Claire: Jansen an unbelievable story
From Minor League catcher to big league pitcher in one year
The great Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, never one to exaggerate, and always one to be precisely and uniquely on point, has termed it an "unbelievable story."
It is the story of rookie pitcher Kenley Jansen, who one year ago this month was struggling to hit as a young catcher in the Dodgers' Minor League system.
After five seasons, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound switch-hitter had produced a combined batting average of .229.
It appeared as though Jansen might be headed back to his native Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles.
Instead, Jansen agreed to make a switch from behind home plate to the pitcher's mound.
Almost exactly one year later, Jansen took the mound at Dodger Stadium on Saturday against the New York Mets and pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning, striking out two, as the Dodgers won, 3-2, in 13 innings and tied a franchise record by using nine pitchers.
On Sunday, the Dodgers needed only two pitchers, their young ace Clayton Kershaw and Jansen as the Dodgers defeated the Mets, 1-0.
Jansen came into the game in the ninth inning and retired veteran Carlos Beltran on a popout, and then put away Jason Bay and Ike Davis on swinging strikeouts.
Jansen threw 15 pitches, eight for strikes, with almost all of his pitches clocked in the high 90s, and recorded his first Major League save.
One of the first Dodgers players to congratulate Jansen was Kershaw, and the television cameras caught the ace left-hander watching every Jansen pitch with great intensity. Little wonder when you consider that Kershaw's first catcher when he broke into professional baseball in 2006 in the Gulf Coast League was Jansen.
"It's unbelievable, man," Jansen told reporters after the game, agreeing with Scully's description and the reaction of the Dodgers fans who witnessed the young man's first save. Now, two games and two innings, even if they are perfect, don't guarantee a young pitcher future success, and the statistics themselves certainly don't fall into an unbelievable classification.
The unique part of the story is that a player making a switch from the catcher's position, or any position, to the pitcher's mound and finding himself at the Major League level after just one year is all but unprecedented.
In fact, few catchers have been able to toss away the catching gear and make the switch to being a pitcher. One of the few who made this switch was outstanding closer Troy Percival, drafted by the Angels in 1990, who batted .203 in his only professional season behind the plate.
In 1993, during the time I was the general manager of the Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda made the suggestion to have Felix Rodriguez switch from the catcher's position to the mound, and Rodriguez went on to pitch 11 seasons in the Major League, appearing in 563 games and posting a 38-26 lifetime record.
Like Rodriguez, Jansen had to be convinced that the move to the position of pitcher was the right one for his career. After all, the 22-year-old Jansen had spent five seasons learning the trade of being a catcher.
Once he agreed, he was assigned to the Dodgers' Class A Advanced Inland Empire team in the California League. It turned out to be the perfect move in more ways than one. The pitching coach is Charlie Hough, who, 40 years earlier, in 1970, had made the Dodgers team after going through a position switch from third base to the mound.
Hough could tell Jansen all of the benefits the switch made for him, resulting in a 25-year Major League career that produced 216 wins.
While Hough turned to the knuckleball for his path to the big leagues, the veteran pitcher could quickly see that Jansen was blessed with a lively arm and amazing command.
The fast track to the big leagues for Jansen never stopped. He recorded 19 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings for Inland Empire in his first trips to the mound and then had a chance to work in both the Instructional League and Arizona Fall League.
The Dodgers saw enough to protect Jansen on their 40-man roster last winter, even though he had been open to selection by any Major League team after the 2008 season. Jansen went back to the Inland Empire team to start this season and then was called to Double-A Chattanooga before getting the call to Dodger Stadium.
If Jansen continues to show the type of velocity and command that he had in his first couple of outings, he is the one who will be featured on many SportsCenter shows to come. As Vin says, and Jansen agrees, "Unbelievable."
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.