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Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s not exactly high times to be a Dodgers fan right now. Sure, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, but most of the bitterness of the 2010 season is directed at the divorce battle between Frank and Jamie McCourt. General Manager Ned Colletti hasn’t exactlybeen  given the complete freedom to make whatever transactions necessary for the good of the big league ballclub, being hamstrung by financial constraints and all. But he was able to tack on to the starting rotation of homegrown Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley by re-signing Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly, while adding Jon Garland, giving L.A.’s rotation a well-rounded staff.

But if you think the additions and re-additions of Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames, Juan Uribe, and Rod Barajas will bolster an offense with several holes, think again. A left field and backstop sans Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin are the biggest questions for the boys of Chavez Ravine. A lesser question that will be just as publicized is the performance of current closer Jonathan Broxton, backed by an eclectic but mostly capable bullpen. The single most important X-factor that first-year manager Don Mattingly could use? A Matt Kemp revitalization, whose upside could be the difference between a third-place NL West team and a playoff contender.

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Unsung Los Angeles Rookie Relievers

Plenty of rookie relievers who made brief appearances in 2010 are worth looking out for in 2011. Aroldis Chapman leads rookie reliever headlines with his grade 90 fastball (yes, grade 90) and Chris Sale could challenge for the White Sox’ closer role. Craig Kimbrel has also gotten lots of love from several FanGraphs authors. While it remains to be seen if Chapman and Sale will develop into starters, Kimbrel seems destined for the bullpen. His mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slurvy curveball form a two-pitch reportoire, which resulted in a 17.42 K/9 in 2010. Earlier this month, I highlighted Kimbrel’s control issues and 6.71 BB/9 when discussing the Braves’ possible platoon closer situation.

But there are two Los Angeles rookie relievers with similar profiles to Kimbrel whom I feel have been more underappreciated, perhaps due to Kimbrel’s appearances in October baseball: Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jordan Walden of the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim). Like Kimbrel, both Jansen and Walden bring the high heat with mid to high-90s fastballs along with mid-80s slurvy slider/curves. And like Kimbrel, both L.A. relievers are strikeout artists with command issues, especially with their fastballs.

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Neftali Feliz’s Pitch Selection

Dave Cameron’s look at possible replacements for Neftali Feliz’s closer role should he transition into a starter’s role inspired me to take a look at Feliz’s pitch selection. Evan Grant’s great piece on Feliz’s pitch repertoire finds that Feliz started to throw more breaking balls later in the season (and less off-speed pitches). I was also interested in looking at how Feliz’s repertoire evolved over his first full season.

Feliz throws his high-90s fastball 80-90% of the time on most nights, as well as a sort of slurvy slider-curve hybrid at 80-82 mph. As noted in Grant’s look at Feliz’s secondary pitches, his upper-80s changeup is rarely used — he used it even less as the 2010 season winded down and in the playoffs. Here’s a look at Feliz’s month-by-month pitch selection in 2010, including the playoffs (FF – fastball, SL/CU – slider/curve, CH – changeup; “total” indicates total pitches in that corresponding row or column):

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Platooning Closers: Good Idea or Great Idea?

Yesterday, Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez suggested that fireballer Craig Kimbrel and left-handed Jonny Venters might share closing duties this season barring a surprising return by Billy Wagner from presumed retirement. The Braves certainly aren’t unfamiliar with this strategy: Bobby Cox used both the right-handed Rafael Soriano and left-handed Mike Gonzalez in save opportunities in 2009 before Cox went primarily with Soriano. So while the 22-year-old Kimbrel was supposedly slated to be the team’s primary closer after quite a September run and a brief role in 9th inning situations, this option reveals an adaptability that the Braves management is willing to take.

Since the ‘save’ became an official Major League Baseball statistic in 1969, teams and fans have overused the term, misguidedly limiting a team’s best reliever into a closer’s role. Not to say that it isn’t beneficial to have some sort of consistency, but when you save your best reliever for last and don’t employ the flexibility to bring him out during high-leverage inning situations that often occur in the 7th or 8th innings, you do your opponents a service by not optimizing your reliever usage.

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Adam Dunn’s Changed Plate Approach

Suffice it to say that Adam Dunn’s power has been eerily consistent throughout his career, hitting 40 +/- 2 home runs the past six years with over 100 RBI in five of them. His OBP, walk rate, and strikeout rate were very similar from 2004 to 2009. However, Dunn showed a change in approach last season, reaching career worsts in walk rate (11.9%) and strikeout rate (35.7%) while his OBP was his lowest since 2003 (.356). Granted, that’s still a very good OBP, but his change in approach came with an OBP drop of 40 points since he first joined the Washington Nationals.

Dunn’s swing rate has increased from 40.4% to 45.0%, a career high, showing a more aggressive approach at the plate. Here’s how his other plate-discipline stats changed:

2009: 19.4% O-Swing%, 65.5% Z-Swing%, 73.0% Contact%, 10.7% SwStr%
2010: 28.5% O-Swing%, 68.3% Z-Swing%, 68.2% Contact%, 13.8% SwStr%

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Adventures in Swinging Strike Rate vs. K Rate

A few weeks ago, Eno Sarris took a look at a few batters with high swinging-strike rates and average strikeout rates, showing that a batter with a penchant for (or weakness in) whiffing on pitches doesn’t necessarily post as a high number of strikeouts as you would expect. Josh Hamilton, Delmon Young, and Vladimir Guerrero were identified as players who combine decent strikeout rates with high swinging-strike rates. These batters are characterized by their below-average walk rates while being known as free-swingers. Their aggressive approach presents both fewer strikeout opportunities and fewer walk opportunities as they try to put the ball in play early in the count.

This got me thinking: Since there are batters who can avoid strikeouts who presumably swing early, are there batters who get too many strikeouts because they don’t swing enough? I mean, clearly swinging strikes are not the only way to strike out a batter, and a batter who leaves his bat on the shoulder too often will get lots of called strikes. A conservative approach with few swings at anything in the hopes of drawing a walk could backfire. Such batters do exist — it’s just about identifying who they are.

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Joe Beimel Improves Bucs’ Bullpen

The Pirates announce the signing of Joe Beimel today, giving the organization a decent left-handed reliever since they traded Javier Lopez at this past summer’s trade deadline to the eventual World Series champs Giants. Beimel was originally drafted by the Pirates out of Pittsburgh-based Duquesne University (shout-out to former RotoGraphs author and friend Dan Budreika), debuting with Pittsburgh in 2001. As reported by MLB Trade Rumors, Beimel had several Major League offers and one two-year offer, but he chose to return to Pittsburgh for a minor league deal. He’s expected to make the Pirates’ Opening Day roster.

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The Reds’ Crowded Rotation

Sometimes, having too many starting pitchers is a good problem to have, and the Cincinnati Reds appear to be stuck in this rut. While the Reds’ rotation won’t get much attention compared to that of other NL teams like the Phillies and the Giants, they should head into 2011 with a serviceable rotation.

Bronson Arroyo leads as the workhorse of the rotation, eclipsing the 200-inning mark every year since 2005. He also posted a 3.88 ERA and a 4.61 FIP with a low BABIP of .239 in 2010, aiding the low-strikeout ground-ball pitcher. A pair of 24-year-old righties in Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey are the first of the youth movement in the Reds’ rotation, both having pitched career seasons each with a sub-4.00 FIP. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Edinson Volquez looks to return to the heart of the rotation and continue posting good strikeout rates.

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Has Jonathan Sanchez Been the Same Pitcher?

As much as we at FanGraphs and other analytically-flavored websites preach against it, ERA is still the most commonly used measure of pitching performance (I would hope that we as a collective baseball fan base have dropped W-L record down on such a list). Whether it’s a Hall of Fame debate (Jack Morris) or recent transactions (Matt Garza), it’s almost natural for us to first look at a pitcher’s ERA in order to make a quick evaluation. Jonathan Sanchez has improved his ERA dramatically in the past few seasons, going from a 5.01 ERA in 2008 to a 4.24 ERA in 2009 to a 3.07 ERA in 2010. When looking at such numbers, my first inclination is that he got better every season, but I will also remember to look at peripheral statistics and stats such as FIP and WAR.

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Projecting Matt Garza at Wrigley Field

The addition of Matt Garza to the Cubs rotation looks like an upgrade in a vacuum. On the surface, Garza appears to be a decent pitcher, holding a sub-4.00 ERA with a healthy 200+ innings each of the past two seasons. A young pitcher heading into his prime years, Garza does sport a varied pitch repertoire while relying mostly on his mid-90s four-seam fastball. Yet, though Garza may be a staple in the Cubs rotation and more reliable than the enigmatic Carlos Silva, he is anything but a potential ace in a rotation absent of aces.

As Dave Cameron explained, Garza’s approach in relying heavily on four-seam fastballs comes at the risk of surrendering home runs, and his relatively low home-run to fly-ball ratio for a fly-ball pitcher is one factor for his sub-4.00 ERA seasons. What I am concerned about is what I feel some optimistic Cubs fans (yes, they exist) are ignoring: Garza’s fly-ball tendencies are ill-suited for Wrigley Field, and his Tropicana-depressed HR/FB ratio will be exposed in 2011.

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