Dodgers

Dodgers’ Offseason Investments Giving Their Returns

The Dodgers aren’t known for going out and spending big in free agency to bring players to Los Angeles. They’ve always preferred to opt for the cheaper, team-controllable players within the organization, or aim to find their annual diamond(s) in the rough.

If they do spend, it’s to keep core players with the franchise, like this past winter with Clayton Kershaw. Or the $192 million to keep Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen, and Rich Hill after the 2016 season.

And before those deals, the only time the current front office spent significant money to bring in a player was a three-year, $48 million deal on the high-risk, high-reward Scott Kazmir, which is why their dealings this past winter were going to be scrutinized more than normal.

They were consistently linked with outfielder Bryce Harper, who ended up signing the largest free-agent contract in American sports history. And even though he didn’t end up in Los Angeles, the Dodgers’ front office was willing to give him a record-breaking $45 million-a-year over four seasons, instead of the $330 million over 13 the Philadelphia Phillies handed him.

Ultimately, Andrew Friedman ended up opting for the cheaper (relatively speaking) and shorter path in the form of centerfielder A.J. Pollock and reliever Joe Kelly.

Pollock was expected to fill the outfield void left by Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp while bringing much-needed right-handed balance to a left-heavy lineup.

And after a fabulous 2018 postseason (one in which he mowed through the Dodgers), Joe Kelly was supposed to be the replacement to Brandon Morrow that the Dodgers have been in search of. But, there’s no doubt that the deals were met with more raised eyebrows than excitement.

Kelly was coming off a season in which he had a 4.39 regular-season ERA and 1.355 WHIP, while A.J. Pollock, although extremely talented, brought a track record of (fluke) injury problems. Yet, Kelly got $25 million over three years, while Pollock got a five-year, $60 million deal.

Suffice to say, those who questioned the signings were validated, as the two looked like wastes of money early on.

Pollock hit the IL on April 28th with an elbow infection and proceeded to miss almost three months. To add insult to injury, the 31-year-old was hitting a measly .223/.287/.330 with two home runs in 115 plate appearances at the time. Meanwhile, Kelly had allowed 18 runs (17 earned) in his first 17.1 innings and was demoted to low-leverage mop-up duties.

But once again, we have been reminded to never rush to judgment on a player of pedigree, no matter how bad his performance may be early in a season. Baseball is a fickle sport full of ups-and-downs, so patience must be practiced, and the duo is starting to reward the front office’s $85 million commitment.

Since returning from the IL on July 12th (right at the start of the second half), Pollock has been a man on a mission, showing us why the Dodgers handed him the money.

He’s hitting .313/.373/.627 with six home runs, 15 RBI, a .409 wOBA, and a 158 wRC+ in 18 games. He has more total bases in 75 second-half plate appearances than he had in 115 first-half ones.

For him, the biggest culprit to his early struggles may have been the mental aspect of the game- the part that many fans will fail to consider.

He spent almost ten years with the same organization in Arizona, and the last seven being a thorn in the Dodgers’ side. Uprooting your entire life to a city the magnitude of Los Angeles to join a rival team, with the expectations placed upon them would be significant for anyone, let alone a player with 60 million reasons for individual pressure alone.

This kind of situation can cause athletes in all sports to press a little extra to ingratiate themselves with the fanbase and prove their worth to the team. But history has shown us that forcing the issue hardly ever leads to the best results. It’s always better to let the game come to you, which is something Pollock alluded to last month.

“Just being able to take a step back from everything, maybe this is a blessing that I got to take a step back and relax, calm down, and just get back after it,” the centerfielder told the LA Times’, Jorge Castillo.

And regarding Joe Kelly, he’s lowered his ERA from 8.83 to 4.97 with a stretch that dates back to June 1st.

In these two-plus months, the righty has a 1.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 2.30 FIP, 29 strikeouts, and an opponents’ .176 batting average in 19.2 innings. He’s struck out 34.9% of batters faced, up from the 20.2% he sat with on May 31 and roughly halved the hard-hit balls allowed while doubling the soft contact.

Kelly’s also seen a 10% jump in groundballs and a drop from 33% to 10% in his home-run-per-flyball ratio. Walks have still been an issue, but he’s been able to work around them because of strong peripherals.

For the 31-year-old, his turnaround may be as much physical as mental. Aside from breaking into a new team and adjusting to life, Kelly’s pitch usage and sequencing have changed throughout the season. Here is a graph, courtesy of FanGraphs, showing just that.

Dodgers

The duo’s elevated play has the Dodgers hoping that they can act as the team’s new acquisitions after a quiet trade deadline. If the pair of 31-year-olds continue on this track and reach their potential, LA could be another animal entirely.

Without Pollock, the boys in blue have a dangerous lineup led by Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, Corey Seager, Alex Verdugo, and Will Smith. Add in a healthy and productive A.J. Pollock, and it’s the best in the Nationals League, and arguably tops in baseball. It becomes deeper, more balanced, and lacking any potential easy outs.

And if Kelly continues to get batters out while limiting the runs, it makes missing out on Felipe Vázquez easier to deal with. He can act as the bridge to Kenley Jansen and help fortify the rest of the bullpen. He turned on a switch once October came around last year, so it’s not out of the question if he can do it again. It’s certainly trending towards that.

It took a minute, but slowly but surely, the Dodgers’ $85 million investments are starting to reap their rewards. Keeping up the play is another thing, but the signs are promising.

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Featured Image via Flickr/Smashdown Sports News

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