Aug 04

Phenomenal bullpen key to Dodgers’ revival

It’s hard to overstate the importance that Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig have had in the Dodgers’ turnaround from a 30-42 to a 30-7 team. They have had an enormous impact on an offense that otherwise has not performed much better in the second 54 games of 2013 than it did in the first 54.

A.J. Ellis, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Ellis, Juan Uribe, Carl Crawford, Scott Van Slyke, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr. – five starters and three key bench players – all had lower OPSes in the middle third of the season, when the Dodgers went 36-18, than at the outset, according to Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A.

The starting pitching has been steady as she goes during the hot streak, with everyone – including, of late, Chris Capuano – keeping the Dodgers in games. In addition, the team has been better hitting with runners in scoring position, some recent events in Chicago notwithstanding.

But when you look at how the Dodgers have been playing .811 ball since June 22, winning games like they were free throws, much of it comes down to this – the bullpen simply just keeps getting guys out.

Perhaps no moment epitomized that more than when the Dodgers inserted Brandon League, simply horrible for much of this season, into the seventh inning of Saturday’s game with Cubs at the corners and the tying run at the plate.

Since entering the All-Star break with a 6.25 ERA, League hadn’t allowed an earned run or an inherited run in eight innings over six appearances, with opponents OPSing a scant .343. Don Mattingly had slowly moved League out of mop-up situations into higher-leverage moments, but this was the first time League had been used to protect a lead of three runs or less in nearly seven weeks since June 25.

League threw four pitches, induced the Dodgers’ fourth double play of the game, and strolled off the field.

In the next inning, Ronald Belisario gave up two singles to the four batters he raced – a relatively shocking development for a bullpen that has been so reliable – and then making matters worse, Paco Rodriguez came in and threw six straight pitches out of the strike zone, loading the bases with a 2-0 count to the go-ahead run, Chicago’s cleanup hitter, Welington Castillo (admittedly, not your prototypical cleanup hitter).

Rodriguez got the count back to 3-2, then struck Castillo out.

If teams don’t score against you, they’re not going to beat you. The Dodger bullpen has smothered nearly every single fire they have encountered since the fourth week of June.

Keep in mind the bottom four guys are not really relevant to the conversation, having mainly pitched in the rare garbage situations the Dodgers have been in since June 22. The four primary relievers (five if you count Withrow) have ERAs below 2.00, opponents’ OPS below .600 and have stranded 31 of 34 inherited runners. Thrown in a temporarily improved League as a bonus, and that’s a hellacious bullpen that could also find addition by subtraction if Carlos Marmol is jettisoned for someone more reliable, unless Marmol follows in League’s footsteps.

Can they keep this up? Well, no. Not bloody likely. Relievers don’t stay hot forever, particularly guys who are proven inconsistents like Belisario. The question is whether it will be a blown save here or there, or the more frequent meltdowns of the season’s first 72 games.

There’s also concern over how many games some of the relievers have been appearing in – especially Kenley Jansen. But the good news is that Jansen has been so efficient lately – he has retired 22 consecutive batters with 10 strikeouts – they’ve essentially been low-stress outings. Here are Jansen’s daily pitch counts since June 22 …

There was an eyebrow-raising stretch the week of June 23 and another following a 28-pitch outing July 23, but for the most part, Jansen has kept his pitch counts in check and had a nice checkerboard of days off.

Of course, the fastest way for the closer to get rest is for the Dodgers to start losing again. Otherwise, yeah, there will be a day when the Dodgers are in a tight one and they’ll want to try to get by without using their big ex-catcher.

The Dodgers’ surge has been too good to be true, but there’s no denying it has happened. Whether you should believe it can continue should depend in large part in your belief in this bullpen.

Dodgers at Cubs, 11:20 a.m.

May 19

Dodgers in a race to the upside down

Sure, OK, we can start with the bullpen. It’s hardly the only thing going on with the Dodgers, but it’s something. Oh yes, it’s something.

You need good relief to win, but you can’t plan for good relief. 

This comes up every year, so it’s tedious to point out, but it doesn’t seem to go without saying.

I’m going to ask take my years-old research into this on faith; whether you choose to do so is up to you. But what you find is that there is virtually no consistency year-to-year among relief pitchers. The best might give you two or three consecutive good years. The very best.

The reasons for this should be clear. You don’t become a reliever unless you are flawed in some way that prevents you from being a starter. That obviously doesn’t mean you can’t be a fantastic reliever in a given year, but for the most part, relievers are pitchers who aren’t designed to be great over the long haul. They typically have a limited number of pitches, which leaves them vulnerable to being figured out over time. The good ones end up getting overworked, or maybe they were never that good in the first place, instead merely a triumph of small sample size. We could go on, but let’s sum it up this way: Mariano Rivera is not reality.

The 2003 Dodger bullpen was incredible. It was also, in many significant ways, an accident.

Staffing a bullpen has always, fascinatingly, been Ned Colletti’s simultaneous strength and weakness. Colletti has had a knack for finding capable non-roster talent (Takashi Saito, Ronald Belisario) over the same years that he has invested multiyear deals in such inconsistent arms as Matt Guerrier and Brandon League. There is no correlation in the Colletti tenure between salary and performance, yet the expensive signings continue.

The point is that you can never feel good about your bullpen entering a season – never. I really believe that. You can’t feel anything at all. The best thing you can do is assemble a number of arms before Spring Training, a combination of youth and experience and promise and reclamation, and then hope for the best.

The peril of having someone with a long-term contract is that you feel obligated to keep him past the point of effectiveness. That’s the boat the Dodgers are in with League and Guerrier, even with a new ownership that doesn’t much worry about player salaries these days.

The Dodger bullpen is leaky through and through. Almost nothing is working right now. Just as you were gaining supreme confidence in Paco Rodriguez and Kenley Jansen, they found growing pains that left them struggling like the more experienced J.P Howell, League, Guerrier and, if you will, Belisario and Javy Guerra.

Fans tend to have unreasonable expectations of bullpens – you see outrage anytime any relief pitcher gives up a run, let alone a lead. I’m not sure where fans get the idea that every reliever on their team should have a 0.00 ERA, but there it is. Every Dodger relief pitcher since the heyday of Eric Gagne and Saito has been attacked for his failings, however momentary, however good that pitcher has been overall.  So when a bullpen is collectively struggling as much as the Dodger bullpen is, it’s frogs and locusts time.

Don Mattingly’s instinct has been correct in general to try to play matchups with his relievers. You can debate the specifics of all his choices – I don’t agree with them all – but the bottom line is, there’s little he can do when no one is reliable.

Mattingly’s bullpen Sunday faced 18 batters and got nine outs. When Jansen entered Saturday’s game in relief of Chris Capuano, he had thrown only 21 pitches in his previous 72 hours. Capuano had pitched well that night, but he was past the 90-pitch mark and going on a balky calf.

But when things are bad, things are bad.

Tim Federowicz is not a martyr.

This morning brought the news that Tim Federowicz, and not Luis Cruz or Ramon Hernandez, had been displaced from the active roster to make room for the return of Mark Ellis from the disabled list. Federowicz is more valuable than Cruz or Hernandez, but the hysteria this caused was rather remarkable.

When I called out this freakout on Twitter, several people lectured me, as if I didn’t know, that it wasn’t just about Federowicz, but that it was symptomatic of the Colletti Dodgers’ larger mismanagement in general or obsession with experience over youth in particular. As if I needed to be told that Colletti values experience, sometimes to the franchise’s detriment.

I’ve spent a lot of time on how to phrase this next section, because I don’t want to give the impression that you shouldn’t try to maximize every advantage you can. Federowicz can’t help the Dodgers that much right now, but sure, I’d rather see him get five at-bats a week over Hernandez, because an on-base percentage over .500 in Albuquerque and above-average defense suggest a better skill set than Hernandez currently offers. Scott Van Slyke’s callup was overdue, not because he was guaranteed to hit two homers in a game, but because he was on a hot streak in the minors that made it clear there was no better time to try him out.

But just as there is with the bullpen, there’s a level of knee-jerk fan reaction with the bench that is out of proportion. When a player is a single game away from having better stats than his competition, as Hernandez is compared with Federowicz (3 for 17 with one walk and no extra-base hits as a major-leaguer in 2013), and neither is projected to be a starter, and the alternatives to Hernandez as backup if A.J. Ellis gets hurt are Jesus Flores, Matt Wallach and Gorman Erickson, the uproar should not be Defcon Anything.

Yeah, Cruz stinks right now, and no one in their right mind would keep him over Juan Uribe – just like no one in their right mind would have argued to keep Uribe over Cruz last summer.

See what I’m getting at?

If you’re not frustrated with the Dodgers right now, you’re either not a Dodger fan or very zen. You’re not wrong if you’re unhappy with Federowicz’s demotion. But if you’re angry over Federowicz being sent down, you’re overreacting. It’s not symptomatic of the Dodgers’ larger problems. You’re not going to plug in Federowicz, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson and Alex Castellanos into the Dodger bench and as a result see things turn around.

And May 19 is too soon to give up, if only because of one person.

Matt Kemp.

Until Kemp starts hitting, nothing is going to happen with this team. Nothing. The Dodgers cannot win without his bat. And again, it’s not something anger will solve. The effort is there – if anything, he’s trying too hard to get things going. But it is up to Kemp.

It would help if Andre Ethier hit more, but the difference between what Ethier is doing compared to what is expected of him is not what it is with Kemp.

I’m sure Kemp has had all the advice in the world, from Mattingly, Mark McGwire and any number of coaches or people he meets on the street. But no one else can synthesize the good from the bad and put it into action.

You can start firing managers or coaches or trainers. Kemp still needs to hit.

The bullpen can start putting out fires. Kemp still needs to hit.

The defense can stop making two errors a game. Kemp still needs to hit.

But what if he does?

Let me tell you one more thing.  I would love to give up on the 2013 Dodgers. It will be a relief if and when I can. I spent part of my Sunday writing this 1,500-word piece that probably isn’t worth a damn, especially for a team barely winning 40 percent of its games.

And the season might be over, except for this. For all their problems, Los Angeles is still somehow only seven games out of first place. The Giants, in case you haven’t noticed, have their own cauldron of concerns. And Arizona and Colorado … I just don’t know. I can’t see them not hitting their own skid. I can’t see it.

The National League West looks like an 85-win division. That’s still within the Dodgers’ abilities.

The team gets healthier. The bullpen stops being a disaster. Matt Kemp starts to hit. And then …

Honestly, that’s as far as I can go. The team does look awful right now. It looks nothing like a winning team. It’s creaky and crumbly. Race to the bottom or race to the top – I truly can’t decide.

Apr 10

Dodgers survive a League of his moan, 4-3

So Chad Billingsley was the pregame worry, but in the end it was pins and needles with Brandon League.

It’s Jackie Robinson week, but instead we got the ghost of Mickey Owen.

Despite 17 baserunners tonight, the Dodgers’ final pitch of the game came with the tying and winning runs in motion on the bases for the Padres during a full-count pitch from League. But the last swing by Yonder Alonso sent a pop fly to the glove of backup left fielder Skip Schumaker, and Los Angeles hung on to a 4-3 victory.

The game offered little you could rely upon except Carl Crawford pounding the ball and the Dodgers leaving runners on base.

After the Dodgers stranded their 10th, 11th and 12th runners on base in the top of the ninth, League entered with a 4-1 lead and gave up a one-out double and two two-out singles for a run. He then struck out Chris Denorfia for what would have been the final out of the game, had the ball not eluded A.J. Ellis for a passed ball and another run.

League got two strikes on Alonso before the Padre worked the count full. With their stomachs lurching, Dodger fans instead got a dose of Pepto from the final out.

That preserved Billingsley’s first victory of the year and seventh in a row dating back to last season. After a leadoff walk, Billingsley sailed through the first three innings on barely 30 pitches, before falling out of sync in the fourth and fifth innings. But he kept the damage to a single run, and pushed through a sixth inning before calling it a night after 94 pitches. He allowed eight baserunners in all while striking out three.

Crawford homered on the second pitch of the game and tripled before scoring his second run in the fifth inning. Ellis hit a two-run homer in the second. Every Dodger position player who started had at least a hit, including the previously hitless Luis Cruz, who had two.

Jul 30

Dodgers lose game but win League

Aaron Harang had a 2.60 ERA in 11 starts since May 28, but he went down hard tonight, surrendering a three-run first-inning home run to Paul Goldschmidt and a fifth-inning grand slam to Chris Johnson in the Dodgers’ 7-2 loss to Arizona.

The result allowed the Diamondbacks to creep within 3 1/2 games of Los Angeles and within four of San Francisco, which was in extra innings against the New York Mets as of this writing.

However, while dropping a game in the National League sweepstakes, the Dodgers picked up a win for those who cared about the Brandon League sweepstakes. Announced officially shortly after 10:30 p.m., Los Angeles acquired the Seattle Mariners righty reliever for minor-leaguers Leon Landry and Logan Bawcom.

League, 29, has a 3.69 career ERA and 3.63 ERA in 2012. After striking out as many as 9.2 batters per nine innings in 2009, League is down to 5.4 this season, while allowing 67 baserunners in 44 2/3 innings. He made a name for himself by saving 37 games in 2011, but that’s already a bit of ancient history. So while the Dodgers might have a little anxiety about how reliable Ronald Belisario, Javy Guerra, Josh Lindblom, Shawn Tolleson or even a recovering Matt Guerrier might be down the stretch (or about replacing any of them if they are traded), League offers another option – but not exactly offer a guaranteed solution.

The price was 2010 third-round pick Landry, a 22-year-old outfielder with a .358 on-base percentage and .559 slugging (including 26 doubles and 15 triples) in the happy-hitting California League, and Bawcom, a 23-year-old righty picked in the 17th round the same year, who has a 2.60 ERA and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings for Double-A Chattanooga.

I’m not sure either prospect wasn’t expendable in a pennant drive or expected to be a significant contributor to the Dodgers in the future, and you never know when a guy is going to have a two-month hot streak like George Sherrill in 2009, so the question I would have is less about who won tonight’s deal and more about whether Landry or Bawcom might have had a role in a potentially bigger deal for the Dodgers Tuesday or down the road.