NEW YORK — They’ve won back to back National League pennants and clinched their seventh straight NL West title on September 10. They have a four-game lead over the Braves for the senior circuit’s best record. And yet, even as they close in on 100 wins and the top NL seed for the playoffs, the 2019 Dodgers are still a squad very much in flux. Lineup, rotation, bullpen — everywhere, key roles up for grabs, as manager Dave Roberts and his staff spend the remainder of September hoping to find a route through October that will end differently than the last two.
This past weekend’s trip to Citi Field for a three-game series against the Mets, who had won four straight and nine out of their last 13, put all of that on display. Friday night’s 9-2 rout was keyed by a fourth-inning, three-run homer off Noah Syndergaard by rookie Gavin Lux, who despite having just 12 major league games under his belt at this writing is amid a successful audition for the starting second base job. Saturday’s lineup featured an outfield of familiar faces — A.J. Pollock, Cody Bellinger, and Joc Pederson — in a configuration that had been used on just two other occasions in the previous 149 games.
Saturday evening’s pitching matchup, though billed as as one between Cy Young hopefuls Jacob deGrom and Hyun-Jin Ryu, was in many ways a crucial test for the latter, who despite leading all major league starters in ERA had suddenly fallen into a four-start funk. He passed his test with flying colors, delivering seven shutout innings, but the bullpen that followed him did not, surrendering three eighth-inning runs that led to defeat. Sunday brought some familiar moving parts back into the mix, and the bullpen — particularly Kenley Jansen — fared much better in the team’s come-from-behind 3-2 victory.
To be clear, some of this was and will continue to be the usual September shufflings of a playoff-bound team trying to cover for injuries and rest some veterans before the postseason. With Justin Turner nursing a mild left ankle sprain, rookie Matt Beaty started on Friday and Saturday at third base, a position he hadn’t played at the major league level before September, though for as useful as he’s been off the bench, he’s no threat to unseat a healthy Turner. Ryu was starting on nine days of rest, while Walker Buehler, who started on Sunday, was pulled after 71 pitches (his fewest since his season debut on March 31) and five innings, pushing his season total to 171.1, 18 more than last year’s combined total in the minors and majors.
Of course, it helps to have expanded September rosters for such an endeavor, and with the Dodgers, Lux is no window dressing. By the time the team’s 2016 first-round pick made his major league debut on September 2, the Dodgers had already started six other players at second base, including July 31 acquisition Jedd Gyorko, who had debuted there on September 1. Led by Enrique Hernández (84 games, 63 starts) and Max Muncy (67 games, 59 starts) and limited somewhat by injuries to both, as well as to Chris Taylor (20 games, 13 starts), the group — including Lux — hasn’t fared badly, ranking ninth among all 30 teams in both WAR (2.9, led by Muncy’s 1.7 in that capacity) and wRC+ (104). But Lux’s torrid minor league season (.347/.421/.607 with 26 homers), his draft pedigree, and his prospect status (number nine on The Board, up from number 23 in February) earned him this shot, and Roberts has liked what he’s seen. “I see composure,” said the manager of the 21-old rookie prior to Saturday’s game. “There’s a confidence. It’s a really good skill set. I see him starting tomorrow against [Zack] Wheeler. And if he continues to play well, the at-bats will be there.”
On Saturday night, Lux got his first real taste of what it’s like to face a major league ace, striking out three times against deGrom, twice with two runners on base — which was all of the runners deGrom allowed in his seven shutout innings. In the second inning, after Bellinger’s leadoff single and a one-out plunking of Pollock, Lux swung at just one of four pitches he saw, and was caught looking at a 98.3 mph four-seamer on the high outside corner of the zone — a near-carbon copy of the 97 mph heater deGrom threw him for strike one. In the fifth inning, with nobody on, he took two fastballs for strikes, evened the count, fouled off an outside changeup, then swung through a hanging 92.8 mph slider. In the seventh, after back-to-back two-out singles, Lux battled to a 2-2 count, fighting off a 98.8-mph heater at the top of the zone but then whiffing on a 90.4 mph cutter in the heart of the zone.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
That Lux has so quickly become a fixture at second base carries ramifications for the versatile Taylor, Hernández, and Muncy, the last of whom is the most vital to the Dodgers’ offense. Friday marked the 29-year-old slugger’s return to action following a two-week absence due to a fracture in his right wrist. Despite his stocky build, Muncy has been adequate or better at second base (-1.4 UZR and 6 DRS in 502.1 innings), though he’s a more natural fit at first base, where he played 58 games and made 38 starts (he also played 28 games and started 24 times at third base, Turner’s domain). At any position, he can do damage to pitchers of either hand, with a wRC+ of 133 against lefties and 131 against righties.
More imperiled by Lux’s arrival are the two righties, both of whom have struggled against same-side pitching this year and missed significant time in the second half. Taylor, who started slowly but was heating up before a nondisplaced fracture in his left forearm derailed him for five weeks, has hit for just a 92 wRC+ against righties, compared to 128 against lefties. He’s seen more time at shortstop (38 games and 30 starts, generally filling in for the injured Seager), and the outfield (51 games and 28 starts in left field, 15 games and nine starts in center) than at second.
Hernández, who missed 26 days in late July and August due to a sprained left wrist, has started at every position besides pitcher and catcher but seen more time at second base this year than any single position in any of his six seasons (five with LA). His tepid performance, however (84 wRC+ against righties, 103 against lefties) has cost him some playing time. Notably, Muncy started all three games at first base against the Mets’ trio of righties while Taylor came off the bench in the first two and got the start at third base in the finale; he had a two-run double in the opener and game-tying, eighth-inning RBI double in the latter. Hernández made the most of his lone series appearance, starting in left field in the finale, and doubling in the ninth inning off Seth Lugo, the Mets’ best reliever; he scored the decisive run on a single by Gyorko.
Hernández’s start was the only variant in the Dodgers’ new-look outfield. Though the Dodgers inked Pollock to a four-year, $55 million deal with the intent of starting him in center field, he missed two and a half months due to surgery to clear up an infection in his right elbow, and has been hampered by a groin strain since early August. On September 2, he started in left field for the first time since May 6, 2014, and just the 10th time in his eight-year major league career. As his woeful defensive metrics (-5.9 UZR, -9 DRS in 62 games in center field) suggest, his mobility has been hampered, so the Dodgers are reacquainting him with left field while Bellinger shifts from right to center, an experiment that the 31-year-old outfielder has accepted with open arms. As he told the Los Angeles Times‘ Jorge Castillo earlier this month, “I’ve seen how Belli moves and that guy is a stud outfielder. If that’s the best defense they think they could put out there, then I’ll be all for it.”
Bellinger, who last year made 85 starts at first base and 50 in center, has spent the bulk of his season in right field, starting 102 times there and just 26 at first base. He’s provided elite defense in right, a position where he had only played 37 major league innings in his first two seasons; his 9.4 UZR is tops among NL right fielders and trails only Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, and Max Kepler, while his 19 DRS leads the majors. Prior to August 16, he hadn’t played a single game in center this year, but he’s started eight of the team’s last 11 games there, and 13 overall. Jake Mailhot recently took a closer look at his defensive metrics (including some new ones from Statcast) and the ramifications of the move. Whether or not Bellinger’s returning to the middle pasture has anything to do with his comparatively modest .247/.371/.454 (111 wRC+) line with just four homers since August 16 is an open question.
With rookie Alex Verdugo out since August 6 due to an oblique strain and still not back to baseball activities, Pederson — who himself spent most of 2015-17 in center, and most of 2018 and the first part of ’19 in left — has seen the bulk of the right field duty when Bellinger is playing elsewhere. Where he was in the red defensively in center field (and has yet to start there this year), he’s been a true defensive asset at the corners (6.0 UZR, 10 DRS) to complement his career-high 32 homers (all against righties) and his 122 wRC+.
It all adds up to a dizzying array of options but a tremendous amount of depth for Roberts to manage come October. But the most impactful recent experimentation in Dodger-land may have been the combination of extra rest and a rare between-starts bullpen session undertaken by Ryu, who was pummeled for a 9.95 ERA and 5.69 FIP in a four-start span against the Braves, Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rockies from August 17 to September 4. The 32-year-old South Korean southpaw allowed three runs or more in each start, compared to just twice in his previous 23 turns; yielded multiple homers twice in that span, compared to just two other times this year; and capped that stretch by issuing a season-high four walks in just 4.1 innings on September 4 against Colorado. Blech.
As detailed by Andy McCulloch on May 29, Ryu generally does not throw between outings, preferring a regimen of shoulder strengthening exercises, cardio, running, and upper-body work. He had thrown a bullpen session in advance of that September 4 start, but the raised arm slot he introduced produced the aforementioned command and control issues. He went back to the drawing board for another session on September 10, and on Saturday returned with a lower arm slot; his average release points were more or less in line with where they’ve been since the All-Star break. Whatever subtle tweaks he made yielded a compelling return to form on Saturday, as he allowed just two hits — singles by Robinson Canó in the third and Amed Rosario in the fourth — and didn’t walk a batter while striking out six. He went to a three-ball count just three times and needed just 90 pitches to complete seven innings, his lowest pitch count to do so since May 19 against the Reds.
Per Brooks Baseball, Ryu threw a higher percentage of four-seam fastballs (37.8%) than in any start since that May 19 outing and mustered his highest average velocity (91.5 mph) since a July 31 start against the Rockies, albeit by only a few hairs. He complemented that with frequent use of his changeup (32.2%); the seven swings and misses he generated via the latter pitch (out of 29 such offerings) were his highest total since July 14 against the Red Sox.
Both Roberts and Ryu cited the changeup as a key to his strong outing. “His execution was considerably better than the last few starts, changing eye levels, in and out and pitching off the changeup, got a lot of soft contact,” said the manager.
“It’s supposed to be my best pitch,” said Ryu through a translator. “If I can get my changeup to work, then all of my other offspeed pitches and my fastball come alive… I feel I can face any hitter as long as my changeup is working.”
Did the extra rest and bullpen session help? “It’s hard to argue with that statement,” said Ryu. “I was able to explore some of the ways to work on my delivery.”
Ryu felt that the matchup against the reigning NL Cy Young winner raised his game. “If you have a guy like deGrom going against you, you’re extra focused and it actually puts you in a better rhythm because in a pitchers’ duel, you get on the mound faster,” he said. Tongue in cheek, he agreed that his new, nearly blond look was a factor, too. “Obviously it helped me incredibly,” he said, laughing. “When I was in Korea I did a little switch to my hair color or style to kind of give a different look.”
Alas, the Dodgers’ bullpen — which has been a trouble spot for most of the season, though better in the second half (3.83 ERA, 4.07 FIP) than the first (4.05 ERA, 4.26 FIP) — was less successful on Saturday. With the game still scoreless, Roberts went batter by batter with a trio of relievers in the eighth. While lefty Adam Kolarek struck out Canó, righty Joe Kelly hit Todd Frazier with a pitch. He recovered to strike out Juan Lagares but then got the hook; lefty Julio Urías arrived but hit Brandon Nimmo, then walked Rosario, and finally gave up a bases-clearing double to pinch-hitter Rajai Davis for the game’s only three runs.
“I liked the matchups,” said Roberts afterwards, adding that recent workloads of Kelly and Urías factored into his choices. “This is three [outings] out of four [days] for Joe. So to have a spot I thought was a good run for Julio off of an off day, I though this was a good chance for him to go get three, four, five hitters. We just didn’t pitch well in the eighth. You’ve got two hit batsmen and a walk and I think Davis hit a good changeup down, but that’s a bit of a byproduct of the at-bats leading up to it.”
The bullpen was much more effective on Sunday in relief of Buehler. Inheriting a 2-1 deficit, Pedro Báez, Dustin May (like Lux, a prospect playing his way into a postseason role), and Kenley Jansen each threw scoreless innings, with Kolarek (one out) and Kenta Maeda (two outs) finishing the ninth. Only May and Maeda allowed baserunners, with the former yielding a single to Canó and hitting J.D. Davis with one out but recovering to strike out both Nimmo and Rosario, and the latter — who for the third straight season has moved from the rotation to the bullpen for the stretch run — rebounding from a two-out walk of Canó to finish the job by striking out Panik.
Maeda got the save, but it was Jansen’s sterling 10-pitch outing, which followed the Dodgers tying the game, that generated the buzz. After winning a six-pitch battle with Lagares that resulted in a fly ball, he induced Jeff McNeil to pop up his first pitch and then struck Pete Alonso out on three pitches, the last two via whiffs at his revitalized cutter:
“I’ve been searching the whole year,” Jansen said afterwards, regarding the feel for his cutter. “I finally figured it out. You see the life, the rise and the cut again. It’s made me become a better pitcher, because I’ve used secondary pitches and I’ve got more weapons.”
It was Jansen’s third straight scoreless outing following a rocky two-month stretch. In 19 innings from July 3 though September 3, he was lit for a 5.21 ERA and a 4.53 FIP while converting just five out of nine save chances; only once in that stretch did he string together three scoreless frames. Jansen felt that he restored his mechanics while long-tossing in Baltimore on September 11, the day before his lone outing in that series. Via Pitch Info, his cutter has averaged just 92.1 mph this year, 0.6 mph lower than last year, 1.4 mph lower than in 2017, and 2.1 mph lower than in ’16. The Baltimore and New York appearances marked the first time all season that his signature pitch has averaged at least 93 mph in back-to-back appearances, a level he had reached in just three of his previous 54 outings.
If the Dodgers are to write a different ending to this season than the last two, where they watched the Astros and Red Sox celebrate World Series clinchers at Chavez Ravine, they’ll need the majority of these September experiments to pay off. If their results in New York are any indication, good things may be in store.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.