Dodgers’ bullpen has been great, but overwork is concerning

So, how ’bout that Dodgers’ bullpen? It has been rather remarkable at times this season, despite the perception that it’s the worst one ever constructed.

It got off to a rough start early on, mostly because of the ineffectiveness of Pedro Baez and Chris Hatcher in high-leverage situations. Daniel wrote about the team needing to make its own bullpen luck back in June.

“So, yes, the Dodger bullpen has been unlucky. Perhaps we should have seen this recent rebound coming. However, the Dodgers can still make their own bullpen luck. Their leverage stats aren’t completely the fault of the baseball gods. If the team uses better pitchers in high leverage situations than they use in low leverage situations, the results will continue to improve. The Dodgers still haven’t properly demoted Hatcher, and until they do we can’t just cry ‘sequencing’ when looking at the results as a whole. We can’t expect Roberts to cite gmLI in a post-game press conference or to manage perfectly by our preferences and things have been getting better lately, but the usage can absolutely be improved.”

And I wrote in February about how the ‘pen was going to be OK.

“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 Avilan.”

To date, the Dodgers have the fourth-best swinging strike rate (12.2 percent) and the sixth-best Z-Contact rate (83.2 percent). This has been without Yimi Garcia most of the season, Luis Avilan forgetting how to get hitters out and still with Baez and Hatcher pitching a lot of innings (some of which are meaningful). But the additions of Joe Blanton and Louis Coleman, as well as the surprising Adam Liberatore, have helped make up for the fact those guys have struggled with health and performance this season.

The bullpen leads all of baseball with a 2.83 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and a .192 batting average against (which would be an all-time record) — aided by a league-best .237 BABIP (Cubs second at .259), the third-best FIP at 3.54 and fWAR at 4.0.

Jon Weisman wrote about the resurgent bullpen today.

“In the process, the Dodger bullpen was also conquering that Achilles heel: inherited runners. By stranding 81.6 percent of runners on base when they entered the game, Dodger relievers matched the pace of the MLB leader in that category, Houston.

And so we turn to the standings. Since May 22, the Dodgers are 29-17 (.630), the third-best record in the Major Leagues and second in the NL. The only team in the league that’s been better: the Giants, who are 30-14. But the success has allowed the Dodgers stay in divisional contention behind the team with the best record in baseball, while building a 2 1/2-game cushion in the NL Wild Card race.

All this with a starting rotation’s worth of pitchers on the disabled list for some or all of those 46 games: Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Alex Wood and, most notably, Kershaw.”

The last graf leads to a concern for the second half. The bullpen has been worked really hard. Many guys are on pace to best their projected innings pitched number by a lot. Weisman broke it down and it turns out Hatcher and Baez are the two players who are on pace to throw more than 140 percent of their projected innings coming into the season. Hatcher’s evolution (if it can be called that) into a long reliever accounts for his higher inning count, while Baez is still viewed as a short reliever, despite being second on the team in bullpen innings.

Blanton has pitched 47 1/3 innings after being projected at 84 1/3 before the season. That normally wouldn’t be a problem, but those innings were viewed as coming in the long relief role, not primary setup man to Kenley Jansen. He has pitched in 16 high-leverage situations this season — third to Jansen (20) and Baez (17). Pitching in the eighth inning with a lead and runners on is a lot more stressful than entering in the sixth inning of a game in which the starter was roughed up. We’ll see if that has any impact on him in the second half.

The bullpen has been great this season. People will only remember the bad times, especially when it comes to relievers. But, as Weisman pointed out, the Dodgers wouldn’t be where they are right now without the ‘pen.

That doesn’t mean an upgrade isn’t necessary (*cough* Andrew Miller *cough*). But a guy already in the organization who could take stress of the ‘pen in the second half is Mike Bolsinger. He has converted to the bullpen in Oklahoma City and has been fine so far: 2.38 ERA, 28.6 K%, 6.1 BB% in 11 1/3 innings. He has given up 15 hits, but he could be a guy who can be a 2-to-3-inning pitcher and help save some of these current relievers from being overworked.

Miller is actually a perfect fit for this bullpen. Not just because he’s great, but he’s a lefty to take stress off Liberatore and make it easy to not use J.P. Howell in medium- or high-leverage situations. He is also a safety net in case Jansen leaves next season via free agency.

The best way for the bullpen to not be overworked is for the starters to throw more innings. Clayton Kershaw will when he returns, but there’s no guarantee any of the other guys will be able to average that per start for the rest for the season. It’s hard to expect that from the guys coming back from injury (Anderson, McCarthy, Ryu, Wood), but Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda need to shoulder the load — but that’s idealistic. Giving the relievers some relief is the next-best option.

So the next time the Dodger bullpen blows a lead or a game, just remember all the good it has done this season. It’s the nature of bullpens and relief pitchers. It could be worse: The Dodgers could have the Reds’ bullpen.

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.