Last week, I wrote about how the 2020 Dodgers are talented, but October is scarier than ever. Now, let me balance it out with some good news about this particular postseason that could really play into the Dodgers’ favor.
Category: Bullpen (Page 1 of 3)
It’s the seventh inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series … or maybe it’s the eighth inning of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series … or maybe it’s the 13th inning of Game 7 of the World Series.
The Dodgers are down a run … or maybe the score is tied … or maybe they are protecting a one-run lead.
But in any of the above cases, it’s critical for Los Angeles (the team and its city) not to allow anyone to score.
At the start of lunch today, I watched Kenley Jansen’s eighth-inning outing from Sunday’s Dodger game. It didn’t take long: only five minutes, because Jansen only needed 10 pitches. (Click the video above if you want to see.) The performance generated raves online and articles speculating whether this was a turning point for the somewhat beleaguered behemoth.
I’ve been mostly quiet online about the Dodger bullpen in general and Jansen in particular over the past 3 1/2 weeks since expending a ton of energy on the subjects. It was just too exhausting to keep revisiting. The essence of my take was that whether or not Jansen was the closer didn’t matter, because inevitably, he would be pitching critical postseason innings for the Dodgers even if they weren’t critical postseason ninth innings.
It didn’t mean Jansen hasn’t been struggling this year — he clearly has been, as I wrote in the first paragraph of that piece and repeated lower down. My main point was that the obsession with the “closer” tag was misplaced.
The focus needed to be less on Jansen’s role and more on his process.
For all the fuss over how much velocity Jansen has or hasn’t lost on his pitches, the central issue for him is his command. When Jansen is living on the edges, whether that pitch is just inside the strike zone or just outside of it, batters can’t resist swinging. And when those pitches have any movement at all, he thrives.
Things go wrong for Jansen not when a pitch is off by a mile or two per hour, but when the pitch is so far out of the zone that a batter can simply ignore it. That leads to walks, which in turn leave him little margin for error when the breaks don’t go his way, such as nights when his defense lets him down. Not to mention the fact that almost any baserunner is a threat to steal second against Jansen.
So let’s take a look at Sunday’s game, which he entered with the score tied at 2. Jansen retired the side in order on the aforementioned 10 pitches, but there were significant highs and lows within.
I’ve long since surrendered the notion that the way I feel about the Dodgers has any widespread resonance.
At my peak, I had a niche. There’s definitely a segment of readers who tend to relate to me. But if my writing about the team had been any more transcendent than that, I genuinely think I would still be writing about the Dodgers full time. Failing to crack the mainstream wasn’t the reason I shifted gears — it was more about my desire to prioritize other things — but being a more popular voice might have affected those priorities, or at least their timetable.
That’s a long-winded preface for me to say that I wanted to write about my reaction to the absence of a blockbuster move at the trade deadline by the Dodgers, but without the expectation that most people would share my view. I’m not writing to convince you of anything. I’m just expressing myself. If you like, read it as you would the work of an alien.
Here’s what I think.
Sometimes, you read things on Twitter …
- like the current Dodger front office refuses to relief pitching seriously
- and is incapable of building a bullpen worthy of a World Series title.
Then you go into your wayback machine, all the way back to … 2017. To a time of peak Kenley Jansen and Brandon Morrow, to the twin Tonys (Watson and Cingrani), to the strong supporting work by Pedro Baez, Josh Fields, Luis Avilan and Ross Stripling, and to Special Agent Kenta Maeda.
I’m going to make a very narrow, precise point here.
The Dodgers lost the 2017 World Series. But it wasn’t because the relief pitchers weren’t in place. They had everyone they needed coming out of the bullpen and more.
During their current run of playoff appearances dating back to 2013, the Dodgers haven’t been in position to focus first and foremost on the bullpen at the trade deadline. There have always been multiple pressing needs.
The upside of the bullpen being the clear weak link of a team that has otherwise been the best in the National League, if not all of the major leagues, has been clarity of focus. It’s not that the 2019 Dodgers can’t improve on the margins in the other areas, but we know they don’t need to prioritize a Manny Machado or Yu Darvish. It’s bullpen or bust.
That said, here are two things to keep in mind:
- Every team would welcome bullpen help — even, for example, the Yankees. (See the chart at right of bullpen ERAs in high-leverage situations.) Even the MLB-leading 3.45 ERA (notably delivered by the Giants) wouldn’t soothe Dodger fans. There aren’t nearly enough high-quality relievers to go around.
- Even the highest quality relievers still give up runs. You can see this both in the overall stats or anecdotally, such as the night this week when Aroldis Chapman gave up Travis d’Arnaud’s third homer of the game for a blown save.
Obviously, the two weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline will be significant if not critical to the Dodgers’ World Series hopes, especially now that MLB has eliminated the August 31 workaround. Just know that no team — not the Dodgers, and just as importantly, not anyone else — can make itself bulletproof.
You make the best team you can.
In the full month since being called for the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad walkoff balk on August 18, Dylan Floro has faced 42 batters in 10 1/3 innings without allowing a run, while stranding all three inherited runners.
Floro has allowed eight hits — all singles — and three walks, while striking out 12.
Overall as a Dodger, Floro has a 1.33 ERA and 0.85 WHIP (his WHIP is below 1.00 against both lefty and righty batters), with one homer allowed in his 27 innings.
Update: OK, I just had it in my head to do a quick and dirty post on Floro. But simultaneously, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs was working on a much more thoro take on Floro, that frankly shamed me. But you know, I don’t do this full-time anymore …
Considering what a mess the Dodger bullpen was a month ago, seemingly undermining every strong effort the starting pitchers made, you might be surprised to see the Los Angeles pitching staff has coalesced more than a little bit. The relief corps still won’t frighten any opponents (yet), but there is some order in the court.
Honestly, this staff can do the job in a vacuum — the question will be, can it do the job in a tornado?
Justin Turner has been on fire. Since returning from his second trip of the year to the disabled list in early August, Turner has a .488 on-base percentage and .714 slugging percentage. More than that, he’s all but been his usual self since June 1, with an .885 OPS.
Yasiel Puig has been on fire. Since his own DL trip ended in early May, the right fielder has a .365 OBP while slugging .578, for a .943 OPS.
Cody Bellinger has been on fire. Since August 1, Bellinger has matched Turner’s .488 OBP while slugging a nearly compatible .605.
Brian Dozier has been on fire. Starting his Dodger clock on August 1, Dozier is OBPing .429 and slugging .590. Despite an apparent EKG scare Monday, the second baseman is in tonight’s starting lineup for the Dodgers.
Nevertheless, several Dodgers have very much not been on fire, leading to four straight losses and a 5-10 plunge over their past 15 games).
While the Dodger bullpen has pitched under a laser-firing microscope for the past several days, the underplayed story is how the offense has let the team down, scoring a total of nine runs in the final three games at Colorado and then two more Monday against the Giants.
Since July 29, the Dodgers have scored 59 runs in those 15 games, but 21 runs came August 2 against Milwaukee. In the remaining 14, the Dodgers are averaging 2.7 runs per game.
There’s no particular shame in being held to two by the likes of Madison Bumgarner, even if one of them is on a collision-inducing bloop double by Clayton Kershaw, but there’s still an important mini-trend to process.
In making their July deals, the Dodgers bet big on bats, acquiring Dozier and Manny Machado. Their additions to the bullpen, Dylan Floro and the now fibula-challenged John Axford, look altogether small by comparison — but keep in mind baseball is a run-differential game. If you increase your offense, your bullpen gets more cushion. The Dodgers looked to ease the strain of their pen with a workaround, and certainly, the plan to eventually move two strong starting pitchers like Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling into relief played into that intent.
Obviously, over the past week, the strategy could not have looked worse, with the bullpen giving up go-ahead runs in six straight games. Kenley Jansen’s heart issue unexpectedly put more pressure on the relief crew than it was ready to handle. But also, the Dodger offense came to the rescue only once, in Thursday’s crazy 8-5 win. So when you look at the culprits of an ugly week, they include not only the relievers, but the recent performance of Matt Kemp, Chris Taylor, Joc Pederson and perhaps most frustratingly, Machado.
All summer long, the big question for the Dodger pitching staff has been which relievers would serve as the bridge to Kenley Jansen.
But with the distressing news that Jansen will be sidelined at least into September with an irregular heartbeat, we now have to ponder not only the bridge, but the destination.
You can read all the options the Dodgers have available in my recent review of the Dodger pitching staff, and Dustin Nosler of Dodgers Digest has a post up today looking specifically at who might close in Jansen’s absence.
My focus today is on the fact that it’s obvious that the Dodgers, who will soon have seven starting pitchers available with the impending returns of Alex Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu from the disabled list, will need to move at least one starting pitcher to the bullpen — two if they don’t go with a six-man rotation.
Because we already used Clayton Kershaw’s birthday as an excuse to delve into Part 9 of Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers’ Extraordinary Pitching Tradition (order now!), our series of previews ends on Part Eight: The Bullpen.
Niftily, the position of relief pitcher emerged with the Dodgers around the same time as the Dodger pitching tradition itself took root.
For nearly the entire history of the Dodgers before the end of World War II, when their pitching tradition was incubating, almost every pitcher they used in relief was a moonlighting starter. Only three players in Brooklyn history totaled more than 200 innings in relief before 1940, and two of those were swingmen — Watty Clark and Sherry Smith, who started more games than they relieved. The lone exception, Rube Ehrhardt, did mainly pitch out of the pen from 1926 to 1928, with modest effectiveness.
Starting with Hugh Casey in the 1940s, the game changed, and the Dodgers began transforming pitchers who weren’t cut out to be fulltime starters into pitchers who were primarily relievers, and later purely relievers. In the history of Dodger pitching, they play a supporting but key role, occasionally grabbing headlines—some heartbreaking, some thrilling.
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.
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.
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.