How Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen rebuilt his mind and body to reach 400 saves

The path to 400 saves for Kenley Jansen began long ago. The first steps were taken July 25, 2010, at Dodger Stadium, to be exact, one day after he’d made his major league debut for the Dodgers. The 22-year-old Jansen entered after eight scoreless innings from Clayton Kershaw and induced a pop-up to short from Carlos Beltran before getting Jason Bay and Ike Davis to strike out swinging. Fifteen pitches and save No. 1 was in the books, securing a 1-0 win for the Dodgers over the Mets.

Fourteen seasons, 780 2/3 innings, 1,124 strikeouts, 3,088 batters faced, two heart surgeries, a trio of All-Star appearances, a World Series championship and three teams later, Jansen took the mound for the Red Sox against the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night. Coincidentally, the Braves were the second big league team Jansen ever pitched for, notching 41 saves for Atlanta last year after his first 350 came with the Dodgers between 2010 and 2021. Jansen needed 15 pitches on Wednesday to reach the mark, pumping cutters at 99 mph. He got Sean Murphy to fly out to center before Eddie Rosario doubled. But Jansen buckled down and got Ozzie Albies to fly out and Travis d’Arnaud to strike out. He pointed to the sky and appeared to let out a big sigh of relief.


Jansen pointing to the sky after save No. 400. (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

The list of pitchers who’ve recorded 400 saves is short. Jansen is just the seventh in history to do so with Craig Kimbrel (397) about to become the eighth. The three next closest active pitchers highlight the rarity of the feat: 35-year-old Aroldis Chapman with 316 saves, 38-year-old Mark Melancon with 262 and 29-year-old Edwin Díaz, who’s out for the year with a knee injury, at 205.

So much had to go right for Jansen to get to this point. And yet so much went wrong for a prolonged period, making it no sure thing he would reach this milestone. To get there has meant first reinforcing his mind, and then rebuilding his body, taking a journey from talented youngster to wizened veteran, one who understands that his emotions, muscles, training and focus are all key factors in every pitch he throws.


Jansen has been outspoken about how starting therapy after the 2020 season rescued him personally and reinvigorated his career.

“If I (hadn’t) gotten help, I probably wouldn’t — I think I would have gone downhill faster,” Jansen told The Athletic recently. “I feel like that is why I’m doing all this stuff, I’m challenging myself in all these other areas.

“I feel better than 25 (years old) and the reason I feel better is because I have this,” he said, pointing to his head. “I was young and scared, afraid of something. I was on a high peak, doing really well, but I didn’t have this, and now that I have this, I feel better. I’m taking this Kenley 100 percent over the 25-year-old Kenley.”

This season, the 35-year-old is now getting the same elite results he delivered 10 years ago, and that’s no small feat. Though he credits therapy the last few years for getting his mind in a better place to be able to perform, there’s been a physical aspect, too, one that he tackled this offseason as he continues to push himself further in his career.

This past winter, coming off a season where he posted a 3.38 ERA and 32.7 percent strikeout rate, Jansen felt there was more he wasn’t tapping into. He’d maintained his regular workouts at his spacious home gym, but his bullpens at Palos Verdes High School near his home in Los Angeles felt sluggish. Jansen sent video of his mound sessions to his agent Chris Sisto of Wasserman Sports; Sisto, who’s known Jansen his whole career, suggested Jansen’s stride looked shorter than normal. Sisto had an idea and reached out to a colleague at Wasserman who runs basketball operations. With Jansen standing at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, Sisto thought a basketball trainer might be better equipped at working with a bigger-bodied athlete like Jansen.

Enter Melissa Livingston.

 

Livingston, who has a doctorate in physical therapy and owns Return to Sport Physical Therapy in Los Angeles, works with Wasserman as a physical therapist and sports performance specialist for NBA players and does work ahead of the NBA draft combine.

As Jansen grew older he’d become much less flexible, and while he’d learned some stretching routines from the Dodgers that he’d maintained a couple of days a week over the last few years, they weren’t the most ideal moves as his body aged.

The first thing Livingston did was use an app called DartFish that took slow-motion video of Jansen’s pitching mechanics and translated that into usable data for areas to target in therapy.

“We break down, is he loading his hip, is he loading his knee, is he rotating through his thoracic spine, all that,” Livingston said. “So we get really specific data numbers on that and then obviously that gives us a little target on where to attack during our sessions.”

The DartFish data revealed that Jansen wasn’t loading his glute and hip enough and that his back leg was popping up early in his delivery. Jansen gets a significant amount of power from his back leg as he’s going through his rotation on the mound, so that offered some clues on how to treat him for better results.

Livingston started with soft tissue release and mobility work in his groin and glute then moved into neural activation with several other connected areas from the hip to the hamstrings.

“Sometimes PTs take an approach of, ‘Oh your shoulder hurts, let me just work on your shoulder’ and then they forget about the other stuff,” Livingston said. “So we take a holistic approach and really take numbers and data to everything, break down side-to-side movements and give him really specific feedback, then have him go pitch right after the mobility and neuro activation so he gets that good sequence going.”

Six days a week, for about an hour and a half a day from mid-January through early February before Jansen headed to spring training, Livingston worked with the pitcher to help make him more limber on the mound. After their sessions, he’d head to Palos Verdes High for a bullpen and send her video of his work so she could see whether he was loading properly based on their efforts and adjust their session accordingly the next day.

While most of the attention this spring was on whether Jansen had quickened his pace to fit the new pitch clock rules (he was the slowest pitcher in the league last year on the mound), the mobility work was a game-changer.

He immediately noticed the strength he gained just from loosening his muscles.

“The one thing I learned, when you get older, flexibility is going to get you through,” he said. “You have all that experience, but your body is not going to move like it was at 25 at 35 so just stay on top of things. No days off, it cannot be a day off. Even the days I know I’m down, I still go in there and stretch and make sure I’m on top of things, so that’s been valuable.”

The results have been eye-opening. Through 12 appearances, he’s allowed one earned run (on a night he pitched with back spasms), while striking out 35.4 percent of batters, his highest mark since his 2017 season when he finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award voting. Meanwhile, the 94.9 mph average velocity on his signature cutter is the hardest he’s thrown it in his career.

“I’ve been doing this (mobility work) understanding that I want to be better at something else,” he said. “Challenge yourself at something else and I feel like I challenged myself to be better in these other parts.”

During Jansen’s workouts, he’d also watch video of himself from the early part of his career to regain some of his older, quicker form.

“I have two TVs in my gym and while I’m working out I’m watching my highlights and my outings and trying to get back to what I was,” he said. “Sometimes like last year, (my velocity) flashed out and would go down and flash out so I definitely put work in, to work on my flexibility. And here it is. It even surprised me too. I’m loving it and I’m going to keep riding it.”

Aside from all of his physical and mental changes over the last few seasons, Jansen has embraced even more of a leadership role since joining the Red Sox. Those who played with him in Los Angeles have seen a different side of Jansen in Boston.

“He’s become a way better leader — and I’m not saying he wasn’t a good leader in LA — but he’s been more of a vocal leader,” said Kiké Hernández, who played with Jansen on the Dodgers from 2015-20. “It’s something we talked about when he came over here, and we needed him to be that and he has stepped into that role beautifully. He’s making an impact on every single bullpen arm, and even starters, too.”


Jansen was a force for the Dodgers for 12 seasons. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

One visible example of that leadership occurred on Opening Day. Rookie reliever Zack Kelly’s wild pitch allowed a run to score, and he issued a walk with the bases loaded allowing another run to cross. He was clearly dejected from the outing. After the game in the clubhouse, Jansen was seen in a deep conversation for several minutes with Kelly — showing him some tweaks to make, but also reassuring him after the rough outing.

“I want guys to have this,” Jansen said, pointing to his head. “When this is open, everything is going to improve around you.”

One day in spring training, Jansen had just finished a bullpen near the Red Sox clubhouse and saw a group of minor leaguers taking grounders off a machine on the turf outside the clubhouse. He jumped in line, to the amazement of the young minor leaguers, noting he needed to get some pitcher fielding drills in that day anyway. Teammates are teammates, no matter the level and Jansen wasn’t above working out with players almost half his age.

A less visible moment came on another day in camp. Each morning there are meetings among the players, staff and coaches covering different topics from money to media to family and social responsibilities. On one particular day, the mental skills coaches talked. Unplanned, Jansen got up to speak.

“He talked about how big a part mental skills play in his success and routine and how he prepares himself,” pitching coach Dave Bush said. “I didn’t know he was going to speak, he just opened up and he was very honest about struggles he’s had and what he does and how important it is to him. It was wonderful because mental skills can still be a topic people are not always open about, and the fact he was willing to share that with the group and express how important it is, hopefully it opened the eyes of some other guys that maybe were thinking about it or not sure how to approach it.”

Jansen has been outspoken about therapy because he’s experienced its benefits firsthand. For the first seven seasons of his career from 2010 to 2017, Jansen was the most valuable reliever in baseball with a 17.3 fWAR, according to FanGraphs. But a heavy workload in the 2017 postseason led to a down year in 2018. That offseason he had his second heart surgery for atrial fibrillation. He felt his career starting to slide. “I’m not going to lie, 2018 when I had the second surgery, it threw me off,” he said. “That’s when it started.”

He couldn’t work out that offseason, needed to prioritize sleep, improved his diet and had to be more mindful of his caffeine intake to stabilize his heart rate. As a result, the 2019 season produced some of his worst career numbers, including a 3.71 ERA. Jansen hoped for a rebound in 2020, but the pandemic altered those plans. He got COVID-19 just as the season began in July. One of his sons got sick shortly thereafter and his family hunkered down, but after an already tough two years professionally, it all started to feel like too much. Once he recovered from COVID-19, he returned to the Dodgers and helped the team through the 2020 playoffs, but he wasn’t the same and manager Dave Roberts turned to Julio Urías to close out the World Series championship as Jansen watched from the bullpen.

“I was happy with what we accomplished as a team, but deep down I wasn’t happy,” he said. “I’m a competitive guy and I can’t say, ‘I’m OK’, I wasn’t OK. I was watching the game on the side.”


Jansen’s one season with Atlanta wasn’t his best, but he still notched 41 saves. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

Jansen called that moment — feeling so much disappointment in the midst of his greatest career accomplishment — a wake-up call. Between that and suggestions from his agent and his wife, he knew it was time.

“My wife basically told me, ‘You’re going to see someone,’” Jansen said. “That’s when reality hit. All right. You think you’re at your bottom, but let’s try to get this fixed. And look who I am now.”

Jansen still sees his therapist consistently and has spoken with teammates and publicly about the merits of therapy. He did a public service announcement in Los Angeles in both English and Spanish, despite not speaking Spanish often because he feels he’s not as fluent as he wishes he were. Still, he knew he’d be able to reach more Los Angeles area residents by speaking their language.

“I’m not saying the world got sensitive, but I feel like the world got more aware, like, it’s OK,” Jansen said. “When you talk about mental (health), it’s not saying that I’m crazy, it’s not saying that I’m weak, it’s just, everybody is going to have challenges in their lives and why can I not be the voice to help you out of your challenges? I got help to get out of my challenges so I’m going to convince people of that.”

Now, with 400 saves on his resume and under contract through the end of 2024 in Boston, Jansen has a chance to inch even further up the saves record book. Billy Wagner (422), John Franco (424) and Francisco Rodriguez (437) could all be within reach this year, leaving just Lee Smith (478), Trevor Hoffman (601) and Mariano Rivera (652) ahead of him.

Jansen is just enjoying the fact he feels as good as has in years, while his teammates marvel at a player who only seems to be getting better.

“I don’t know if he’s working harder, but possibly harder and smarter, which is a great thing,” Hernández said. “Of course he’s had some health scares that make you think about the bigger picture of baseball, but I just think we’re seeing a really, really mature side of Kenley that I’m really glad I get to see firsthand.”

(Top photo of Jansen after recording his 400th save: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

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