Brandon League, Valuable Major League Reliever

One of the least-remembered parts of last night’s 1-0 win over San Diego is going to be that Brandon League got through the seventh inning on only seven pitches, keeping a scoreless game tied until the Dodgers could put a run on the board in the ninth. It’s the 32nd scoreless outing he’s had in 37 appearances this year, and his turnaround from last year, when he was essentially the 2012 version of Juan Uribe, to once again being a useful part of the bullpen is both astounding and something that really doesn’t get talked about enough.

I’m not going to go particularly in-depth on why, really; this is just a Sunday morning talking-out-loud post in advance of a day game. Besides, Brim did exactly that about six weeks ago, noting that he’s managed to keep his sinker down much more effectively this year, and it’s continued to work. League’s 73.4% groundball rate is the best of his career, and of the 219 pitchers to throw at least 40 innings this year, it’s only barely behind Baltimore’s Zach Britton for the best groundball rate in the game. It’s not the only reason he hasn’t allowed a home run all season, but it’s certainly a big part of it.

League was always something of a groundball pitcher, and that he’s doing so to the extreme this year isn’t just a improvement to his approach. It’s arguably the only reason he’s still a major league pitcher, because if you were to approach his 2014 in a different way, he’s having the worst season he’s had in years: League’s swinging-strike percentage of 7.8 is down even from last year’s, and is approximately half what it was in 2009 with Toronto. He’s allowing a higher contact rate than he has since 2008.

Of course, it’s calculated contact. Hitters are swinging at fewer of his in-zone pitches than they ever have; they’re swinging at more of his outside-zone pitches than they have since 2011; they’re making contact with more of his outside-zone pitches (69.5%) than ever. Unless you’re facing Vladimir Guerrero, having hitters connect with a ball outside the zone almost always leads to good things. It’s very difficult to drive a bad pitch, and it’s why pure strikeout rate doesn’t always tell the true story. (This is known as the “Juan Pierre theorem,” which I just made up, because Pierre would rarely swing and miss, but making contact with terrible pitches just led to weak grounders.)

As you can see, he’s just giving batters less to hit

league_zone

…but doing it in such a way that it looks good enough to swing at, rather than being laughably wild.

League isn’t throwing harder — if anything, slower — but he’s throwing smarter. He’s never going to justify the guaranteed $22.5m he’ll be receiving, of course, because even if he’d been a good closer for all three years that would have been difficult. But just a few months ago, nearly every Dodger fan wanted him cut immediately, no matter how much money it required eating. Now, his 2014 FIP is identical to David Price (in far fewer innings, of course), and over the last calendar year, it’s a 2.77 ERA with a 3.61 FIP. He’s not dead weight. He’s a useful member of the bullpen, especially when you need a grounder. At some point he’ll allow a homer, of course. We’re just no longer terrified every single time he comes into the game, and considering where he was last season, that’s an amazing accomplishment indeed.

About Mike Petriello

Mike Petriello
Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.