Jansen Finds His Calling On Pitcher's Mound
Converted Catcher Hits Stride With Inland Empire
Go out to an Inland Empire 66ers game and chances are you'll see at least one pretty good pitching prospect more nights than not.
The staff for the Dodgers' California League affiliate includes their last two top draft picks—righty Ethan Martin (2008) and lefty Aaron Miller (2009), but there's another pitcher among the group that's garnering some buzz of his own, righthander Kenley Jansen.
Jansen's path to the 66ers' mound has been far different than high-profile draftees like Martin and Miller. Jansen, 22, gained some notice last year for his role with the Dutch team that stunned the powerhouse Dominican Republic twice in the World Baseball Classic—as its starting catcher. Jansen was a fine defensive backstop with a cannon for an arm, but his bat limited his career potential behind the plate as he was just a .229/.311/.337 hitter in five minor league seasons.
The Dodgers decided to convert him to pitching last July, a move Jansen did not immediately embrace. But after making 12 appearances for Inland Empire last season and getting off to an event better start this season, Jansen has grown to appreciate—and embrace—his new role.
"I sat with them to talk about it and they tried to make me a pitcher," Jansen told the L.A. Daily News this spring. "Once I make the transition, I won't look back. Just keep looking forward. I will continue to learn and get better, and be the best I can be. I feel more comfortable every day."
Jansen posted a 4.63 ERA in 12 innings of relief work last year. He struck out 19 though, and showed off an electric fastball in the Arizona Fall League that sat in the mid-90s and could be ratcheted up as high as 98 mph.
Jansen's downfall last year was control, which was understandable, as he walked 11 and gave up 14 hits in his 12 innings. That hasn't been the case in 2010.
"He's developing some command and a little feel," Inland Empire pitching coach Charlie Hough said. "Basically, he's starting to look like a pitcher instead of just a plain old hard-thrower—and he throws pretty hard."
Through 11 appearances out of the Inland Empire bullpen, Jansen had given up just 15 hits and three walks in 18 innings of work. The strikeouts were still piling up as well, as he'd already whiffed 28 of the 65 hitters he faced thanks to his hard fastball and developing slider.
"His slider's coming along," Hough said. "He got an out (in an April outing) with a pretty good changeup. He is a hard-thrower that needs to learn how to pitch throwing hard and then adapt the other stuff to it, not the other way around—not learn how to throw the stuff then use his fastball."
Jansen hadn't allowed a run yet this season and had struck out at least one hitter in each of his appearances.
"The coaches say it looks like I've been doing it for awhile, but for me I still think I have to learn a lot," Jansen told the L.A. Daily News. "I try to put my best effort in and get better every day."
Working with Jansen has presented a different set of challenges for Hough than he has with most of the young pitchers coming through the 66ers clubhouse. But Hough also worked with Jansen last year with Inland Empire and has been able to develop a rapport with him.
"I try not to get too technical with him," Hough said. "Basically, I let him throw. Because I was his first (pitching) coach, he kinda trusts me. So I kinda leave it at that."
So far, so good.
A Deep Rotation
Martin got off to arguably the best start of the 66ers' staff. The 20-year-old's fastball was topping out at 95-96 mph and he showed better command than he did last year—not that he was bad in going 6-8, 3.87 for low Class A Great Lakes in his first full season.
Through three outings, the 20-year-old was 2-0, 1.80, having given up just three runs on 10 hits in 15 innings. He'd also put up a 20-5 strikeout-walk ratio.
"He's throwing really well," Hough said. "His command has been pretty good and it will get better. He has power stuff—power breaking ball, good changeup, good arm action. He's just got to get some innings in pro baseball."
Miller primarily played in the outfield during his first two years at Baylor before becoming a two-way player his junior year and pitching his way into the supplemental first round thanks to a low-to-mid 90s fastball and power slider. The 22-year-old lefty pitched 36 innings and went 3-1, 2.75 in his pro debut last year in the Rookie-level Arizona League and low Class A Midwest League.
Miller was winless after four starts with Inland Emire and had given up 17 hits and nine walks in 20 innings, producing a 4.05 ERA. However, he's registered 20 strikeouts, and most of that damage came in one outing against Stockton, when he was touched up for seven runs (five earned) in five innings.
"Sneaky fastball," Hough said. "Easy, easy delivery and the ball kinda sneaks up on the hitters. He has a ways to go throwing some breaking balls. He has good feel with the changeup."
Righthander Nathan Eovaldi pitched 10 innings through his two outings and gave up three runs on five hits, but he also walked seven and struck out just five. Eovaldi gives the 66ers another power arm, as his fastball can sit at 93-96 mph, but he still has work to do developing his curveball and changeup.
"Overpowering stuff," Hough said. "Needs to harness it and throw strikes. Real hard, heavy fastball and I think he's going to throw harder than he does now, which is plenty hard."