So How About That Dodger Bullpen

It’s been a week of the new and… well, new Dodger bullpen, and so far, the returns haven’t been generating a ton of confidence. The second game of the season featured Chris Hatcher starting an inning that resulted in three runs. Yesterday featured Chris Hatcher entering an inning that resulted in four runs. Pretty much every second in between has been filled by people screaming for Don Mattingly‘s head and yelling that the relief crew is no better than the 2014 version that featured Brandon League, Brian Wilson, Paul Maholm, and Chris Perez.

We’ll get to that, because obviously there’s been problems. For the moment, let’s start with a truth: Five of the seven members of the bullpen have been pretty damn good. Check out some numbers:

That’s pretty good, and know that I absolutely hate myself that we’re putting any sort of value judgement on approximately a dozen innings from five relievers. There’s small sample sizes, and then there’s this. It’s ludicrous, but it’s what people are talking about, so here we are. We haven’t really learned anything about these guys that we didn’t know before the season. So far, so good.

Thanks to them, the overall bullpen performance hasn’t been so bad, with one glaring exception. The Dodger bullpen ranks first in baseball in FIP. They’re fifth in K%, and fifth in BB%. They’re one of only seven bullpens that has not yet allowed a homer. But they also have baseball’s worst BABIP, its 23rd-best ERA, and the second-largest difference between ERA and FIP. Bad luck, shoddy defense, lousy sequencing timing, whatever you want to call it — for the most part, they’ve done their jobs and just haven’t seen the results. That’s the kind of vagaries you can see in a mere week of baseball.

Of course, there’s also the other two, and the problem is that in the absence of Kenley Jansen, these two were expected to be the most reliable members. Hasn’t gone so well:

Since Howell had such a rough finish to last season, early success would have been encouraging, but again, I cannot stress the limited samples here enough…

…and then there’s Hatcher, who has really been so bad in the early going that it’s become very difficult to see the pitcher that excited us so much when he was acquired in the Dee Gordon trade.  With yet another caveat that it’s too early to be seriously investigating this, it does seem like there’s an obvious cause here. When Brim looked into Hatcher, one thing that played a role in his 2014 step forward was a change in pitch usage.

The biggest difference was that Hatcher significantly cut usage of his fastball, mostly in favor of a new sinker. The sinker, like his other pitches, is thrown very hard.

But so far, that hasn’t happened. According to Brooks, he’s been going back to the fastball in a big way. Yesterday, he threw one of his two fastballs 21 times out of 26 pitches.

hatcher_pitch_usageWhat’s the reasoning behind that? I truly don’t know. I also know that it’s not like he’s been getting slammed around the park, and I imagine that a .750 BABIP probably isn’t sustainable over the course of the season.

As for Mattingly, there’s been a lot of complaints about his choices, particularly when it comes to Rodriguez. If he sees Rodriguez merely as a LOOGY, then that’s a mistake. I would have preferred to see Rodriguez get more of a chance yesterday, especially in a seven-run game when all he’d done was give up an infield single. I’m definitely not on board with that call. Of course, Hatcher had been unused for the last four days, and if you’re going to pull Rodriguez, going to Hatcher in a seven-run game is hardly a mistake. Had Hatcher done anything resembling his job, we’re not even talking about this.

He didn’t, of course, and that’s becoming a problem, one that needs to be fixed. Maybe that happens in a lower-leverage role in the bigs, though I’m not sure how much you can reduce leverage from a seven-run lead in the ninth. It’s not a trip back to the minors, because he’s out of options and was too good last year to be cut loose because of a poor start to the season.

Ultimately, the bullpen the Dodgers have now isn’t the one they’ll have all season. Jansen will be back. Maybe Ryan Webb (who accepted his assignment to the minors) or Adam Liberatore or Sergio Santos or Daniel Coulombe come up at some point to add support. Almost certainly, we’ll see trades.

This is a problem, without question. It’s just a problem that’s particularly centered on one player right now. That’s a big problem if you like Hatcher. It’s less of a problem if you realize that five-seventh of the ‘pen have done their job just fine so far.

About Mike Petriello

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