Sunday, February 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Dodgers' Jansen goes from catcher to closer, with knuckleballer's help

LOS ANGELES — The man who turned Kenley Jansen into a pitcher played 25 years in the major leagues. He would have played none if he had not adapted.

"I played a little first. I played a little third, and I pitched," Charlie Hough said. "I wasn't really good at any of them."

Actually, Hough was a pretty good pitcher in Class A for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But he spent six months in the Army Reserve, and when he tried to pitch again, his shoulder hurt. His future, he could tell, would be working at Hialeah racetrack, two blocks from his home in Florida. Then a scout named Goldie Holt showed him how to throw a knuckleball. Hough gave it a try.

"It was no longer a question," he said. "I had average stuff, and now I had a sore arm. If you want to compete, you compete. You find something."

That was in 1969. Forty years later, back in the low minors, Hough was the coach and Jansen the pupil. For five seasons, the Dodgers had watched Jansen struggle to raise his average above .230. He was an oversized catcher from Curaçao who was not especially sound at managing a pitching staff. But, oh, could he throw.

Representing the Netherlands at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Jansen starred on defense, throwing out Ryan Braun at second base on a stolen-base attempt — from his knees. To De Jon Watson, then the Dodgers' vice president for player development, it reinforced the reality that Jansen's best tool, by far, was an overpowering arm.

That season, during a visit to the Dodgers' affiliate in Albuquerque, Watson leveled with Jansen, who was hitting .185. At 21, he had no future behind the plate.

"I said, 'It's time to have that conversation' — and he did not want to hear it," Watson said. "We sat down in the family room, talked for a little while. He felt like he wanted to think about it. I was like: 'There's not much to think about. Either you do this or we're gonna send you back to the house.' And he was like, 'Are you serious?'"

Jansen had grown up admiring major-league catchers, especially Bengie Molina and Henry Blanco. He was 6 feet 2 — already big for a catcher — when he signed at 17. The Dodgers had kept him there even as he grew three inches, because catchers are so hard to find.

But the bat never came around, and the Dodgers saw it before Jansen did.

"I never gave up," Jansen said. "I always wanted to hit and be a catcher. That's how I felt about it. When I look back, it's like, 'What was I thinking?' I didn't want to do it at the beginning. Now I'm like, 'Man, if I had known this, I would have done it from the beginning.' But everything happens for a reason, at the right time, at the right moment."

This postseason has been Jansen's moment. He threw a career-high 51 pitches to hold a late lead in a Division Series clincher last Thursday in Washington then worked a two-inning save at Wrigley Field on Sunday to even the National League Championship Series with the Chicago Cubs. He finished off Tuesday night's game, a 6-0 Dodgers victory that gave Los Angeles a 2-1 lead.

Jansen made his first All-Star team in July while setting a career high in saves (47) with a 1.83 ERA, his lowest in a full season. He averaged more than 13 strikeouts per nine innings for the seventh year in a row, relying almost exclusively on a fastball he holds like a regular four-seamer but imparts with a natural cut.

Mariano Rivera, the retired New York Yankees great, threw the pitch the same way, creating late, sharp, sideways action without really trying. Mike Borzello, the former Dodgers bullpen catcher who had worked in New York with Rivera, made the connection for Jansen.

"I don't try to do too much with it; I don't try to manipulate it," Jansen said. "When you're young, you try to manipulate it, and he just told me, 'Don't — Mo would never manipulate it, either.'"

When he was a catcher, Jansen said, his ball would not cut when he threw to bases. From the mound, though, it was different. The late life gave him a premium pitch right away, and from his first bullpen session with Hough — at the Dodgers' Class A affiliate in San Bernardino, California — he could control it.

Jansen threw his first several pitches letter-high. Hough liked what he saw but asked Jansen to throw a few down low instead. Jansen did it with ease. Hough made sure not to instruct him to throw a certain way.

"That had been my thought for years with players that attempt to make a switch to pitching: The reason we're thinking a guy should pitch is he has a great arm," Hough said. "Let's not take it away from him. Let's let him throw the way he wants to throw — and then over the course of a year or two, then you refine it. Not 'teach him how to pitch.' Let him teach us what he does."

That approach had worked before. As a minor league instructor with the Angels, Cubs manager Joe Maddon helped oversee the transition of a struggling minor-league catcher, Troy Percival, who went on to become the team's career saves leader. Former Cub Jason Motte, who closed out the 2011 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals, was also a catcher in the minors.

"Don't give him instruction — let him throw; wind up and throw the ball," Maddon said, recalling the advice of Bob Clear, the coach who converted Percival and encouraged his quirky mechanics. "Remember the really high leg kick? You look at Jansen's windup, it's awkward. And you see how violent Jason Motte is, too. So I think when you make that transition from a catcher, these are normally very aggressive people. Let them go."

Jansen did not need much refining, besides a few pointers on balance and using his bulk — he is now listed at 270 pounds — to drive to the plate. In Hough, he had the perfect mentor, a grandfatherly figure with decades of wisdom who cracked jokes, kept things simple and put young prospects at ease.

"The way he introduced it to me, he brought the fun back to the game," Jansen said. "It ran smooth."

Watson noticed a different demeanor in Jansen. As much as he resisted the switch, Watson said, Jansen knew deep down that his bat was too weak for the majors. Isolating his real strength, and honing it under Hough, gave Jansen a kind of swagger, the self-assurance so essential to rising through the minor-league grind.

His failures as a hitter helped, too.

"When you stand on the mound as a regular pitcher, you kind of think everybody can hit," Hough said. "But it's really hard to do. So if you struggle hitting, you know how hard it is. You can just attack. You can trust a good throw. And he does that."

Jansen has made enough good throws to put himself in position for a rich payday in free agency this winter. If he wins the World Series before he gets there, Jansen will have a chance to be on the mound at the end.

The last pitcher to do that for a team from Southern California? Percival, for the Angels in 2002. He caught Molina in his arms after the final out.

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