Powerhouse Dodgers’ Bullpen Misadventures Stand Out

Six in a row, 10 out of 11, 16 out of 19, 27 out of 35 — however you slice it, the Dodgers have been steamrolling everything in their path lately. They haven’t lost a series since dropping two of three to the Giants April 29 to May 1, and now own the NL’s best record (42-19) by a margin of 7.5 games. Their +96 run differential is nearly equal to the sum of those of the league’s second-ranked Cubs (+53) and third-ranked Diamondbacks (+46). Their offense owns the league’s highest wRC+ by a wide margin (117 to the Cubs’ 109), and their rotation owns the NL’s best ERA (2.88) and FIP (3.46) while also the most innings per start (5.89).

Which brings us to their bullpen. Sure, it hasn’t been a dumpster fire on the order of the Nationals’ (6.81 ERA, 5.08 FIP) or Orioles’ (5.84 ERA, 5.66 FIP), but there are only so many teams who can be that lucky. Through Monday, the Dodgers’ bullpen ranked 10th in the NL in ERA (4.71) and ninth in FIP (4.48). The former number doesn’t even account for the fact that the unit has allowed 43% of the runners inherited from the starters to score, the league’s second-worst mark; include all inherited runners and the rate falls to 39%, third-worst. While their relievers’ 7.6% walk rate is a league low, their 22.2% strikeout rate is the second-lowest, and their 1.37 homers per nine is mid-pack. Their clutch score — a measure of whether a player or team has done better or worse than expected in higher-leverage situations — of -2.54 is second-to-last in the NL, ahead of only the Nationals.

As you can see from those numbers above, the offense and rotation have largely papered over the bullpen’s problems. The week-long span from Sunday, May 26 through Saturday, June 1 — during which Dodger relievers combined for a 7.08 ERA and 6.64 FIP in 20.1 innings — illustrates the point in dramatic fashion:

  • Sunday, May 26 vs. Pirates: Caleb Ferguson entered with a seven-run lead and turned it into a four-run lead, though the Dodgers still won, 11-7.
  • Monday, May 27 vs. Mets: Joe Kelly entered with a five-run lead and failed to retire any of the three hitters he faced, the highlight of whom was a two-run homer by Adeny Hechavarria, the owner of a career .346 slugging percentage and a total of 29 homers compiled in eight seasons. When Kelly’s successor, Dylan Floro, got into trouble, manager Dave Roberts called upon Kenley Jansen for a five-out save, which he converted in the 9-5 win.
  • Tuesday, May 28 vs. Mets: With the score tied, Yimi Garcia issued an eight-pitch leadoff walk to Hechavarria, the owner of a career 4.8% walk rate. Floro walked Aaron Altherr and committed a throwing error on a sacrifice bunt attempt; two batters later, Scott Alexander served up a grand slam to Michael Conforto that proved decisive in their 7-3 loss.
  • Wednesday, May 29 vs. Mets: After Walker Buehler departed trailing 5-3, Pedro Baez gave up two hits and a run, an RBI single by Hechevarria. Julio Urias dug the Dodgers an even bigger hole by serving up home runs to Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith within his first four pitches of the seventh inning. While Garcia and Alexander delivered scoreless innings, the Dodgers rallied for five runs — three via solo homer — against Jeurys Familia and Edwin Diaz, then added two more against Diaz, capped by Alex Verdugo’s walk-off sacrifice fly, for a 9-8 win.
  • Thursday, May 30 vs. Mets: After Hyun-Jin Ryu spun 7.2 scoreless innings and departed with a 1-0 lead, Roberts called upon Jansen for a four-out save, which he converted, aided by the addition of an insurance run.
  • Friday, May 31 vs. Phillies: Maeda, Stripling, and Baez got the Dodgers to the ninth with a 6-2 lead. Floro couldn’t finish the job, allowing two singles and a run while getting two outs, so Jansen had to shut the door for the final out of the 6-3 win.
  • Saturday, June 1 vs. Phillies: After Clayton Kershaw turned in seven innings of one-run ball and left with a 3-1 lead, Urias served up a game-tying two-run homer to Bryce Harper in the first of his two innings. The Dodgers ended up winning anyway when rookie catcher Will Smith hit a walk-off solo homer in just his fourth major league game.

The next day was Sunday again. The caterpillar ate through — wait, sorry, my daughter just walked in… Anyway, there are easier ways for a team to go 6-1. For as exciting as that week was for the Dodgers, it had to be a harrowing one for Roberts, who lately hasn’t been awash in reliable options in front of Jansen. As microcosms of a season go, this is ominous:

Dodgers Relievers, May 26–June 1
Pitchers IP H HR BB SO ERA FIP
Jansen + Baez 7.1 3 0 3 9 1.23 1.92
The Rest 13.0 22 5 9 9 10.38 8.84

Yikes. We haven’t even gotten to the part about Jansen having not pitched like his stellar self for the past season and change (it’s coming). For the moment, consider that of the 13 relievers the team has used (besides Russell Martin), only four have positive WAR, namely Baez (0.7 in 26.1 innings, both team highs), Jansen (0.7 in 25.2 innings), Floro (0.3 in 21.2 innings), and Ross Stripling (0.1 in nine innings). Both Stripling and Urias (-0.1 WAR in 13.2 innings), who began the year in the rotation, filling in for the injured Kershaw and Rich Hill, have delivered significantly more value as starters (0.6 WAR in 34 innings for the former, 0.4 WAR in 19.2 innings for the latter), but as with last year, rank below the starting five on the depth chart. Meanwhile, Urias is one of Dodgers with a negative WAR via at least 10 innings of “relief” work, along with Alexander (-0.1 in 16.1 innings), Kelly (-0.2 in 19.1 innings), Garcia (-0.2 in 22.2 innings), and Ferguson (-0.3 in 14 innings).

Obviously, the sample sizes are small for all of the pitchers in question, but this is the cast of characters the Dodgers envisioned for their bullpen. Jansen and Kelly aside, it’s a low-cost mix of home-grown talent and sleeper trade acquisitions; besides that aforementioned pair, only the injured Tony Cingrani ($2.65 million) and Baez ($2.1 million) are making seven figures this year. Aside from Cingrani, who threw just 22.2 innings last year due to a shoulder strain and is about to undergo season-ending arthroscopic surgery, the Dodgers don’t have any injuries among their relievers to point to as excuses for disarray. The only other personnel issue thus far has been Urias’ two-week absence from pitching due to a still-incomplete MLB investigation in the wake of his May 13 arrest for a domestic violence allegation. For the most part, this is how Andrew Friedman and his staff drew it up.

On the heels of a season in which the bullpen ranked fifth in the NL in both ERA and FIP (3.72 and 3.88, respectively), third in strikeout rate (25.7%) but third-worst in homer rate (1.16 per nine), Dodgers bid adieu through one route or another to John Axford, Josh Fields, Erik Goeddel, Daniel Hudson, Ryan Madson, Zach Neal, Edward Paredes, Zac Rosscup, and Pat Venditte, a group that collectively delivered a 3.96 ERA, 3.93 FIP, and 0.1 WAR while accounting for 27.7% of their bullpen innings — a thoroughly replaceable bunch, in other words. Of that group, only Fields and Madson had positive WAR (0.3 and 0.2, respectively); only Fields, Hudson, and Goedell accounted for more than 11.1 innings (together they accounted for 115.1 of the aforementioned chunk); only Paredes (who threw all of 7.2 innings) had a leverage score above 0.82; and only Madson made the postseason roster (which didn’t go so well). Note that I’ve excluded traded starter Alex Wood, a much more valuable commodity (when he’s not occupying the injured list, at least) from the calculations; he threw all of 3.2 regular season innings out of the bullpen.

The Dodgers’ lone offseason addition of note was Kelly, who famously can dial his fastball in the vicinity of 100 mph, and just as famously can rarely deliver on the promise that comes with it. In seven major league seasons, he’s reached 1.0 WAR just once, that in 2015 when he worked as a starter for the Red Sox. In 2018, he gave the Sox 65.2 innings relief work and finished with a 4.39 ERA, 3.57 FIP, and 0.6 WAR. Nonetheless, he parlayed his postseason brilliance (0.79 ERA, with 13 strikeouts and zero walks in 11.1 innings), which the Dodgers saw up close during his six scoreless innings in the World Series, into a three-year, $25 million deal, the second-largest contract the Dodgers gave any free agent this winter after A.J. Pollock’s four-year, $55 million deal.

So far, Kelly — already notorious among Dodger fans for fracturing the red-hot Hanley Ramirez’s rib with a fastball in the first inning of the 2013 NLCS, a series-turning injury — has continued to torment the Dodgers, albeit in a different fashion. He’s been hit hard; his 92.1 mph average exit velocity is in the bottom percentile, his 48.4% hard hit rate in the third percentile, and his .360 xwOBA in the 16th percentile. His strikeout and walk rates have both fallen (from 23.9% to 21.7% for the former, and from 11.2% to 8.7% for the latter), and although he’s producing more grounders and fewer fly balls, his home run rate has more than tripled, from 0.55 per nine to 1.86. Underlying this is a simplified repertoire; he’s junked the sinker and slider in favor of more fastballs, curves and changeups, and man, it ain’t working:

Joe Kelly’s “Revamped” Repertoire
Year Pitch Freq Whiff PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2018 Changeup 10.9% 20.3% 41 .097 .293 .194 61
2019 Changeup 21.8% 11.5% 21 .350 .381 .450 131
 
2018 Curve 18.0% 11.3% 34 .233 .265 .333 69
2019 Curve 23.5% 9.5% 13 .308 .308 .615 147
SOURCE: Pitch Info

Kelly surrendered just three hits on changeups last year, but he’s already yielded seven this year. He allowed just one extra-base hit (a homer) on each of the two pitches detailed above in 2018, but this year has served up four extra base hits on the two (three doubles, one homer). And where he allowed six extra-base hits on his four-seam fastball last year, he’s already up to five this year.

Admittedly, spending money on relievers is a crapshoot, but for roughly the same commitment level (in dollars if not always in years), the Dodgers could have landed Adam Ottavino, who has pitched pretty well for the Yankees (1.30 EA, 3.61 FIP). Of course, they could have just as easily rolled the dice with other name-brand relievers flexible enough not to worry about the closer tag, such as Andrew Miller (3.98 ERA, 5.60 FIP with the Cardinals), Jeurys Familia (6.56ERA, 5.50 FIP for the Mets), or David Robertson (5.40 ERA and 5.99 FIP for the Phillies, but currently sidelined by a flexor strain). Or maybe they could have gone a lower-cost route with Kelvin Herrera (7.36 ERA, 5.14 FIP for the White Sox) or used a boatload of prospects to land Diaz. Even for the smartest teams, building a bullpen isn’t as easy as it looks.

If there’s good news, it’s that Jansen may have turned a corner. Currently, his overall ERA and FIP (3.16 and 3.14, respectively) are closer to last year’s career-worst numbers (3.01 and 4.03, respectively) than to the dominant form of his first eight seasons (2.08 ERA, 1.84 FIP), a span during which he owned the highest WAR (17.5) of any reliever, including Craig Kimbrel, who beat him to the majors by two and a half months. According to a May 22 story from the Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett, Jansen — after viewing footage from his May 18, 2017 immaculate inning — believes he has identified mechanical issues that had been hindering him since the start of the 2018 season, tracing them back to a March 2018 right hamstring injury that led to bad habits when he tried to “create velocity.”:

“A lot of things were out of whack,” Jansen said. “I was watching when Rick (Honeycutt, Dodgers pitching coach) came in and we started watching together. You could see so many differences.”

Notably, Jansen’s posture on the mound had changed – he was standing stiff and upright as opposed to a more relaxed stance in 2017. As he drove toward home plate, his left arm pulled across his body toward first base now, movement that Jansen believes has allowed hitters an earlier look at the ball in his right hand.

For Honeycutt, the most telling view was from the center-field camera, showing that Jansen’s direction down the mound and toward home plate was better in 2017.

“This way he stays taller, gets into his hips and stays behind the ball better,” Honeycutt said of the adjustments Jansen made.

Here’s a supercut of the immaculate inning, which joins his delivery in progress:

While I scoured MLB.com videos for more than an hour, I got lost enough in noticing variations of his leg kicks — sometimes his left knee is pointing to 2 o’clock, sometimes it doesn’t even get to 4 o’clock — that I couldn’t produce a satisfactory A/B comparison, so I’m just going to take Jansen and Honeycutt at their word. In five outings since (including May 21, his first appearance in six days and first after the anniversary of the immaculate inning), his cutter velocity has actually been an eyelash slower than previously this year (91.7 mph compared to 92.2), though both measures are well off his 93.6 mph average from 2017 (all velos via Brooks Baseball/Pitch Info). However, in those five outings, he’s retired 16 of 18 hitters, striking out seven (38.9%) without a walk or a run allowed. For now, we can just stick a pin in this point and check back when the sample size enlarges.

Short of signing the free agent Kimbrel, who will no longer cost the Dodgers (or any team) a draft pick, the Dodgers could try to augment their current corps by mining the scrap heap of recently-released relievers such as righties Luke Gregerson and Addison Reed and lefty Dan Jennings, all dropped by their respective teams in late May. Doubtless, they have the prospects for a big-impact move, such as securing Ken Giles from the Blue Jays, but that’s not to say they have the will to do so rather than going for a less costly below-the-radar type like Floro, or that anything significant is going to happen much before the July 31 trade deadline. We’ll see if they find relief before then.

We hoped you liked reading Powerhouse Dodgers’ Bullpen Misadventures Stand Out by Jay Jaffe!

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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.

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Leinhorn
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Leinhorn

Wouldn’t Dustin May or Dennis Santana be better choices than Addison Reed? But ugh, signing Kelly over Ottavino (or maybe anyone) was the one thing you could point to about the Dodgers and say, “Well, I guess even well-run orgs make some pretty foolish-on-their-face decisions”