Let’s start by looking ahead at the Dodger pitching, before we look back.
Category: Bullpen (Page 1 of 4)
All the short-season caveats apply, but the Dodger bullpen did set two National League records for the live-ball era (1920-on).
- Dodger relievers set a National League record for the lowest single-season WHIP at 1.044. The bullpen broke the NL mark held by the 2003 Dodgers, who were led by Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota and Paul Quantrill. Unfortunately, they just missed the major-league record of 1.003, held by the 1965 Chicago White Sox.
- They also broke the NL mark for lowest on-base percentage allowed: .274, also held by the 2003 Dodgers. The ’65 White Sox allowed a .264 OBP.
While the team only played 60 games, Dodger relievers did average an unprecedented 4 1/3 innings per game. In fact, so omnipresent was the Dodger bullpen that for the first time in franchise history, relief pitchers had more than half of the team’s wins — 26 out of 43.
Victor Gonzalez, Adam Kolarek, Jake McGee and Brusdar Graterol each had WHIPs below 1.00.
Obviously, it’s dubious to suggest these records would have held up over 162 games. But in the realm of 2020, we can say this: Dodger relievers were the best.
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.