Kenley Jansen fortified Boston’s bullpen in 2023, but he’s looking for more in 2024

BALTIMORE — There were two days left in a disappointing regular season and Kenley Jansen was running sprints at Camden Yards.

Lap after lap alongside strength and conditioning coach Kiyoshi Momose, Jansen lumbered, sweat pouring from his face by the time he finished as his teammates took the field for batting practice.

On Friday night in a save situation, manager Alex Cora turned to Garrett Whitlock for the final two innings instead of handing the ball to Jansen in the ninth. After the game, Cora revealed his decision to shut Jansen down for the final few games. The veteran closer, who turned 36 on Saturday, hadn’t pitched since Sept. 13 when he landed on the COVID-19 injured list. Though he rejoined the team 10 days later, he hadn’t appeared in a game.

“You got to be realistic, the guy hasn’t pitched in 15 days and if he goes out there and gets hurt, that’s on me,” Cora said Saturday before the Red Sox fell 5-2 to the Orioles. “At one point, you got to be smart. We decided to shut him down and get him ready for next year.”

That didn’t mean it was time to relax with the season over for Jansen as evidenced by the hard workout on Saturday. In his mind, the work is just beginning. This season marked the first time since 2012 that Jansen hasn’t pitched in the postseason. For 10 straight seasons, he’d experienced playoff baseball and the void this year isn’t sitting well with him.

“I’m going to try to learn to be better next year,” Jansen said. “That’s why we play this game. At the end of the day, as a team, we didn’t make it. We failed as a team, as a group. So I got to be better myself, too, to help this team get back to where it belongs. I know I got one more year left here and I’m going to dedicate my offseason for that, to be better next year to try to help this team win a championship. So that’s my focus.”

A quick glance at the numbers shows a down year for Jansen, who signed a two-year, $32 million deal with the Red Sox last offseason. His 3.63 ERA and 3.66 FIP were both the second-worst of his career, while his 126 ERA+, 29 saves, 44 2/3 innings and 27.7 percent strikeout rate were also among career lows. The numbers themselves aren’t awful; Jansen was, after all, the lone Red Sox All-Star this summer after a strong first half. But the overall stats highlight the level at which Jansen has pitched throughout his lengthy career and show he can still be effective even without his best stuff.

Meanwhile, all of those numbers came in a year in which he notched his 400th career save. He currently sits seventh on the all-time saves list with 420, three ahead of Craig Kimbrel.

Though the Red Sox struggled on several fronts in 2023, the back end of the bullpen was a strength. Alongside Chris Martin, Jansen stonewalled opponents in the final innings. The Red Sox were second-best in the majors with a 73 percent save percentage while posting the fewest blown saves in baseball with just 16. The team also owns MLB’s best record (59-4) when leading after six innings.

“He had an excellent year,” Cora said of Jansen. “You’re going to blow saves, that’s part of it. But overall, if you look at the work, he was excellent for us.”

Jansen, though, is already ready to make some changes as he prepares for his 15th big league season. He’ll add in more cardio like he did on Saturday and plans to lift more, too, but lighter lifts with more repetitions and sets. He’s hoping to cut some body fat and focus on core strength. As he did last offseason, mobility will also be an important piece of the puzzle as he learns to work with his aging body.

The COVID-19 IL stint was the only time Jansen officially missed this season, but he was sidelined at points with hamstring and lower back tightness, issues he’s hoping to mitigate with his revamped offseason workouts.

“I think especially the older you get at this point now you start to get yourself more resistance with weights and also stretching,” Jansen said.

“I think that’s going to give you more longevity,” he added. “If I implement all those things … I think it’s going to give me more (resilience) for next year because like I said, I’m going to focus on one thing and that’s to play in October next year.”

Jansen was vocal about his frustrations that the Red Sox didn’t add more pitching at the deadline. He thought it would have given them a better chance at a wild-card spot. At the same time, the most veteran player on the Red Sox in terms of MLB service time has been encouraged by a slew of young pitchers he’s watched evolve and learn through good and bad stretches this season, from Kutter Crawford to Brayan Bello to Josh Winckowski, Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock.

“I’m telling all these guys, just don’t don’t take this offseason for granted,” he said. “Being in last place is not the best place to be. It sucks. So obviously we deal with it and now having this year, let that be your fuel for the offseason to get you where you belong. I’m encouraging all these guys to have a great offseason and come in in great shape and not just try to make the playoffs, but try to win this whole thing. That’s the attitude we should have.

“I have a few more years left to play this game,” he added. “If there’s five years left, I want to dedicate those five years because they go by fast … right now, my whole motivation is to dedicate this and finish on a strong note.”

(Top photo of Kenley Jansen: David Butler II / USA Today)

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