Dodgers: The Bullpen Has Quietly Turned a Corner

The Los Angeles Dodgers dropped a game to the San Diego Padres last night due to a late go-ahead run allowed in by the bullpen. Regardless, it shouldn’t take away from the step forward the unit has taken.

The Dodgers’ much-maligned bullpen has been the lone weakness on an otherwise complete team. They have a formidable offense, excellent starting pitching, an elite defense, and tremendous depth. But subpar relief pitching could be the ultimate downfall of what is turning out to be 2017-level magical.

These bullpen complaints are all you’ll usually hear from Dodger fans, and it’s hard not to understand. A 4.04 ERA as a unit with countless blown games and a diminished Kenley Jansen is nothing to be proud of. Even if their run prevention is the ninth-best in the league. That’s more telling of how lousy relief pitching has been this season.

It’s an Achilles heel that President of Baseball Operation, Andrew Friedman did not hide from addressing:

“We have certainly had stretches this year where our bullpen has not performed up to our expectations. That being said, we still feel like we have a lot of really talented pitchers down there and other guys that are knocking on the door for an audition at some point.

“As we sit here today, all of our focus is on how to help each individual guy perform at their highest level. And now that the draft has concluded we’ll have one eye on that and one eye toward potential adds (before the July 31 trade deadline) and the bullpen is certainly an area that is top of the list.”

Per Bill Plunkett of the Southern California News Group

Hence, the constant clamoring from fans to acquire external help. Thus, the speculation from those around the league that Los Angeles will look to make a trade.

But that 4.04 ERA has to be looked at in context because it’s a tale of two stories. If you haven’t noticed already, the Dodgers’ bullpen has actually been a reliable one over the last month-plus.

During the first two months of the season, they had a collective 4.74 ERA. But since June 1st, that mark is down to 3.03 (per FanGraphs), which is second to only the Atlanta Braves. Their 1.04 WHIP ranks second, their 26.3 K%, third, and they are also top ten in generating soft contact.

At the core of this turnaround is prized free agent, Joe Kelly who, through May 31st had allowed 17 earned runs in just 18.1 innings. Brought in to be the bridge to closer Kenley Jansen, he instead found himself delegated to low-leverage situations. But that has started to change.

Blessed with a fastball that can regularly touch triple digits, Kelly is starting to make good on the $25 million the Dodgers handed him this past offseason.

Earlier this week, he threw 2.1 scoreless innings against Arizona in two different close games. That now makes it two earned runs over his last 11.1 innings with 17 strikeouts and an opposing slash line of .186/.300/.233.

One explanation for his newfound success could be that his pitch usage has drastically changed. Per Brooks Baseball, Kelly has dropped his four-seam fastball frequency from over 55% during his struggles, to just under 12% since the beginning of June, while halving his changeup usage. On the flip side, his sinker rate has jumped from 0.29% to 36.60%, while his curveball has spiked from just over 22% to almost 41%.

But he’s not the only one who’s been on a roll. After starting the first two months off with a 4.76 ERA, Yimi Garcia has a 2.92 ERA and 0.32 WHIP in over ten innings of work, courtesy of a .098 on-base percentage against him. His weakness has been the long ball- a problem across the league.

Fellow right-hander JT Chargois has allowed one run in six innings with 13 strikeouts in his limited time up with the Dodgers, with his most recent outing consisting of striking out all five hitters he faced.

Pedro Baez was having a solid season early on, but he’s elevated his play as well. In his last 14 innings, the 31-year-old has a 1.29 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and an opponents’ .405 OPS, securing his position as Roberts’ go-to man in the seventh or eighth innings of close games, and one of the bridges to Kenley Jansen.

Then there is the 22-year-old Julio Urias, who has been stellar out of the pen. He’s allowed just two runs in 19 innings since June 1st and is currently riding a 17-innings scoreless streak. And included in this hot stretch are back-to-back-to-back appearances of three scoreless, one-hit innings of baseball.

So it’s all coming together as Friedman and Roberts envisioned. No, it’s not perfect (guys like Dylan Floro and Caleb Ferguson can’t shake their funk); they still need to go out and get someone from the outside (Felipe Vasquez anyone?), hope for consistency from everyone else, and blow fewer games like Saturday night. But it’s a start.

Kenley Jansen doesn’t need to be at his peak, but if he can get a little closer to resembling his old-self, Baez and Urias continue to what they’re doing, Kelly continues to earn his money, Chargois builds off his recent play, and Garcia can limit the home runs, you have a solid core to build around.

Add in a potential deadline acquisition (or two) and Kenta Maeda’s expected move to the bullpen (where his stuff is sharper and plays up) come October, and you may have the most complete Dodgers team in the last 30 years.

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