Jansen's fastball cut from same cloth as idol
LA's closer-in-training uses movement of Mo's trademark pitch
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Dodgers' closer is not Mariano Rivera, but someday it might be his "copycat."
Coming into camp, manager Don Mattingly said it's Jonathan Broxton, but even if he regains his All-Star form, Broxton will be a free agent after this season. Hong-Chih Kuo, coming off a record-breaking season, is there to share the load, but management holds its breath every time he makes a pitch with that miraculous arthritic elbow.
So the closer of the future -- sooner or later -- is Kenley Jansen, who is already drawing comparisons to his idol and the best closer ever, the 11-time All-Star Rivera, because of something that can't be taught, explained or intentionally duplicated.
"My ball naturally cuts," Jansen said of the darting sideways movement of his fastball that makes it difficult for hitters to square the bat barrel on the ball. "It just has life on it. I throw a four-seam fastball, and when I want to throw a cutter, I spin the ball around and spread the fingers just a little and press with my middle finger and I know it's going to cut. When I started pitching, I was playing around with it and it worked right away.
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"It's a good pitch for me, especially when I'm ahead in the count, because the hitters can't recognize it. Look at Mariano, he's been throwing it for how many years? Why not me, too?"
Dodgers catcher Dioner Navarro, who caught Rivera during three Spring Trainings with the Yankees, said Jansen's grip sounds familiar.
"That's what Mariano does, only he keeps his fingers together," Navarro said. "He's trying to copycat him."
Rivera's cutter, basically his only pitch, developed by accident after he had already been promoted to Major League closer. Warming up for an appearance in Detroit in 1997, his straight fastball started moving unexpectedly. The Yankees even tried to get Rivera back to throwing the straight fastball but abandoned the effort when his cutter turned out to be tougher to hit.
Nobody without the name of Posada has caught more Rivera pitches than Mike Borzello, for more than a decade the Yankees' bullpen catcher and now doing the same for the Dodgers. He was catching Rivera when that cutter inexplicably appeared, and here's how he compares Jansen's:
"The similarities start and stop with what his ball does naturally," said Borzello. "Kenley throws a four-seamer and tries to throw it straight and it has late cutting action that you just don't see often. I don't think he even realizes what it does, he's so new to pitching.
"Mariano can pinpoint that pitch now, but not at the beginning. Kenley's pitch has the same action. Where he goes from here will be fun to see. He asks me about Mariano. I told him everything -- how he prepares, his routine during a game, his demeanor. I gave him a video of Mariano that he's watched a lot. I'll say this -- there isn't a better person to mold himself after."
Jansen, a native of Curacao, gained notoriety for throwing out basestealers from his knees during the World Baseball Classic two years ago but was converted from a weak-hitting catcher to the mound during that 2009 season.
He opened the 2010 season in Class A and ended it closing games in the Major Leagues, dominating at Double-A Chattanooga in between and saving the Double-A All-Star Game. He earned a save in his second Major League appearance.
The 23-year-old was called up by the Dodgers at the end of July and finished the season 1-0 with a 0.67 ERA and four saves in 25 games. Rivera didn't get his first save until he was 26.
Jansen struck out 41 with 15 walks in 27 innings and his ERA was the fourth lowest by a rookie with a minimum of 25 innings in Major League history. Right-handers hit only .064 off him. He averaged a ridiculous 13.67 strikeouts per nine innings.
"I didn't think I would be this good this fast, but I'm not there yet," said Jansen, who had only 56 2/3 Minor League innings when he was called up to the Majors.
As if the cutter isn't weapon enough, Jansen finished the season with a "loopy" slider but arrived at Spring Training with what Navarro called a "nasty" one, thanks to Braves starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens, another native of Curacao and Jansen's Little League teammate.
"Last year my slider was kind of loopy because I started it back here [by his head]," Jansen said. "Now I wait until I release it and put the pressure at the end. It has a sharper break and it's a lot faster. It looks more like a fastball. Jair Jurrjens helped me with it back home. He helped me a lot. I've known him since I was 7 years old."
Navarro said he'll get Rivera's cell number and set up a conversation between the 11-time All-Star and the closer-in-training that idolizes him.
"I hope to meet him one day," said Jansen. "I'd just sit with him and talk and pick his brain."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.