Dodgers Land Kimbrel to Close, White Sox Add Pollock to Outfield

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Having lost Kenley Jansen to the Braves via free agency, the Dodgers felt that they needed a closer, and that they had an outfielder to spare. Feeling uncertain about outfield depth in the wake of Andrew Vaughn’s hip injury, the White Sox were willing to part with a pricey setup man. Fittingly, then, the two contenders teamed up on a trade on Friday, with Chicago sending Craig Kimbrel to Los Angeles in exchange for AJ Pollock.

The 33-year-old Kimbrel spent less than half a season with the White Sox after being acquired from the Cubs in a crosstown deal at last year’s trade deadline, in exchange for second baseman Nick Madrigal and righty reliever Codi Heuer. Where Kimbrel had built on a late-2020 rebound and dominated for the Cubs — posting a 0.49 ERA, converting 23 out of 25 save chances, and making his eighth All-Star team — he slotted into a setup role in front of All-Star closer Liam Hendricks with the White Sox, notching just one save and getting hit for a 5.09 ERA. At least on paper, the Sox appeared ready to utilize a similar arrangement this year, though paying Hendriks $13 million and Kimbrel $16 million made for a particularly pricey late-inning combination.

Even with the late-season hiccups, Kimbrel still finished with his best rate stats since 2017 via a 2.26 ERA, 2.43 FIP, 42.6% strikeout rate, 9.8% walk rate, and 32.8% strikeout-walk differential. Among relievers, only Josh Hader had a higher strikeout rate, and only Hendriks, Hader, and Raisel Iglesias had a better strikeout-walk differential.

The 59.2-inning workload was Kimbrel’s largest since 2018; after helping the Red Sox win the World Series in what was a comparatively lackluster season, he didn’t sign with the Cubs until June 6, 2019, after the draft pick compensation that encumbered his free agency had expired. He threw just 36 innings in 2019–20, with a 6.00 ERA and 6.29 FIP, but during the latter season, the Cubs identified a mechanical issue. “Kimbrel was getting too rotational and was flying open early,” as The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma described it in March 2021. “This led to multiple issues, all connected in various ways: his arm slot dropped, he was pulling his fastball, his velocity was dipping and he had no control of his breaking ball.”

As you can see from this graph from Brooks Baseball, Kimbrel had a more consistent but lower vertical release point in 2021 than in ’18–19, a least if we’re zooming out to view month-to-month averages:

On this basis, Kimbrel’s vertical release point was consistent even during his late-season struggles with Chicago, which were largely the product of home runs (he served up five in 23 innings, compared to one in 36.2 innings with the Cubs). On a game-to-game basis, however, his average vertical release point might vary by nearly a quarter of an inch:

Via The Athletic’s James Fegan, here’s how Kimbrel described his late-season mechanical struggles just a couple of weeks ago:

“As a pitcher, there are times when we can pick up our leg and throw to home plate and not have to think about much,” Kimbrel said. “And there are times that we have cues that we have to stick to and think about all the time. Those just go in transitions. I think last year I got into a point where I got caught in a couple clicks that I tried to work through, and just wasn’t getting through them. I was dropping my arm a little bit, the ball was running. I wasn’t getting my breaking ball over for strikes like I should. Little things that can go a long way into getting outs. Just got to get it over the plate and get outs. That’s all I can really worry about.”

Via Statcast, Kimbrel’s average fastball velocity dropped after the trade, from 96.9 mph to 95.9 mph, and his command of the pitch fell off; he left a greater share of those pitches near the middle of the strike zone. Meanwhile, his curveballs missed the zone more often:

The result was batters chasing outside the zone less often, making a greater share of their contact in the strike zone, and hitting the ball harder. Where hitters facing Kimbrel produced an average exit velocity of 88.7 mph and a .201 xwOBA with a 5% barrel rate before the trade, they were up to 92.8 mph with an 8.2% barrel rate and .287 xwOBA after it.

The Dodgers, whose 2021 bullpen ranked second in the NL in ERA (3.16) and third in FIP (3.83), obviously feel as though they can get Kimbrel back to where he was before the trade, and that he’ll feel right at home in his return to pitching the ninth inning. He’ll succeed Jansen, who spent the past 10 years as the Dodgers’ closer, making three All-Star teams. Manager Dave Roberts had not anointed a new closer prior to the Kimbrel trade, but now Blake Treinen, who had been the leading candidate to handle ninth-inning chores, will slot back into a setup role, with righties Daniel Hudson and Brusdar Graterol and lefties Alex Vesia and Justin Bruihl figuring in the team’s late-inning plans, too. Eventually, righty Tommy Kahnle and lefty Caleb Ferguson, both of whom are recovering from Tommy John surgery, could enter the picture, as could righty Phil Bickford, who impressed as a rookie but has been slowed by arm soreness this spring and won’t be ready for Opening Day, and lefty Danny Duffy, who is recovering from flexor tendon surgery. Kimbrel at this stage may or may not be better than Treinen, who pitched to a 1.99 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 72.1 innings last year, but he’s almost certainly better than the pitchers further down in the pecking order whose 60–70 innings he’ll absorb.

Interestingly enough, even with Kimbrel, the Dodgers’ bullpen projects to rank fifth in the majors via our Depth Charts, one notch below Jansen and the Braves and two below the Kimbrel-free White Sox. For them, sticking with Hendriks, who pitched to a 2.54 ERA and 2.34 FIP and saved 38 games last year, in the ninth inning made sense, as he’s been significantly better than Kimbrel in recent years and projects to be better for 2022 as well. The Sox spent the offseason augmenting their bullpen depth to accompany Hendriks and setup man Aaron Bummer, signing free agent Kendall Graveman to a three-year, $24 million deal in November on the heels of a dominant season in which he relied upon a much-improved slider. The White Sox also added Joe Kelly, who had spent the previous three seasons with the Dodgers, via a two-year, $17 million deal; he’s still recovering from a biceps strain suffered during last year’s NLCS and won’t be ready for Opening Day, though he could be back in late April.

As for the other man in the trade, the 34-year-old Pollock is coming off the best of his three seasons as a Dodger, having hit .297/.355/.536 with career highs of 21 homers and a 137 wRC+ as well as 3.0 WAR. As I noted in October, he also set career bests in barrel and hard-hit rate and matched the lowest groundball rate of his career:

AJ Pollock Batted Ball Profile
Season Team GB/FB GB% EV LA Barrel% HardHit% wOBA xwOBA
2015 ARI 1.74 50.3% 88.9 8.9 4.5% 39.1% .371 .338
2017 ARI 1.39 44.6% 88.0 8.5 5.4% 38.4% .340 .334
2018 ARI 1.10 42.2% 89.2 13.5 9.7% 40.5% .338 .333
2019 LAD 1.18 43.5% 90.6 13.7 7.6% 39.9% .333 .329
2020 LAD 1.00 39.9% 89.6 13.0 10.5% 43.1% .364 .346
2021 LAD 1.03 39.9% 90.3 12.0 11.1% 47.1% .375 .360

Pollock did that while expanding his zone and swinging and missing more often, yet striking out less:

AJ Pollock Swing Rates
Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% SwStr% K% BB%
2015 ARI 30.2% 64.0% 46.0% 85.0% 6.9% 13.2% 7.9%
2017 ARI 27.0% 60.4% 42.3% 83.6% 6.9% 15.2% 7.5%
2018 ARI 33.6% 67.3% 48.1% 77.8% 10.6% 21.7% 6.7%
2019 LAD 31.6% 67.0% 46.6% 75.4% 11.4% 21.6% 6.7%
2020 LAD 33.7% 66.5% 47.7% 78.7% 10.1% 21.4% 5.7%
2021 LAD 37.6% 73.9% 52.8% 77.0% 12.0% 19.0% 7.1%

Pollock did all that in just 117 games, interrupted by trips to the injured list for strains in both hamstrings — the left in May and the right in September. There was concern that the latter injury would affect his postseason availability, but he recovered and was particularly strong in the NLCS against the Braves, slugging .810.

Those 117 games constituted Pollock’s highest total since 2015. Since then, he’s landed on the IL in every season but the pandemic-shortened 2020 one and surpassed 1.0 WAR only two other times besides ’21 (’17 and ’18). It’s fair to say that the Dodgers sold high on him as he heads into the fourth and final guaranteed year of his $55 million deal; he has a $10 million player option with a $5 million buyout for 2023, with incentives that add another $1 million to his option for surpassing 400, 450, 500, 550, and 600 plate appearances.

Pollock figured to get the lion’s share of work in left field for Los Angeles, with Chris Taylor and Gavin Lux also vying for significant time. Instead he’ll likely serve as Chicago’s right fielder. As I noted in the right field edition of our Positional Power Rankings, which was published on Friday just hours before news of the trade broke, the White Sox did not appear to have a clear plan as to who would join center fielder Luis Robert and left fielder Eloy Jiménez as the regular in the lineup. Vaughn, previously their leading candidate for playing time in right, will miss the start of the season due to a hip pointer that will keep him out for at least a couple of weeks. He hit just .235/.309/.396 (94 wRC+) as a rookie, though his batted ball stats were better than that, and at 24 years old, he projects for significant growth on the offensive side, even if his glove is another story. With Vaughn’s injury, Adam Engel and Gavin Sheets moved ahead of him on our depth chart, but Pollock’s presence changes the equation, even if he’s played just 20 innings in right field during his major league career.

“Trust me, he can play right field,” manager Tony La Russa told reporters on Friday. (La Russa served as a Diamondbacks executive when Pollock was the team’s center fielder.) Pollock spent most of his time with the Dodgers playing left field, where in 1,149 innings he was a notch below average according to the metrics (-3 DRS, -4 OAA, -5.3 UZR).

The new-look White Sox could use Pollock in right field, backed up by Engel, with the righty-swinging Vaughn and the lefty-swinging Sheets platooning at DH and spotting in the outfield corners and at first base. Lefty-swinging Adam Haseley, who was acquired from the Phillies last week, was optioned to Triple-A in the aftermath of the Pollock deal.

On the other side of the deal, the Dodgers’ addition of Freddie Freeman left Roberts and company figuring out how to divide up the playing time among their versatile players at multiple positions, and the trade of Pollock helps in that regard. Taylor and Lux — the latter took up playing the outfield last year and will be used in a utility role this year — will soak up most of the playing time in left field; Edwin Ríos, who’s back after surgery to repair the torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder, could see time there as well. Taylor, Lux, and Max Muncy will be in the mix at second base, with Muncy likely serving as the primary designated hitter.

No money changed hands in the trade, though the White Sox are picking up the $1.5 million assignment bonus that Pollock receives for being traded. The deal nonetheless has financial ramifications that are affected by a new facet of the recently-negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. Where previously, each contract would count against its teams Competitive Balance Tax threshold based on its average annual value ($16 million for Kimbrel via the club option that the White Sox picked up, and $12 million for Pollock), if a player is dealt, then the AAV is recalibrated following the trade. In this case, that drops Pollock’s AAV to $10 million — not that the White Sox particularly need the breathing room with respect to the $230 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, as they’re just a hair under $210 million according to Roster Resource.

As for the Dodgers, while they’re paying Kimbrel the same amount that the Braves are paying Jansen, the difference is that by going this route, they’ve cleared Pollock’s salary from the books. Via Roster Resource, they’re at almost $293 million in payroll for CBT purposes, putting them about $3 million above the new fourth-tier tax threshold; they’ll pay an 80% tax on that overage. Via the Los Angeles Times‘ Jorge Castillo, the Dodgers did want to re-sign Jansen but wanted to wait until they had cleared enough salary to keep their payroll under $290 million.

Jansen could only wait so long, however. “I started to feel that the Dodgers had to make stuff happen,” he told Castillo. “And, at the same time, you got to deal with the reality of what’s best for you and your family.” Castillo reported that before they signed Jansen, the Braves also explored trading for Kimbrel, who was drafted by the team in 2008 and made four All-Star teams while pitching for them from ’10 to ’14.

Indeed, this deal completes a strange game of musical chairs involving the two teams that have met in back-to-back National League Championship Series and four times in the past decade, with the first of those defined by Kimbrel looking on from the visitors’ bullpen in Dodger Stadium as David Carpenter served up a home run to Juan Uribe that ultimately secured the 2013 NLDS. The Dodgers’ signing of Freeman only adds to that surreal evolution.

This deal isn’t directly about the Braves, though. The Dodgers and White Sox both had needs, if not glaring ones, and both had surpluses that were on the pricey side. They match up quite nicely in that regard, and it’s very possible that both teams are stronger for having made the swap.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Keeping Eloy in LF is silly to me. I know he’s young, but he’s had multiple injuries, and he’s very bad at it. Vaughn, learning it on the fly, was certainly not good either, but I feel like if you’re protecting a better player, why keep letting him get hurt if he’s not even good at it?

1 year ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

Vaughn was surprisingly playable in left per the defensive metrics— SSS bc it’s one season, but DRS and OAA had him only little below avg and UZR had him slightly above average.

Anyways, Eloy will continue to play LF a lot because the Sox have far too many hitters that could use PAs via 1B/DH to stick him there permanently— Eloy, Vaughn, Abreu, Sheets, and Grandal all could use DH PAs.

1 year ago
Reply to  MRDXol

Vaughn’s eventual home is 1B or DH, but until Abreu vacates his position there’s no place for him. In the best case scenario, Vaughn slows down and has to play first or DH around the time that Abreu leaves. Although if he’s still hitting the presence of Sheets complicates that.

1 year ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

I’ve said it before, Eloy is a danger to himself and others when he plays LF. My nightmare is that he takes out Robert.

1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

If you are afraid of that then it is probably better if you don’t see today’s collision between Kepler and Nick Gordon in the 1st inning of today’s Twins-Red Sox game. Gordon lay motionless for a couple of minutes before being able to get into the cart without assistance, but it was scary.