8/28/2014 5:30 P.M. ET
Once a catcher, Jansen now on record saves pace
At 26, closer became youngest Dodger to seal 100th win on Wednesday night
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
SAN DIEGO -- Before Saturday's Dodgers game at Petco Park, the Padres will induct into their Hall of Fame a player who was once considered an unsuccessful Minor League shortstop.
Who knew Trevor Hoffman would turn into one of the greatest closers of all time?
So, who's to say Kenley Jansen won't do the same? Once a scuffling Minor League catcher, Jansen became the youngest Dodger to reach 100 career saves when he sealed Clayton Kershaw's 16th win Wednesday night in Arizona.
"I never thought I'd do that," said the 26-year-old Jansen, one shy of Ron Perranoski for fifth on the franchise all-time list and only 61 behind Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne's club record. "It's crazy. It all happened so fast."
Jansen has a career-high 39 saves this year, one behind the league leaders, tied with Takashi Saito for sixth on the franchise single-season list and 16 behind Gagne's record of 55 in 2003.
Jansen can light up a radar gun, but mostly flies under the national radar. He's a strikeout record-breaker, but he's never been an All-Star. Jansen figures the accolades will come, just like the other achievements in his career.
"I was blessed with an arm, that's where my talent is," he said. "I believe in God and never lost faith. This was just meant to be."
But when Jansen was encouraged to make the position switch, he wasn't so sure. He thought that after 4 1/2 Minor League seasons as a catcher with a .229 average, the club had given up on him as a hitter and was just giving him one more shot.
"They made me a pitcher because I couldn't hit, but I always thought I was going to hit, right to the day of the transition," said Jansen, who made the move under the advisement of Minor League vice president De Jon Watson, who convinced Jansen that pitching could be his ticket to the Major Leagues.
"I pitched a little bit in Little League in Curacao, but I thought pitching was boring and I never wanted to do it. When I made the transition, I was fighting it a little bit, because I still thought I would hit. Then I remember a 10-pitch inning in [Class A Advanced] with two strikeouts, and I said to myself, 'OK, I can do this.'"
Jansen made the switch in the middle of the 2009 season, and he said he didn't go all-in on the pitching gig until he was placed on the 40-man roster that winter. Rather than being boring, pitching had become Jansen's ticket to The Show. On July 23, 2010, one year after becoming a pitcher, Jansen became a Major League pitcher.
Jansen has overcome the typical command problems of youth, had to learn the nuances of his job on the fly -- like holding runners on after being rushed -- and even endured heart surgery along the way.
"Success makes it fun, and making a batter swing and miss makes it fun," Jansen said. "I just have fun with it. That's what [Minor League pitching coach] Charlie Hough taught me. He's the one that made me who I am. He made this fun, made me laugh and made me willing to learn. Thanks to him, I'm here today."
And Jansen is also here thanks to his naturally deceptive cutter, one that sometimes draws comparisons to his idol, Mariano Rivera. Jansen occasionally throws a slider, but mostly he relies on a cutter that can touch 98 mph on a good night, or barely break 90 on a bad one, all depending on whether he has his mechanics in order.
"He's still learning, actually," said manager Don Mattingly. "Obviously, we've seen him gain confidence. He bounces back from tough ones, and that's what you really want out of that guy, a short memory. He hasn't shied away from pressure situations. He's handled everything well and he can keep getting better."
Just as Hoffman was used as an example of the possibilities when the Dodgers sold Jansen on relieving, now Jansen is used as the example. Rookie teammate Pedro Baez spent six years developing into the best defensive third baseman in the organization, but hitting? Not so much. So after the 2012 season, Watson came to Baez with the same sales pitch he used on Jansen, but now he had Jansen as an in-house success story.
"That's what De Jon told me, that pitching would be my best chance to make the Major Leagues, just like Kenley," said Baez. "And here I am."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.