The biggest story to come out of the Dodgers camp yesterday was the acquisition of Chase Utley from the Phillies for two minor-league prospects, Darnell Sweeney and John Richy. While Utley will no doubt provide support to a middle infield that is thinner with the injury to Howie Kendrick, there was another event going on in Oakland yesterday — a major-league baseball game, in fact — and one important part of the Dodgers pitching staff once again reminded us that it too might be in need of some help.
I refer to the current state of the Los Angeles bullpen, which has, by a multitude of measures, accounted for among the worst performances in baseball during the 2015 season. On Wednesday, the Dodgers were “swept” in a two-game series by the 53-69 Oakland A’s; this was made especially painful to players and fans alike, I can imagine, considering Clayton Kershaw started the opening game of the series.
Kershaw was able to go only seven innings during that game, exiting with the score tied, and he handed the ball over to a multitude of relievers who displayed various levels of ineffectiveness. That game resulted in a 10-inning Oakland walk-off win — with the bullpen blowing a three-run lead — while the second and final game of the series saw them unable to keep the A’s close in the final frames of another tight contest. The two-game series was probably an encapsulation of a lot of what Dodgers fans have become painfully accustomed to.
Today, we’ll highlight some numbers related to the Dodgers pen, and see what options the Dodgers might have in bolstering the current weakest part of their team.
We have two statistics here, created in 2010, called Shutdowns and Meltdowns. They’re a way of measuring a given amount of win probability added or subtracted (.06 or 6% WPA, to be exact) during a relief pitcher’s performance, and they help outline the struggles we’re talking about. First, let’s take a look at the 10 bullpens in baseball that have the most Meltdowns, i.e. occasions on which a relief pitcher lowered his team’s chances of winning by at least 6%:
We have a lot of teams with bad records here — teams that are rebuilding, teams that sold off many of their bullpen pieces during the year, and teams who are far outside the playoff picture. Then we have the Cubs, Dodgers, and Twins. Obviously, Los Angeles is the only team on this list that is leading their division, and that’s not exactly a coincidence; you have to go all the way to the Astros at 17th to find the next division leader. It’s hard to win a lot of games if you have your high-leverage pitchers decreasing the probability of winning by more than 6% very often.
The Cubs also have the third-most Shutdowns in baseball, which tells us that we should probably account for positive performances in relation to those negative performances. With that in mind, let’s look at the ratio of Shutdowns to Meltdowns, i.e. how often relief pitchers on a team shutdown the opposition for every meltdown they accounted for. Again, take a look at the bottom 10:
Again, there are only two potential playoff teams on this list, and only the Dodgers are leading their division. Getting just over one-and-a-half positive relief performances per negative one is not what a potential playoff team should be hoping for, but it’s currently what the Dodgers have gotten this season. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the playoff-hungry Blue Jays while we’re here, but their steps toward remedying some of their late-inning pitching issues was well documented last week.
Now we know the Dodgers bullpen has been prone to melting down. And, as it turns out, when they meltdown, they generally do so in a big way — and often during the clutch: the Dodgers are currently second-worst in the majors in total bullpen Win Probability Added (with -4.09), second only to the Athletics. Considering the A’s have had a historically bad year pitching in high-leverage situations (their total bullpen WPA is -7.07, which would be the fourth-lowest mark of any team since 2000), this sort of company is not the type a team wants to keep.
That discussion leads directly into the impact bullpen meltdowns have on Win-Loss records. The struggles of the Athletics bullpen was well documented in the context of BaseRuns on these digital pages by Dave a few months ago, and the season-long impact of bullpen over- or underperformance on Win-Loss records has been written about extensively. Now we can apply those ideas directly to the Dodgers here by looking at our BaseRuns standings, which is interactive and can be scrolled over for more information:
Their are two main culprits in the Dodgers’ underperformance of their context-neutral record by five games: one is the bullpen, as we’ve outlined above (seen most acutely in the Dodgers’ 16-20 record in one-run games), and the other is a lack of timely hitting. These two factors have helped keep the NL West race tight, allowing the Giants (who only have a -1 BaseRuns/actual Win-Loss record difference) to keep touch-tight on their division rivals.
What is to be done with the Dodgers bullpen for the stretch run? Externally, there simply aren’t many true upgrades available for Friedman and Co. Any available relievers might cost them more than they’re interested in giving up, or simply wouldn’t be big enough upgrades to merit a trade. Internally, Chris Hatcher has been great since returning from the disabled list, and should assume more of the setup work behind closer Kenley Jansen. Pedro Baez and J.P. Howell aren’t as bad as they’ve been for the past two weeks (5.14/5.40 ERA, respectively), and Jim Johnson isn’t going to post a .650 BABIP for his entire Dodgers career.
Manager Don Mattingly seems to shy away from using Jansen in any situation besides the ninth inning (Jansen has appeared in the eighth inning just twice this season), which is something he may want to reconsider in the future when games are on the line. The good news? The bullpen is very well rested. Per JP Hoonstra, only two relievers on the Dodgers are on pace for 60 or more innings: Howell and Yimi Garcia. That bodes well for the stretch run, but well rested and effective are two different things. The Dodgers bullpen probably isn’t as bad as it has been for the past few weeks. They also can’t afford to be this bad for any longer.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.