How Kenley Jansen rediscovered himself with Boston Red Sox

WINNING THE WORLD Series in 2020 was supposed to be one of the crowning achievements of Kenley Jansen's career. Instead, it marked a low point. Jansen struggled throughout the Los Angeles Dodgers' postseason run, eventually losing his job as their closer, and he received intense criticism from fans, writers and on social media.

When things were at their best, Jansen rode the highs of success, letting external validation define his self-worth. But as he struggled on the biggest stage of his career, he said, the places where he built his self-esteem now fed his deepest insecurities. Critics were calling for his job, saying he couldn't get the Dodgers over the hump, that he hurt the team's chances of winning a championship. Jansen spiraled, posting a 5.14 ERA in seven innings in October. It was starter Julio Urias, not Jansen, who finished the clinching Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Rays.

"Even though we won the World Series, deep down I wasn't happy," Jansen said. "I wasn't happy because as much as my teammates picked me up, the responsibility I was supposed to carry, I didn't take that responsibility. Someone had to do it for me."

Two years later, Jansen weighed signing with Boston during the offseason. He questioned whether the move was the right one -- not just for his family and career, but for his mental health. Jansen considered the intense scrutiny the Red Sox were under following a last-place finish in 2022. Going there almost seemed counterintuitive. And yet, Jansen is now in the best mental headspace of his career, having his best start to a season in years, with a 0.77 ERA and 1.17 FIP, fifth best among all relievers in baseball. His nine saves tie him for third. On Wednesday night, Jansen recorded his 400th career save, a total reached by only six other pitchers in baseball history. At 35 years old, he's firmly back on a path some around the game believe will lead to Cooperstown.

The moment that turned Jansen around didn't happen on the field; it wasn't a gut-punching blown save or a confidence-shattering home run allowed.

Instead, it was a conversation with his therapist in 2021, who had worked with Jansen long enough to know what he needed: a reality check. She wanted to help Jansen rebuild the confidence he had lost -- and used language more common for a baseball clubhouse than a doctor's office to get through to the veteran.

"You're being a b----," Jansen said his therapist told him. "This is a b---- mindset."

They were harsh words, and a technique that certainly wouldn't work for everyone, but the message resonated with Jansen: He was prioritizing others' opinions of him over his own.

"I needed to own that it was all bulls---," Jansen said. "I was being a b----."

WHEN GIANNI JANSEN met her husband, he lived and breathed baseball. Nothing made him happier. Whenever Kenley did anything related to the game, there was a smile on his face. But during the 2019 season, Gianni noticed a switch. Kenley struggled more than he ever had, racking up eight blown saves, the most of his career. And as he became more and more consumed by negativity, Gianni could feel Kenley's sadness as he left for work.

"Baseball is everything, it's the law," Gianni said. "Kenley was supposed to be the last person out there. He needed to make every fan happy, the team happy. The happiness, he was trying to bring it to everybody to try to finish it, but he was starting to let his mind dominate his body."

The pressure mounted over the next year, especially as Kenley struggled during the COVID-19 season and the Dodgers' World Series run. The noise got so bad Gianni would log on to Kenley's Instagram, deleting comments before he could see them. But those comments became so overwhelming they proved impossible to avoid.

"I was reading everything on the internet," Kenley said. "You feed off of all of that good stuff, but you don't realize you're playing with a flame. And as soon as I had a bad one, I got burned. I couldn't handle it."

Before the 2021 season, Gianni insisted Kenley start seeing a therapist. As the child of two bodybuilders and a track and field athlete herself, Gianni knew the importance of mental maintenance in someone's athletic performance. She told Kenley he wasn't living up to his full potential because he wasn't working on his mental focus. His natural cutter still remained among the most dominant pitches in baseball, but his mindset was falling apart on the mound.

So the couple began searching for someone who would understand Kenley's journey from growing up in Curacao, an island with a population of 152,000, to playing for one of the most visible franchises in North American sports. He knew he needed to shift his source of self-confidence away from the internet and back to himself.

"I started to get disappointed with all of it that I didn't want to do this anymore," Kenley said. "But I really didn't want to let the industry take the joy of baseball away from it."

Through Jansen's agents, Kenley matched with a clinical therapist who works with a lot of athletes. Their work started with a simple rule: No more reading social media comments. He started setting better boundaries. When he opened Twitter and saw his own face, he stopped clicking on the stories.

"If I want to see my own face, I'll go in the mirror and see my face," he said.

He began focusing on how much he loved the game.

"You carry your love for the game and nothing else matters," he said. "And when you realize it's OK that you're not OK and then you go search for what you love and do best, I started having the time of my life."

THESE DAYS, THE Jansens live across the country from each other. Gianni takes care of the kids in Los Angeles, where they go to school, while Kenley lives in Boston. They start every morning with the same routine, swapping good morning texts, followed by a motivational video. Some days it's the words of the late Kobe Bryant, other days it's from Shaquille O'Neal, or even Denzel Washington.

"It depends on the day," Gianni said. "Depends on the mood."

Jansen joined the Red Sox as Boston sought to rebuild a bullpen that had featured the fifth-worst reliever ERA in 2022. But even as the team prioritized signing relievers, adding righty Chris Martin and lefty Joely Rodriguez, Boston originally did not plan on pursuing Jansen -- nor did Jansen see the Red Sox, whose fan base's fervor rivals the Dodgers', as the right fit initially.

But after notching a National League-best 41 saves with the Atlanta Braves last season and rebuilding his confidence, Jansen began to see the intensity of the market as a plus. And when the Red Sox checked in and found that Jansen's price aligned with their evaluation, Boston jumped, agreeing on a two-year, $32 million deal.

Jansen and Red Sox manager Alex Cora have talked about what it means to play in Boston, and for the skipper, having a closer he knows he can depend on to get three of a game's biggest outs is something he doesn't take for granted.

"You have the lead in the ninth and it's over," Cora said. "All you can do as a manager is give the vote to the big guy and finish it. From my end, in '19 we had Craig [Kimbrel], [Matt Barnes] did his thing when he was doing well in '21, and it's a lot easier to manage a game with an established closer."

As Jansen reworked his mental approach, he revamped his workout routine. He began working with basketball trainer Melissa Livingston, who had more experience with bodies like Jansen's 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame. Jansen focused his offseason on reshaping his body and taking his kids to the park.

"We live in Los Angeles, but we have no idea where the party places are," Gianni said. "For Kenley, it was working out and family this offseason."

And while he has reinvented his mental approach, Jansen has returned to his old approach on the mound, throwing cutters 79.3% of the time, his highest mark since 2018, while decreasing his dependence on his slider, down from 22.5% to 9.1%, his lowest mark since 2017. Jansen said his mental approach on the mound has helped him stop overthinking, allowing him to throw each pitch with more conviction. That's reflected in his average velocity of 95.3 mph, the hardest of his career and the first time since 2016 he's topped 94 mph.

"I encourage everybody to go to therapy," Jansen said. "You're going to be at your best level."

With his work in therapy, what ultimately sealed the deal for Jansen to sign with Boston was the very thing that nearly led to his demise in Los Angeles: the intense spotlight on the team, from fans to writers to talk radio.

"I loved playing in Atlanta, but there wasn't as much scrutiny there as in Boston," Jansen said. "With fewer media around, you could slump in your chair."

These days when he walks through the clubhouse, Jansen looks at the large media contingent standing around in the Red Sox clubhouse. With more eyes in the room, he reminds himself to walk with better posture, and that he wouldn't want it any other way.