The Dodgers Shake up Their Bullpen With a Pair of Moves

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

The reliever merry-go-round rarely stops spinning, and one team’s castoff might be another’s potential cog. Case in point: on Monday the Dodgers re-signed righty Ryan Brasier, whom they plucked from the scrapheap in mid-2023, to a two-year deal. To add him, they dealt lefty Caleb Ferguson to the Yankees for itinerant lefty Matt Gage and righty prospect Christian Zazueta Jr.

The 36-year-old Brasier, who made $2 million last year, his final one before free agency, is guaranteed $9 million for 2024–25, with a maximum of $4 million in incentives possible as well. At this writing, the specifics of the annual breakdowns and the benchmarks for those bonuses aren’t known, but suffice to say, this represents a big upgrade in his standard of living. The Angels, Cardinals, Red Sox, and Yankees all showed interest in him this winter as well, according to The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya.

Such an outcome would have been almost unthinkable back in May, when Brasier lost his job with the Red Sox, for whom he’d pitched since 2018 with varying degrees of success. Though he made 68 appearances for Boston in 2022, he posted a 3.61 FIP but a 5.78 ERA in 62.1 innings, with a .335 BABIP — owing to too many hard-hit balls — playing a significant role in the discrepancy between those two run prevention figures. Through the first six weeks of his 2023 season with the Red Sox, it was more of the same: a 7.29 ERA, a 4.35 FIP, and a .344 BABIP in 21 innings.

On May 15, a day after Brasier had allowed three runs in a season-high 2.1 innings of garbage-time duty against the Cardinals, the Red Sox designated him for assignment; six days later, they released him. The Dodgers signed him to a minor league deal in early June, with Rob Hill, the team’s director of minor league pitching, and Brent Minta, their pitching analytics coordinator, suggesting he add a cut fastball to a repertoire that also includes a four-seamer that averages almost 96 mph and mid-80s slider.

Brasier spent about two weeks working on the new pitch at Camelback Ranch, then made two appearances for Triple-A Oklahoma City, during which he struck out five of nine hitters without allowing a baserunner. The Dodgers called him up, and he was outstanding, pitching to a 0.70 ERA and 2.48 FIP in 38.2 innings the rest of the way. Throwing the new pitch to lefties 46.8% of the time (though just 6.2% to righties), he held batters to a .152 average and .273 slugging percentage with a 16.4% whiff rate. Meanwhile, he cut his four-seam fastball usage in half, got better results on contact and higher whiff rates on all of his pitches:

Ryan Brasier Pitch Comparison, Red Sox vs. Dodgers
Pitch Type Team Pitch % PA BA xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff
Cutter LAD 23.2% 35 .152 .232 .273 .371 .208 .281 16.4%
4-Seam BOS 51.9% 43 .342 .311 .605 .547 .434 .401 21.6%
4-Seam LAD 25.5% 30 .231 .193 .269 .295 .282 .275 30.2%
Slider BOS 38.4% 39 .171 .238 .200 .307 .216 .283 27.5%
Slider LAD 33.2% 52 .083 .147 .125 .224 .109 .191 41.7%
Sinker BOS 9.7% 13 .455 .465 .455 .628 .451 .514 4.5%
Sinker LAD 18.1% 25 .136 .192 .136 .223 .162 .240 10.4%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Brasier had been scorched at a .389/.463/.611 clip by the 41 lefties he faced with the Red Sox, striking out just three of them while walking five. Once he joined the Dodgers, lefties hit just .123/.167/.211 in 60 plate appearances, with three walks (one intentional) and 18 strikeouts.

Overall, Brasier’s strikeout-walk differential doubled, and his results on contact improved dramatically:

Ryan Brasier Results Comparison, Red Sox vs. Dodgers
Split K% BB% K-BB% EV Barrel% HardHit% xERA
BOS 18.9% 9.5% 9.5% 92.4 3.0% 53.0% 5.10
LAD 26.6% 7.0% 19.6% 87.4 4.3% 35.1% 1.89

All of which is to say that we can add Brasier to the ever-growing list of pitchers — Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney, Evan Phillips, Alex Wood — whom the Dodgers were able to get far more out of than other teams thanks to various tweaks in mechanics and repertoire. Noah Syndergaard and Lance Lynn are proof that they’re not always successful at doing so, but they’ve helped enough hurlers to justify their effort. As Phillips, the owner of a 7.26 ERA and 5.37 FIP in 57 innings at three previous stops before arriving in mid-2021, told the Los Angeles Times’ Mike DiGiovanna earlier this month, “When the Los Angeles Dodgers come calling and say, ‘Hey, we think you can be great,’ you tend to listen. They really forced the envelope and said, ‘You’re gonna need to do these things to pitch well,’ and I was in no position to argue with them.”

Phillips is now the closest thing the Dodgers have to a regular closer; he led the team — which had the majors’ third-best bullpen ERA (3.42), second-best FIP (3.73) and best WAR (7.6) last season — with 24 saves. Brasier is now in the mix for a late-inning role, along with fellow righties Brusdar Graterol and Joe Kelly. The latter, whom the Dodgers reacquired in the Lynn trade with the White Sox on July 28, then re-signed to a one-year, $8 million deal in December, has a notoriously spotty health history, as does Blake Treinen, who’s hoping to return to action after throwing just five innings in 2022 and none last year due to labrum and rotator cuff tears that required surgery. A healthy Brasier offers some insurance within that group.

The Dodgers haven’t cleared a roster spot yet for Brasier; they’ll likely just wait until Thursday, the first day that the team can move Tommy John surgery recipients Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May — not to mention newly re-signed Clayton Kershaw — to the 60-day injured list, where they won’t count against the 40-man roster limit. The team did already make a bit of room for Brasier within the bullpen and on the payroll by trading Ferguson to the Yankees. The 27-year-old lefty, who had been in the Dodgers organization since being drafted out of high school in 2014, set career highs in appearances (68), innings (60.1), and WAR (1.3) in 2023 while posting a 3.43 ERA and 3.34 FIP. As Davy Andrews pointed out in August, he restored a cutter to his arsenal in 2023. In his case, he ditched a reasonably effective curveball to do so, though it didn’t work too well against lefties:

Caleb Ferguson Pitch Comparison, by Handedness
Season Pitch Type Batter Hand Pitch % PA BA SLG wOBA Whiff
2022 4-Seam RHH 66.1% 65 .140 .246 .229 31.3%
2022 Curve RHH 33.9% 33 .207 .276 .268 20.8%
2023 4-Seam RHH 68.5% 126 .294 .367 .335 24.0%
2023 Cutter RHH 27.9% 50 .217 .326 .270 30.9%
2022 4-Seam LHH 68.8% 29 .261 .391 .366 23.6%
2022 Curve LHH 31.2% 15 .214 .214 .223 18.2%
2023 4-Seam LHH 62.2% 60 .240 .280 .308 30.6%
2023 Cutter LHH 36.6% 30 .310 .586 .388 20.7%

In fact, Ferguson has yielded a higher wOBA to same-side hitters than he has to those of the opposite hand in each of the last two seasons and three out of five in a career that’s been interrupted by the pandemic and a late-2020 Tommy John surgery, his second. (His first was in 2014, just a week before he was drafted.)

Caleb Ferguson Splits by Handedness
2018 77 .317 125 .284
2019 85 .303 119 .350
2020 26 .278 49 .287
2022 44 .317 98 .242
2023 90 .334 180 .315
Total 322 .315 571 .300

For the Yankees, who last week lost stalwart lefty Wandy Peralta to the Padres, that’s something of step backwards. Peralta had been very effective against lefties (.217 wOBA in 174 PA in 2022–23) while also being pretty effective against righties (.300 wOBA in 276 PA over those two seasons), though that composite masks a 70-point year-to-year jump (from .266 in 2022 to .336 in ’23) against the latter. Ferguson, who will make $2.4 million in 2024, his last year before free agency, is less expensive, so there’s that for the Yankees.

Interestingly enough, Ferguson will join another former Dodgers lefty, 28-year-old Victor González, in New York’s bullpen; he was traded to the Yankees on Dec. 11 along with infield prospect Jorbit Vivas in exchange for another infield prospect, Trey Sweeney. Ferguson figures to be the higher of the two in the pecking order, in the setup mix along with righties Jonathan Loáisiga and Tommy Kahnle, ahead of closer Clay Holmes. It’s worth noting that Loáisiga and Kahnle combined for just 58.1 innings last year amid injuries, so manager Aaron Boone could call Ferguson’s number with some frequency.

As for the more experienced of the two pitchers the Dodgers received in exchange for Ferguson, the 30-year-old Gage is now in his eighth organization since being drafted by the Giants in the 10th round in 2014. He’s passed through the hands of the Mets, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, Astros, and Yankees while totaling just 16 games in the majors, 11 with Toronto in 2022 and five with Houston last year; he was optioned four times for his trouble. He’s pitched pretty well in his limited major league opportunities using a fastball-cutter combo with an occasional slider in the mix, posting a 1.83 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 19.2 innings while striking out 26% of hitters. He got knocked around at Triple-A Sugar Land last year, however, posting a 4.58 ERA and 5.29 FIP with a 23.4% strikeout rate; though he held lefties to a .203/278/.328 line in 73 PA, righties hit .333/.425/.559 in 121 PA against him. If you’re getting the sense that he’s a guy on the fringe of the 40-man roster who’s likely to change addresses multiple times in 2024, you’re probably right. He might be one free agent signing or a couple of bad — or even long — outings away from being sent down or out at any moment. It’s not entirely out of the question that he could be DFA’d to make room for a more experienced lefty reliever, as Alex Vesia and Ryan Yarbrough, the pair currently penciled in for the active roster, don’t exactly strike fear into anyone.

As for Zazueta, he’s the 19-year-old son of Christian Zazueta Sr., a still-active 15-season veteran of the Mexican League who spent last year with El Aguila de Veracruz. The younger Zazueta, also a native of Mexico, is listed at 6-foot-3 and 163 pounds. He’s spent the past two seasons in the Dominican Summer League, where last year he posted a 3.29 ERA and 4.59 FIP while striking out 23.6% of all hitters in a team-high 52 innings. He earned an honorable mention spot on the Yankees’ Top 36 Prospects List in December, where Eric Longenhagen lumped him among the swingmen while noting, “He has the pitch movement foundation to break out if he can throw harder as he matures. He currently has a rise-and-run upper-80s fastball, a shapely mid-70s curveball, and a precocious changeup, all of which have bat-missing promise.”

Bringing Brasier back is a nice move for the Dodgers, but by trading Ferguson, they still have a significant number of higher-leverage innings to fill, and may need another addition to the bullpen. Likewise, Ferguson probably shouldn’t be the last move the Yankees make in what’s been a rather underwhelming winter when it comes to patching their pitching staff.

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

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Smiling Politelymember
2 months ago

Ferg’s been a welcomed presence in the pen for a long time now, and it’s tough to see him go. Ultimately, it’s a years-of-control-left game, but still hard to see a dependable ground ball guy go.

That said–and I’m sure it broke just late enough that we’re lucky Jay could mention it at all–Kershaw coming back is gonna be the big news. Even if he only ends up doing a playoff appearance from the bullpen, he really doesn’t belong in any other uniform, and I’m glad he feels the same way!

2 months ago

Yeah unfortunately Ferguson being out of options and this also being his last year of team control seems to be the deciding factors. Brasier is probably an incremental upgrade and maybe they can coax something out of Gage but this is still a tough trade to stomach for a guy who has been -although a little bit of a roller coaster – pretty good over the last couple years.