- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- The kid thought he was lost. He'd finally said "yes" to the idea because it wasn't really being floated as a question anymore. The time for polite suggestion had passed, too.
If Kenley Jansen was going to stay in professional baseball, he had to accept the recommendation of Los Angeles Dodgers' player development director De Jon Watson and consider a position switch from catcher to pitcher.
A short time later the kid found himself in Charlie Hough's bullpen in San Bernardino, Calif.
As the pitching coach for the Class A Inland Empire 66ers, Hough had seen a lot of pitchers come through the doors of his bullpen: veterans on rehab assignments who came to get their work in and didn't say much; 18-year-old draft picks who came to prove their worth and said too much.
Hough could work with anyone.
But this kid?
"I was already out in the bullpen when he came out that day and I'd been told of what was going to happen as far as him becoming a pitcher," Hough said.
"He comes out and says, 'What do you want me to do?'
"I said, 'I don't know, what do you want to do?'
"He says, 'I want to learn to pitch?'"
This was a reality Jansen was still swallowing, because it meant he'd failed as a hitter and that door to the big leagues was closing, perhaps forever. So it came out with a little uncertainty at the end, like he was still asking himself whether this was such a good idea.
Hough didn't have the time or desire to psychoanalyze. Forty-something years ago, he'd been in the same position, not quite good enough as a third baseman and asked to try pitching just to see if there was something useful there.
There was. Except as soon as he started getting good at it, he hurt his arm bad enough that he had to change things up again and learn to throw a knuckleball.
Twenty-five seasons and 216 wins later, Hough finally stopped throwing knuckleballs and started working with young pitchers in his bullpen.
The kid standing in front of him didn't know much of that and there was no use telling him now. The only way forward was to put the ball in his hand and see what he'd do with it.
"Well," Hough said. "Why don't you go over to the mound and throw 20 pitches to the catcher."
Jansen nodded and walked over to the mound.
"How do you want me to do it?" he asked Hough.
"I don't know," Hough said plainly. "You tell me."
"Soon as he threw the ball, you could see it," Hough said.
There was no radar gun that day, but Hough knew a mid-90s fastball when he saw one.
"There wasn't a style there that you had to go, 'You can't do that, Kenley' or 'You're going to have to change that, Kenley.' Everything he did was pretty good. Everything he did, you kind of liked. He just had a feel for it."
Every day for about a month, Hough would watch Jansen throw. Sometimes he'd tape the sessions so they could go over them later and fix little things. But mostly he just wanted Jansen to do the same thing over and over so that it started to feel as natural as it looked.
After a little while, Hough showed him how to throw a changeup and a curveball and Jansen just kind of did it.
"He cleaned a few things up, but Charlie's just a simple guy," Jansen said. "He just wants me to be a hard thrower, not to be a pitcher yet. Just be simple, stay tall and fire the ball in there."
If things got away from Jansen for a day or two, Hough would take him back to where he'd started: in a crouch.
"One of the things everyone in the organization loved about him as a catcher was that he could catch the ball, drop to his left knee and throw it to second base even harder than our pitcher," Hough said. "So that's one of the little drills I used just to keep him throwing.
"Not so much build up his arm strength. Just to keep him as a good thrower," Hough said.
"I mean, you can teach him how to pitch. But don't ruin him as a thrower. Right now, he's a great thrower. And maybe five years from now he'll be a pretty good pitcher."
After a month in the bullpen, the Dodgers figured it was time to see how the kid would do in a game.
The minor leagues are filled with stories about guys who gave their catchers bruised palms in the bullpen but didn't have the nerve to thrive on a real pitcher's mound.
But Jansen's demeanor read like he wouldn't have that problem. A native of the Caribbean island of Curacao, Jansen comes across as an easy-going guy. He's polite, calm and well-spoken in four languages (Dutch, English, Spanish and the island's native tongue, Papiamento).
In the bullpen Hough saw another side.
"He'd want to watch film every day," Hough said. "He was a competitor."
Still, there was no one who could've predicted how quickly Jansen would rise to the major leagues.
In his first season as a pitcher, Jansen gave up 14 hits and six runs in 11 2/3 innings with the 66ers. He also struck out 19 batters, a ratio of 14.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
After a strong spring training, the Dodgers invited Jansen on their exhibition trip to Taiwan, then quickly promoted him to Double-A Chattanooga.
Danny Darwin, the pitching coach in Chattanooga, taught him how to throw a slider.
"And that just worked perfectly," Jansen said.
In 45 innings between Class A and Double-A this season, Jansen struck out 78 batters and gave up eight earned runs with a 1.60 ERA.
Every time out, the Dodgers looked for a reason to keep him in the minors. Every time out, he looked like a big leaguer.
And so on July 23, 2010 -- less than a year after he'd pitched his first game with the 66ers -- Jansen was called up to the majors. In his first six appearances out of the bullpen for the Dodgers, he's struck out nine and has yet to allow a run in six innings.
"I mean, you knew it wouldn't be long," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said of how quickly he thought Jansen would take to get called up to the big league club after he saw him in spring training.
"[Sandy] Koufax saw him in spring training," Torre said. "Sandy had come out for a few days and he was watching him in the 'B' game. Sandy grabs the ball, walks over to him while he was sitting down and says, 'Hold this ball in your hands because that's how you're going to be making your living.'
"They went over grips and stuff. But for a guy like Sandy to say that, I know [Jansen] was tickled with that one."
There are times when Jansen looks around the Dodgers' clubhouse and feels a little disoriented. The road to this place was so unexpected and so quick, even he has trouble believing it.
A year and a half ago he was a light-hitting catcher hoping to keep his dream alive. Today he's being called upon in late-inning situations to close out tight games in the majors.
His new teammates seem to take him at face value. First baseman James Loney became a fast friend on the Taiwan trip and has since invited Jansen to stay with him at his house in Burbank while he gets settled in Los Angeles. Clayton Kershaw, whom Jansen caught in rookie ball, is a few lockers down.
"I think it all hit me a few days after my debut," Jansen said. "After I got called up, it hit me but it didn't hit me. Then after my first game I was like, 'Wow, I'm in the big leagues. This is unbelievable.' Then the next day I'm in the 1-0 game and I'm trying to save the game.
"A few days after that, I think is when it hit me. How fast it happened. How unbelievable it is," Jansen said.
"But you know, everything was natural. Everything felt comfortable. And I just kind of learned quickly."
You wonder, as you meet Jansen, if he's just one of those athletes for whom a certain skill just comes naturally. If his DNA was configured for the exact moment he stepped into Charlie Hough's bullpen. If that baseball was simply meant to be in his hands and then fired into a catcher's mitt at 97 mph.
That explanation, the path of least resistance, feels comforting. Arms like Jansen's are a gift, bestowed at birth and destined for greatness so long as the right opportunity comes along.
"Normally you can tell when somebody switched positions just by their delivery, but this kid is very sound with his delivery," Torre said.
"He gets on the mound and he competes. He looks like he's not expending a lot of effort, but the end of that fastball is pretty impressive."
Torre pauses a moment, then smiles.
The kid's just throwing right now. Just starting to figure out what he has. Just starting to realize what he might one day do with it.
Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
It's a pitching change for Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen.