Early bullpen implosions evidence Dodgers need to pay Kenley Jansen

The bullpen has been bad the first few opportunities this season. One cannot deny that. And if Andrew Friedman and Co., ever needed a reason to extend Kenley Jansen‘s contract, this would be it.

Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, Chris Hatcher and J.P. Howell have been quite bad so far this season.

  • 12 IP (9.00 ERA)
  • 18 H
  • 4 HR
  • 4 BB (all by Hatcher)
  • 14 K

Hey, at least they’re getting strikeouts … I guess. I excluded Joe Blanton and Louis Coleman because they weren’t expected to be big-time contributors to the bullpen. Blanton got touched up by a Brandon Crawford walk-off home run Friday and Coleman — the seventh (i.e., last) man in the bullpen — has faced the most batters of any Dodger reliever (which absolutely was not the plan).

I even wrote in February the bullpen was going to be fine, probably.

“The Dodgers’ bullpen ranked second in strikeout percentage — 26.1 — second to only the Yankees at 26.3 percent. The bullpen also had the seventh-best walk rate at 7.6 percent, because there’s nothing more infuriating when relievers come into games (especially high-leverage situations) and walk hitters. But there are two key stats in which the bullpen topped all of baseball:

  • 12.3% swinging strike rate
  • 81.5% zone contact rate

The bullpen misses bats and limits the amount of contact in the strike zone. This is likely because of the plus to plus-plus velocity possessed by Jansen, Hatcher, Garcia and Baez, and some quality off-speed pitches from Howell and (Luis) Avilan.”

So far, the bullpen has an 8.9 percent swinging strike rate (27th in baseball) and an 89.1 percent zone contact rate (worst in baseball). Those are two huge reasons the ‘pen is struggling so much early on.

Baez, Garcia, Hatcher and Howell were to be the main cogs in the Dodgers’ attempt to get the ball to Jansen. So far, they have all fared poorly. Baez is doing Baez things by giving up home runs and having little command in the strike zone. While his slider and changeup have shown flashes of greatness, he’s far too inconsistent to be trusted. Garcia’s fastball velocity is down a little bit and his slider isn’t yet working for him. Hatcher is making terrible pitches in hitters’ counts (Paul Goldschmidt might disagree) and is relying far too much on his fastball. This is something Mike wrote about last month.

“But early in the season, Hatcher was too reliant on his high-spin, high-velocity four-seamer. (The Major League average spin rate for a four-seam fastball was 2,226 rpm, while the average velocity was 92.9 mph.) While (Wade) Davis mixes in a curve and a cutter nearly 50 percent of the time to keep hitters off-balance, Hatcher was throwing his fastball nearly two-thirds of the time before he was hurt. When he came back, he introduced a cutter and increased usage of his slider and splitter, considerably varying his repertoire.”

Hatcher is throwing the fastball 61.7 percent of the time early on, compared to 49.02 percent the final three months of the 2015 season (you know, when he was really good). Who knows the reasoning, but his command has been bad and the results have been equally as bad.

Howell is pumpkining right before our eyes. He only has one inning (nine batters faced) of data for the 2016 season, but his “fastball” velocity is down to 85.64 MPH and he isn’t throwing his curveball at the rate he did last season. I wrote about Howell’s curveball over the winter.

“When I was doing research for the fastball-slider lefty post earlier this week, I noticed Howell had a .000 isolated power against his curveball in 2015. I did a double-take and, sure enough, Howell did not allow an extra base hit off his curve in 2015. All 15 were singles — 11 were to right-handers and just four were to lefties. He also induced 27 and 19 swings-and-misses, respectively. For whatever reason, hitters have a hard time making good contact with the pitch. His exit velocity on curveballs put in play was 82.7 MPH (27 occurrences with the available data). It was the lowest exit velo of any of his pitches.”

Being the only left-hander in the bullpen at present, the Dodgers will need him to perform. But if he is hurt, just not good anymore or something else, that isn’t good news. The signing of Sean Burnett earlier this week could come into play if Howell continues to struggle.

It’s hard to make definitive statements about these guys with such little data available, but the early returns are not encouraging. These guys (except maybe Howell) should be progressing, not regressing. Of the many LOL-worthy things Dylan Hernandez has written since going from beat writer to columnist, this one might take the cake.

“Along with the resurgence of Yasiel Puig, the most positive development for the Dodgers has been the continued development of right-hander Pedro Baez.

Baez has given up a run in three appearances, but the numbers only tell a small part of the story. One scout who has seen Baez multiple times this year said he has shown a significantly improved slider and changeup. The scout said he considered both pitches to be below-average as recently as last season.”

Full disclosure: I’m not the biggest Baez fan. I see the stuff, I don’t see the consistency, command and makeup. But that’s just me. #notascout

I was/am OK with the way the Dodgers constructed the bullpen. Remember, they had Aroldis Chapman before it was revealed he’s actually a terrible human being and the Dodgers did the right thing by not going through with the deal. But everything is is virtually homegrown. That’s an efficient way to build a bullpen. Not even the front office could have accounted for four of the seven guys pitching like complete crap early this season, especially when the trends were going the other direction.

But now it’s time for the front office to do the right and smart thing: pay Jansen. Chad wrote about the curious decision not to explore that option around arbitration time.

“I cringe at paying relievers a premium as much as anybody, but that apprehension doesn’t carry over to dominant relievers. And while it’s possible the Dodgers simply want to use this off-season to further gauge his value and then let the qualifying offer tank his market (much like Howie Kendrick), surely that scenario could’ve been brought up in extension negotiations. But that scenario wasn’t brought up and nothing was proposed because negotiations never happened, and the apparent unwillingness to even let Jansen’s people know they want the 28-year-old closer around in the long-term is simply puzzling and, quite frankly, more than a bit worrisome in terms of what might transpire in the off-season.”

The events of the first eight games of the season should be evidence enough — analytics or no — that Jansen is a premium reliever and should be extended. It probably isn’t going to happen, unfortunately. But at some point, the team with the highest payroll in the sport has to put that to use. Paying Jansen $15 million a season isn’t going to hamper the ability to make other moves (especially with future monies coming off the books). The cheap way of bullpen construction hasn’t worked thus far.

The bullpen isn’t as bad as it has been early on — that’s just impossible. The numbers begin to even out, but there’s a lot of volatility with the Dodgers’ bullpen.

There probably isn’t another Eric Gagne, Takashi Saito, Jonathan Broxton, Guillermo Mota, et al on the way from the minors. Paying Jansen makes all the sense in the world. I don’t know why the front office is, seemingly, reluctant to do so.

The post-2016 bullpen isn’t going to instill confidence in anyone if it doesn’t have Jansen (or a pitcher of similar talent/ability). I guess the 2016 bullpen isn’t instilling much confidence in anyone, either.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.