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2023 In Review: Kenley Jansen Is Closing Out His Legacy

Badly placed pun aside, will Jansen’s modest decline be a liability in 2024?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

2023 In One Sentence

Kenley Jansen had one of the worst years of his career. . . which was still good enough to get him into the All-Star game and he was a noticeable improvement upon 2022’s closing situation.

The Positives

Last offseason, many fans lowered their pitchforks for about a day or so when the Chaim Bloom-led Red Sox, fresh off a 2022 season that saw their bullpen finish with the fourth-highest ERA and eighth-most blown saves, signed potential future Hall of Famer Kenley Jansen to a 2 year, $32 million contract. I wasn’t a big Matt Barnes guy, nor was I huge on Craig Kimbrel, due to not being huge on my blood pressure rising to heart attack levels. So going into the 2023 season, I hoped that if Kenley Jansen, who at the time was 35, played anywhere near up to the Cooperstown level he played at for 12 seasons with the Dodgers or in 2022 with the Braves, we’d have the most secure closer in Boston since Koji Uehara. Yeah, I said it.

For the first part of the season, it looked like a fantastic investment. Through 12 appearances, Kenley had 17 strikeouts in 11 innings. He had walked just 3 batters and given up just 1 run. Through June 23 he had struck out 30 in 25 innings and accumulated 16 saves. That was enough for an All-Star selection, the Red Sox’s only representative in Seattle. In the first few months of this season, even with Jansen missing a little time with a back injury, I cannot tell you how at ease it made me to know that the bullpen had a guy (really two guys, counting Chris Martin, and there will be more on him in a couple weeks) that they could count on following 2022’s consistent late-inning disasters.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Los Angeles Dodgers
Kenley came here somewhat on the pretense he’d be playing with friend Kiké Hernandez. At least he could spend most of the year with Chaim Bloom... oh, wait...
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Negatives

Good things can’t last forever, and Kenley melted down in three consecutive games against the White Sox, Marlins and Blue Jays, getting tagged for seven hits in three total innings of work. From there on out, though he was mostly solid, he was good for one Kimbrel Jansen moment every couple of weeks. To the dismay of everyone to took the over on 78.5 wins in April, he was shut down for the season with hamstring problems on September 13, after originally being placed on the COVID list. All told, despite being mostly dependable, Jansen had arguably the worst year of his storied career. Not counting 2020’s abbreviated season, he logged career lows in innings pitched (44 2/3), appearances (55), ERA (3.63), and FIP (3.66), and he had his lowest strikeout rate since 2018.

Some More Positives

That being said, I don’t want this to be a diss session on Kenley. I would gladly — GLADLY! — take a bad day with Kenley Jansen than a good day with 95% of the other relievers on the free agent market in 2022, especially with the rest of the pitching staff having another down year. So, consider this another positives section. He proved he still had it both with the eye test and the analytics. The cutter he went to almost 80% of the time had a 28.6% strikeout rate on its own, and at age 35, his cutter’s velocity increased 3 miles per hour to an impressive 95 MPH on the speedometer. Oh, and by the way, this season saw him secure his 400th career save and move into seventh on the all-time saves list with 420. When Kenley was on, he was on. Period.

Best Game/Moment

I mean, come on. If you watched a second of NESN this season, you saw the cut to the commercial that featured Jansen on April 14, when he blew Mike Trout away on strike three, followed that up by keeping Shohei Ohtani guessing, and then ended the game by fanning old friend Hunter Renfroe. Not that an all-time closer like Kenley is a David by any means, but it’s like if David beat Goliath and then decided he wanted to beat another Goliath real quick, and still had enough energy to strike Hunter Renfroe out.

The Big Question

It’s probable that Kenley Jansen is going to keep pushing further up the all-time saves list as Boston’s full time closer in 2024, but how reliable will he be?

Despite logging the worst numbers of his career in several categories in 2023, he was only barely worst than his lone season in Atlanta in 2022. He was still a strong second-tier closer in baseball, which makes him about the only player besides Rafael Devers and Triston Casas who has a case that he’s in the upper quadrant of his position in value. I think it’s doubtful he slides to unplayable levels, and I think it’s likely he’s still in the Josh Winckowski/Chris Martin/Brennan Bernardino “really reliable in high leverage situations” section of the bullpen.

2024 and Beyond

Jansen is not getting any younger, so there’s a good chance this is the last we see of him. As far as the “beyond” part of this question goes... even with the scattered tribulations of 2023, you might be seeing him on a plaque in Cooperstown by this time next decade.