How Did That Dodger Bullpen Get So Bad?

In Game 1 of the NLDS, Don Mattingly left in Clayton Kershaw to absorb a beating in part because he didn’t trust his bullpen. In Game 2, he lifted Zack Greinke, only to watch veteran J.P. Howell give a lead away. In Game 3, he rode Hyun-jin Ryu as far as he felt was realistic (given that Ryu had missed weeks with a shoulder injury), then saw Scott Elbert kick it away. In Game 4, a short-rest Kershaw was outstanding up until the moment he wasn’t, with Mattingly trying to push Kershaw through that seventh inning in order to turn it over to Kenley Jansen.

Each of these decisions were defensible in some way. And each one blew up in Mattingly’s face. The manager is getting pummeled for that, because that’s how sports work, and there’s a non-zero chance he doesn’t survive the winter, fairly or not. But the focus on Mattingly’s choices perhaps overlooks a more crucial problem: Man, how bad was that bullpen? How does this even happen?

Before the season, the Dodger bullpen was expected to be outstanding. Here’s a spring article that says the bullpen was “strong, stacked and ready for high expectations.” This one asks if the bullpen was “too stacked.” Another says it was a “position of strength.” At ESPN, it was judged to be a top-five collection. I point those out not to shame them — at least one is written by a friend — but to show how universal the belief was. We weren’t quite so high in our own projections, ranking them No. 12 and noting some concerns, though generally being positive, and the difference between top-five and top-12 wasn’t much.

It’s not hard to see why, anyway, because in theory, this was a bullpen overflowing with talent. Jansen had been one of baseball’s most dominant relievers for years. No one doubted Brian Wilson had been overpaid, but he’d also been outstanding in a small sample down the stretch in 2013 after recovering from Tommy John surgery (0.66 ERA / 2.02 FIP). The disappointing Brandon League and low-cost newcomer Chris Perez had few fans, but at least both had had success in the not-too-distant past.

Howell had been a reliable lefty for the team in 2013. Flame-throwing Chris Withrow had struck out hitters at Jansen-esque levels in his rookie season the year before. Paco Rodriguez‘ rookie season had ended poorly, but he’d been very productive all year before September. Youngsters Jose Dominguez, Yimi Garcia, Onelki Garcia and Pedro Baez were in the mix, as well, along with ageless veteran Jamey Wright, who had actually seemed to get better as he’d gotten older. Elbert was working his way back from injury. So was Chad Billingsley, who potentially would have fit in here if all five starters were healthy when he was ready. Paul Maholm was, too, I suppose, though more as a swingman — and he did end up making eight starts before blowing out his knee.

Here’s how that bullpen, which seemed like it would have more talent than places to put them, actually ended up: No. 26, in one of the rare times where FIP-WAR and RA9-WAR see eye-to-eye. In one or the other, they variously beat out the Tigers, Astros, Diamondbacks and Rockies, also known as “three awful teams and another well-known relief disaster.”

Perhaps most amazingly, this all happened despite the presence of Jansen, who was one of the best closers in baseball. Despite some atrocious batted-ball luck, Jansen was essentially Craig Kimbrel, walking fewer and striking out nearly as many as the celebrated Atlanta closer, and actually posting a better K%-BB%. Jansen was also the only Dodger reliever who wasn’t seen as replacement-level or worse, by FIP-WAR. (RA9-WAR at least likes Howell a bit more.)

Other than Jansen, though? Just about every other notable piece under-performed. Some of that’s to be expected, because we know how volatile relievers are, and some of it was due to injury. Withrow showed early wildness, then blew out his elbow in May. Billingsley never made it back. Onelki Garcia’s reportedly minor off-season elbow surgery ate his entire year.

Still, just compare actual performance to Dan Szymborski’s 2014 ZiPS projections run in late December. The table below shows every Dodger reliever with at least 10 innings pitched, which really only eliminates Dominguez, who spent most of the season in Triple-A and missed time with a shoulder injury; Elbert, who pulled the rare “DFA’d in July, playoff roster in October” pairing; and expanded roster call-up Daniel Coulombe. (It also doesn’t include swingman Kevin Correia, who was acquired in an August waiver deal from Minnesota and was an absolute disaster, allowing seven homers in 24.2 innings.)

Name IP K% BB% K-BB% BABIP ERA FIP WAR
Jamey Wright 2014 68.1 17.2% 8.4% 8.8% 0.308 4.35 3.48 0.1
ZIPS 58.7 20.0% 8.8% 11.2% 0.293 3.53 3.33 0.4
Kenley Jansen 2014 65.1 37.7% 7.1% 30.6% 0.350 2.76 1.91 2.0
ZIPS 70.2 39.0% 7.7% 31.3% 0.281 1.91 1.96 1.7
Brandon League 2014 63 13.9% 9.9% 4.0% 0.319 2.57 3.40 0.1
ZIPS 60.1 15.5% 7.2% 8.3% 0.286 4.03 3.72 -0.1
J.P. Howell 2014 49 24.1% 12.6% 11.6% 0.236 2.39 3.30 0.3
ZIPS 50.2 21.2% 9.6% 11.6% 0.276 3.37 3.56 0.3
Brian Wilson 2014 48.1 24.2% 13.0% 11.2% 0.336 4.66 4.29 -0.4
ZIPS 38.3 24.3% 8.9% 15.4% 0.285 3.05 3.02 0.4
Chris Perez 2014 46.1 19.5% 12.5% 7.0% 0.256 4.27 5.07 -0.8
ZIPS 58.1 22.5% 8.3% 14.2% 0.295 4.47 4.53 -0.3
Paul Maholm 2014 27 14.4% 8.5% 5.9% 0.348 5.00 3.21 0.1
ZIPS 147.3 15.9% 6.7% 9.2% 0.285 3.91 3.94 2.0
Carlos Frias 2014 25.2 24.0% 5.8% 18.3% 0.243 4.91 3.4 0.0
ZIPS
Pedro Baez 2014 24 19.6% 5.4% 14.1% 0.197 2.63 3.88 0.0
ZIPS 61.1 14.6% 10.2% 4.4% 0.287 5.14 5.11 -0.9
Chris Withrow 2014 21.1 31.1% 20.0% 11.1% 0.214 2.95 3.79 -0.1
ZIPS 54.1 23.6% 11.2% 12.4% 0.249 3.48 3.77 0.3
Paco Rodriguez 2014 14 26.4% 7.6% 18.9% 0.324 3.86 2.92 0.1
ZIPS 41.2 27.2% 9.0% 18.2% 0.306 3.02 2.93 0.4
Yimi Garcia 2014 10 25.0% 2.8% 22.2% 0.167 1.80 4.23 -0.1
ZIPS 57.1 24.6% 9.2% 15.4% 0.288 4.24 4.11 -0.3

(Wright, Maholm and Perez’ projections were run with other teams, as they were not Dodgers yet, though it’s not likely much would have changed. Frias came from so far off the radar that he didn’t even have a projection.)

There are a lot of numbers there, probably too many, so let me sum it up for you: Jansen was just as outstanding as he was expected to be. Howell was mostly fine until an inexplicable late-season slump that continued into the playoffs. League actually turned around 2013’s disaster to become one of the National League’s preeminent ground ball machines, though an inability to miss bats or contain walks limited his utility.

Wilson, however, was a mess from the start. He landed on the disabled list in April with a sore right elbow, and he struggled with his velocity and command all season. Wright was essentially replacement-level. Perez wasn’t expected to be good, then under-performed that. Baez, a converted third baseman, showed some value, but also lost velocity down the stretch as he was put into more important situations. Rodriguez spent most of his year struggling in Triple-A. Maholm added little.

As the season went on, it became clear this was an issue and it was not getting better. But the deadline came and went without any moves. Ned Colletti was crushed for that, perhaps not unfairly, though only two valuable relievers — Joakim Soria and Andrew Miller — were actually moved, and neither came cheaply. (Soria also didn’t help Detroit much around being injured.) In retrospect, that looks like a huge mistake; however, we don’t know the deals on the table, and if it had been something like “Joc Pederson for Hector Rondon,” or whatever was actually on the table, perhaps it’s better undone. We’ll never know, and as we saw anyway, teams making big trades didn’t automatically get anywhere in October.

Ultimately, it was such an issue that in the playoffs, Elbert, who had pitched only 4.1 MLB innings in September after missing more than two seasons with elbow injuries, made the cut. So did Frias, who’d had one of the worst games in the history of baseball only a few weeks earlier when pressed into the rotation, and so did Baez, who had pitched one inning apiece in brief May and July recalls before sticking in August. Perez did not.

So: Should Mattingly have trusted this group more in October? Elbert, Baez and Howell all gave up game-changing homers, and Kershaw might have been out of both of his games before disaster struck had the options been better. We all know how dangerous the effects of a recency bias can be — just look at the seemingly bizarre decision to sit Yasiel Puig in Game 4, then use him only as a pinch-runner — but it’s also not hard to see, with Howell’s rough few weeks, why Mattingly thought he had only a single viable bullpen option.

Maybe, as Jonah Keri noted during Game 4, Jansen would have been a bold choice in the seventh inning with Kershaw in trouble. But that’s a move no manager would have made, and with this group, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it would have only delayed the inevitable disaster. Right or wrong — there’s clearly room for either interpretation — Mattingly just didn’t have a lot of choices here. There was probably never a “right button to push.”

As for next year? Well, back in January, Colin Zarzycki noted that the Dodger bullpen cost more than the entire Astros roster. I can’t say I know what Houston’s spending will be this winter, but we do know that the Dodgers will again have an expensive bullpen. Wilson (with a $10 million player option that will surely be picked up), League ($8.5 million) and Howell ($5.5 million) are all under contract, as is the arbitration-eligible Jansen, who should get a bump from his $4.3 million 2014 salary. Right there, that’s nearly $30 million, and if Ned Colletti keeps his job, that’s sure to increase when he throws money at Miller or Sergio Romo or David Robertson.

Mattingly probably did the best he could with this group. Wildly expensive finances aside, it just wasn’t enough. It’s not the only reason they’re already home — the offense didn’t exactly step up against the Cardinals — but it’s the most visible, and it’s terribly disappointing for Dodger fans.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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David
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David

But if they were going to pitch Kershaw on three days’ rest, why didn’t any starters move to the pen?