Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Dodgers' Mighty Pen

Grantland's weekly baseball team "power ranking" equivalent, "The 30", focuses on strikeouts this week. And in the top tier, the Dodgers (the overall #2 team to the Cardinals) receive in-depth review from Jonah Keri, who analyzes the bullpen's improved strikeout rate:

Bullpen Bullets

The Dodgers turn to a high-strikeout bullpen in the hopes of avoiding another October disappointment.

3. Kansas City Royals (34-25, plus-45, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (37-26, plus-60, LW: 2)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (41-21, plus-68, LW: 1)

As I wrote last week, it’s not fair to blame all of the 2014 Dodgers’ playoff failures on Don Mattingly — or Clayton Kershaw, for that matter. By allowing even the best starting pitchers to get the help they need when the game’s on the line, a loaded bullpen can make any manager look brilliant, but last year’s Dodgers didn’t have anything close to a loaded pen. Really, they didn’t have any consistently reliable options beyond closer Kenley Jansen. This year, though, the Dodgers do have that kind of strength and depth in their relief corps, and while they’re one of the elite teams in the majors, that improved pen bodes well for their postseason chances.

So far in 2015, Dodgers relievers have struck out more batters than any other bullpen in the National League — and more than any team in baseball, save for the Astros — flashing a 26.9 percent K rate. That’s up sharply from last year’s relief crew, who fanned 22.3 percent of the batters they faced, good for just 16th in MLB. A bit of that uptick is because of Jansen, who’s been absolutely spectacular since returning from an early-season injury, punching out 20 batters while allowing just four hits and no walks in 11 innings. But most of it is thanks to a group of no-names who’ve come up big in L.A., showcasing both the Dodgers’ scouting and player development chops, in addition to the franchise’s savvy in the trade market.

The best homegrown results come from two Dominican Republic signees. Yimi Garcia was signed back in 2009 and made his 10-inning debut with the Dodgers in 2014. This year, the 24-year-old right-hander has become a key part of the pen, making 29 appearances and striking out 38 batters in 26 innings. While Garcia has given up five homers already, the Dodgers can’t have too many complaints for a pitcher making the league minimum and just getting his feet wet. Then there’s Pedro Baez, who’s currently on the disabled list but has arguably been the club’s best reliever this year aside from Jansen. Signed in 2007, Baez has fanned 22 batters and allowed just three walks and one homer in 15.1 innings this season.

Meanwhile, the bullpen’s offseason imports are a diverse and eclectic group. Let’s take a look at the three who are averaging at least one strikeout per inning:

• Juan Nicasio, a 28-year-old righty, spent his entire pro career with the Rockies (mostly as a starter) before coming to L.A. in November for marginal outfield prospect Noel Cuevas. Nicasio’s command has wavered at times this year, as evidenced by his 13 walks in 26 innings, but he has helped to offset that with 29 strikeouts. A fastball-slider pitcher like Garcia, Nicasio has generated whiffs on 16 percent of the sliders he’s thrown.

• Adam Liberatore, a 28-year-old lefty, was drafted in the 21st round by the Rays back in 2010 when Andrew Friedman was running the show in Tampa Bay. One of Friedman’s first moves as Dodgers president of baseball ops was to grab the southpaw, seemingly as a throw-in on a four-player trade that brought Joel Peralta to Los Angeles last November. Instead, Liberatore, who has notched 20 K’s and allowed just 16 baserunners in 18.2 innings, has been the biggest catch of the four players involved in the deal.

• Chris Hatcher came to the Dodgers via the seven-player deal that shipped Dee Gordon and Dan Haren to Miami in December. The 30-year-old righty with an ugly 6.38 ERA hasn’t been as effective as his fellow bullpen acquisitions, but Hatcher has mostly been victimized by bad batted-ball luck. He’s struck out 19 batters and allowed just one home run in 18.1 innings of work, so expect that ERA to drop substantially as regression starts to work in his favor.

All of these relievers have established limited track records for success, but in what figures to be a fruitful trade market for relief pitchers (Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, lots of setup men, and maybe even Aroldis Chapman), the Dodgers could still look to upgrade. If they do, though, it would be more of a want than a need — especially compared to the barren bullpen they carried last year. Whether they make any changes to the pen, the Dodgers will need stars like Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, and Joc Pederson to come through if they’re to finally get past the Cardinals come the postseason. But to break their 27-year World Series drought, they’ll likely need all of that plus strong support from a bullpen that finally looks like it might be capable of providing it.


spnk said...

i'm waiting for the twitter snark about the Cardinals from the homies. come on,y'all.

Hideo Nomo said...

Did you miss my epic Photoshop?