Los Angeles Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen throws during a spring training baseball workout Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Kenley Jansen’s cardiologist had an unexpected suggestion for the Dodgers closer last fall.
After a recurrence of atrial fibrillation last August, Jansen was expecting to undergo surgery following the season, his second procedure in six years to address the issue. But even after examining Jansen, Dr. Koonlawee Nademanee told Jansen he was having a difficult time pinpointing which part of Jansen’s heart had caused the irregular heartbeat episode and suspected it was a combination of dehydration and the altitude in Denver that had been the main factors.
“For him, he didn’t even want to do that surgery,” said Jansen whose heart was shocked back into rhythm during the August episode. “He wanted me to go to Colorado and work out for a month to see if it would come back.
“He said go for a month, work out for a month and see if you get back into a-fib. … I said, ‘Naw, let’s do the surgery.’”
Jansen underwent the catheter ablation procedure in late November. Afterwards Nademanee told him that some very small veins near the site of his 2012 procedure had grown, were agitated by dehydration and were responsible for sending the irregular signals.
“‘Just go out and play,’” Jansen said Nademanee told him after the surgery. “He did his job. That’s what he does for a living and he’s the best doctor probably in the world doing that procedure. For him to tell me, ‘You’re good. You’re young. Go out there and compete.’”
The whole experience made Jansen more aware of his health. He dedicated himself to a healthier diet during the offseason, dropped 25 pounds and lowered his blood pressure. He no longer has to take any blood-thinning medication but still wears a heart monitor under his shirt, checking his heart rate during workouts and afterwards to make sure he stays in the appropriate ranges.
There is another set of numbers to which Jansen has become more attuned after an unsatisfactory 2018 season.
“Spin rate — I kinda like it,” he said after throwing a bullpen session on the first official day of workouts Wednesday.
Jansen said his pitches seemed to have more “life” already this spring than they did at times last season. After a spring training during which he was “slow-played” resulting in a hamstring injury and balky mechanics, the velocity on Jansen’s cut fastball dipped noticeably last year. But it was the lack of movement on that pitch that caused problems.
“For me, you can have a lot of velocity. But if you don’t have that life, you’re going to get hit,” Jansen said. “Velocity can drive you crazy. Velocity can create bad habits.”
When his cutter has its critical late movement, Jansen said his spin rate is well over 2200 rpm (around the major-league average for a four-seam fastball). At times last year, he admits, it dipped under 2000, even as low as 1600 rpm.
“He didn’t need to be (a few years ago). It was elite and don’t mess with it,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman joked about Jansen’s new-found awareness of spin rate. “I think it just gets back to his body being off and that contributing to certain pitch characteristics and him getting back to being elite.”
Jansen readily admits last spring’s light workload contributed to a rough April and May. This year, he joked he might ask to start the Cactus League opener.
“I feel, I don’t know, man — how can I explain it to you guys?” he said. “It’s like something in me is, ‘I’ve got to prove everybody wrong.’ … That’s all I want to do. I just want to come out here and compete in spring training — compete like I’m competing for a job instead of having a vacation.”
Friedman acknowledged that he has heard from fans about the Dodgers’ offseason moves — and non-moves like the decision not to sign a big-ticket free agent like Bryce Harper.
“I think part of it is the passion that our fans have. It’s both a blessing and a curse in that everyone has an opinion,” Friedman said. “You can go to Starbucks and get a coffee and your barista will tell you you need more pitching.
“Everyone has an opinion — and a strong opinion — which is great because it speaks to their involvement and how much they care. With that comes a lot of people who want things in that moment.”
Friedman said he expects to finalize a front-office role for Chase Utley “in the next week.” Utley retired following the 2018 season and the team is still “figuring out” how he can be involved in the organization.
“I think he can impact any area he decides to spend a lot of time on,” Friedman said. “Right now, it’s just about learning as much as he can about different aspects and then figuring out what areas he’s more interested in.
“But I think we’ll see him around our big-league club. Rancho (Cucamonga) being right down the street, I think there will be some aspects of that as well.”