Over the course of a few days during the winter meetings, it seemed like all that was happening was that free-agent relievers were signing multiyear contracts. And not just multiyear contracts — reasonably expensive multiyear contracts. Both Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw got three years. An incomplete selection of the relievers who got two: Brandon Morrow, Tommy Hunter, Juan Nicasio, Joe Smith, Anthony Swarzak, Steve Cishek, and Pat Neshek. These are all good pitchers. They deserve what they’ve gotten. But people are still relatively unaccustomed to seeing non-closers get $8 million a year. This is the bullpen age, indeed.
As the run on relievers was taking place, a common refrain was that teams were looking to sign the next Brandon Morrow, or the next Anthony Swarzak. Not that Morrow or Swarzak didn’t still get their money, but neither was considered valuable a year ago. They popped up, almost out of nowhere, and they became deadly weapons. So, teams figure, why wouldn’t there be other pop-up relievers? Why spend so much on a guy if you think you can find the next bullpen breakthrough?
Every team is looking for the next pop-up. It’s not easy to spot success before success. The Rangers think they have someone in Chris Martin, and I wrote about him, but he’s been terrific in Japan. It’s a different sort of gamble. Wily Peralta and Yovani Gallardo have signed with the Royals and Brewers, respectively, but they might still start. I don’t know if they’re necessarily considered the same kind of pop-up targets. This all leads me to Tom Koehler. I wanted to find a pitcher who’s been identified as a potential next Swarzak or Morrow. The Dodgers signed Koehler for $2 million, and if he hits all his incentives as a reliever, the salary tops out at $2.95 million. He’s under control for 2019, and the Dodgers see him in the bullpen.
Koehler, this past season, was bad. He had an ERA of almost 7. The bulk of his career has been spent as a starter, and there’s a perfectly good chance his 2018 goes off the rails. And yet the Dodgers think they might see something, something that could handle high-leverage situations. What is it the Dodgers are thinking? I’d like to give it my best guess.
It’s not very hard to get started. When the Blue Jays prepared to stick Koehler in their own bullpen last year down the stretch, Koehler embraced the decision. Therefore, he has the right attitude, being open-minded about how he might prolong his career. And even though Koehler made just 14 relief appearances, totaling 12 innings, he did end up with 11 strikeouts and just three walks. He mostly kept the ball on the ground.
Koehler didn’t go into the year thinking of himself as a reliever. He’d long been a starter with the Marlins, and he was only shifted at the end of last August. So Koehler didn’t have much time to prepare for the new, shorter role. Still, he did succeed, and I’ll note that, last year, while Koehler threw just 59% strikes over 13 starts, that strike rate skyrocketed to 67% in the bullpen. Koehler found himself more in control.
Even with the Blue Jays, there was a modest velocity gain. That was with a midseason adjustment. I ran some numbers covering the past decade, looking at guys who moved from the rotation to the bullpen between seasons, and fastballs gained an average of 1.7 miles per hour. A standout case from 2017 would be Archie Bradley, who gained more than three miles per hour. I bet the Dodgers figure Koehler can get his fastball a little hotter. The relief appearances are shorter, and simpler, and Koehler has all winter to prepare his body and workout regimen for the role. He would already sit comfortably around 93, touching 95. Perhaps he could get to 95, touching 97.
There’s another thing that has technically already happened. With the Marlins last year, as a starter, Koehler threw 61% four-seamers or curveballs. With the Blue Jays, he threw 82% four-seamers or curveballs. Koehler already simplified his repertoire, and I’m going to guess he’ll do that even more. In the bullpen, the fastball should play up, and Koehler generates a fair amount of rise. And the curveball has already been a weapon in the past. Koehler gets a lot of vertical drop. The four-seamer/curveball combination might be all that reliever Koehler needs.
This is Koehler throwing his curveball for a strike:
This is Koehler throwing his curveball for a different kind of strike:
By movement and velocity, it’s similar to the curveballs thrown by Trevor Bauer and Corey Knebel. Those were two standout pitches in 2017. Of course, a pitcher also needs to be able to command his pitches — movement and velocity aren’t everything — but reliever Koehler ought to have better control. That curveball is good enough to be both an at-bat-starter and an at-bat-ender.
As for the four-seamer, we can look at that too. Koehler’s fastball doesn’t generate extreme amounts of rise or anything, but it’s good enough, as four-seamers go. Last season, in zero- or one-strike counts, Koehler ranked in the 53rd percentile in terms of average vertical location. However, in two-strike counts, he ranked in just the 32nd percentile. That’s a complicated way of saying the following: With two strikes, Koehler didn’t throw that many high fastballs, relative to the rest of the population. The high four-seamer is a favored putaway pitch. Compare 2017 Koehler and 2017 Knebel.
Knebel made a habit of elevating. More importantly, the Dodgers made a habit of elevating. I assume this is a change they’re going to try to implement. When the Dodgers acquired Tony Cingrani, there were things they wanted him to change right away. They also had suggested changes for trade acquisition Yu Darvish. They’re likely to tell Koehler that his fastball could be better if he spotted it higher up. At that point, it would just be a matter of Koehler executing the strategy.
Maybe the Dodgers have big ideas for Koehler’s sinker or slider. I don’t have any inside information. Maybe they want him to make specific mechanical corrections. This entire article is mostly speculative, but all I’m trying to do is figure out why the Dodgers might believe in Koehler’s right arm. My best guess is that they think he’ll gain a couple ticks as a full-time reliever, possessing better control, and he could thrive by balancing his four-seamer and his curveball. A reliever only needs the two pitches, if they’re good enough. Koehler’s pitches, at least, have the right shapes.
It might work out, and it might not. It’s possible Koehler just won’t be able to throw enough strikes. It’s also possible he won’t make the average transition to the bullpen. He might not gain any velocity at all. The move isn’t for everyone. This is just the risk the Dodgers are taking, rather than roll the dice on some more proven $8-million-a-year alternative. Everyone wants to find the next pop-up reliever. The Dodgers think they’ve found their guy. Whether it works means nothing to me, but this is interesting, because it’s not an investment in what a guy is. Instead, it’s an investment in what a team thinks a 31-year-old could be.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.