He’s someone with a special talent who probably made it into the big leagues before he even knew how to pitch and learned it in the process,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “And that’s why he had staying power. So he continues to do it at an elite level.”
Jansen quickly emerged as the Red Sox’s clubhouse manager, filling the role alongside his former Dodgers colleagues. Bloom noted Jansen’s willingness to speak openly about his experiences. About the need to adapt. About what it takes, physically and mentally, to continue to perform at your best. Bloom called the revelation “eye-opening”.
“I’m proud of who Kenley has become because he wasn’t always the loudest guy,” Hernandez said. “He’s a guy that people listen to every time he talks about what he’s done on the field.”
Jansen said he had to leave the Dodgers to dive into that role. In Los Angeles, he said he’s always “Kenley the boy.” Towards the end, he offered advice to younger pitchers, especially Latinos, but that wasn’t the focus. The Braves took him differently as a veteran who went through everything to learn from him. He became more confident.
“The routines and the mental side were tremendous,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “He believes in all of this and is open about it. It is necessary to be a big league player. It’s not just about your physical ability, it’s the other part of it too, right? I think that he’s connecting with guys, that’s actually helped our mental skills coach as he has more clients now than he probably has in the past.”
For Jansen, playing in Boston and historic Fenway Park is as thrilling as it was playing in Los Angeles for Jackie Robinson’s franchise. The mood is different, but he feels comfortable. He loves playing for Cora. He has enjoyed reunions with Turner, Hernández and Alex Verdugo. He’s comfortable and blends in seamlessly with his surroundings, with one notable exception: it will always be Lakers over Celtics.
“LA will always be my home,” said Jansen. “I’m raising my kids there. But I’m loving being in Boston right now. This is where I want to be and play every day.”