What Happened In 2014: Wasn’t worth his contract, but surprisingly useful (with a few issues).
After 2013, Brandon League looked like a complete disaster. When he signed his contract, it was an accepted fact that it was too much money, but nobody expected him to post a 5.30 ERA and a 4.93 FIP either. Dodger fans spent most of the offseason wondering if and when League would be cut loose.
Before the season began, I took a look to see if there were any positive signs for League going forward. There was some bad luck in his HR/FB ratio, but that made him closer to a four ERA pitcher (or high threes according to SIERA) instead of five. His pre-season Steamer projection was in the same area. He was probably going to regress towards his career mean, but the outlook still wasn’t great.
With a relatively full bullpen heading into Spring Training, Mike pondered potential League trades. The answer was bleak:
There’s guys who make way too much money to fit — your B.J. Uptons, your Albert Pujolses, etc. — and overpaid guys who still have too much value to match up, like Jonathan Papelbon. And so as disappointing as that might be, the end result here just might be: no, probably not. The Dodgers are stuck with League, at least until they decide the embarrassment of cutting him is worth swallowing.
League didn’t help his case during a rough spring, either. In mid-March, League had a particularly poor outing (and had allowed 6 of 12 batters to reach safely), which led Mike to wonder about League’s place yet again:
They won’t all be on the roster, because they can’t. Some will be in Triple-A, and Rosin probably gets offered back to the Phillies. But the more I see of League, the more it seems that whatever bullpen composition the team leaves Arizona with won’t necessarily be the best possible collection they could have.
As you can see, the expectations were rough. We were mad when League made the roster over Seth Rosin (who had a 3.95 FIP in 35.1 AA innings and a 4.49 FIP in 23 AAA innings after returning to the Phillies). But, League was here to stay. And, he wasn’t terrible!
By late May, League was over 25 innings into the season with a 1.35 ERA, a 2.76 FIP, and a 3.25 xFIP. It was time to see if the changes were for real. I looked into his mechanics (minor tweaks), movement (more sink), pitch selection (no sliders), pitch location (all lower), and batted balls (more grounders). It’s hard to say any change is completely real with a sample that small, but the indicators were all there.
The indicators were still there when Mike checked back in mid-July:
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.
League regressed a bit towards the end of the season, allowing more walks and a few more fly balls, but he escaped the season with numbers significantly better than 2013. Funnily enough, even after the improvement, some of his result predictors (xFIP, SIERA) were almost identical to those of his 2013 “disaster.” Bullpen pitchers are so hard to judge.
Of course, we’re talking in superlatives for a reliever who was near replacement level last season. Why the disconnect between his league-average FIP and the replacement level WAR? FanGraphs also incorporates leverage into its reliever WAR calculation, and League was pretty bad in high leverage situations (though it was not always his fault). His WPA (win probability added) was negative despite the good ERA and average FIP, and his “Clutch” score (comparing his high leverage performance to context-neutral performance) was negative. Normally, Clutch isn’t considered to be a predictive stat, but 2014 was League’s tenth straight season with a negative clutch score.
Overall, fWAR probably underrates League a bit, since his sky-high ground ball rate can help his ERA beat his FIP. That has not always been the case through his career, but he was close to his career high in ground ball rate last season, too (67.5%, compared to a career average of 60.5%).
There’s also the question of usage. League should never, ever face left-handed batters. Through his career, League has allowed a .335 wOBA to lefties compared to .281 for right-handed batters. His splits were nearly that big last year. 35% of the batters League faced last season were left-handed, almost the same as the league-wide distribution. That’s too many. League can be useful as a ground ball emergency ROOGY (perhaps a less good version of Seth Maness), but it can only be against right-handed batters. If a left-handed batter comes in, especially in a high leverage situation, Don Mattingly needs to find another option. League’s future success depends a lot on smarter usage.
Caveats aside, when comparing 2014 League to 2013 League, it’s hard to come away anything but impressed. His xFIP and SIERA suggest that not much has changed, but the actual results show a different story. If League stays on the team next season, he’ll need to be closer to 2014. Ned’s not here anymore, and the “dead money” caused by cutting League is shrinking quickly.
2015 status: League’s name has been invoked in trade rumors, but if the Dodgers can’t find a match he’s probably useful enough to keep around.