Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Hidden Issue in the Dodger Bullpen

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If you’re a Dodger fan, at this point you’re most likely just waiting for the regular season to end and the playoffs to commence.  Not to say it hasn’t been fun for you watching the team steamroll through almost any opponent thrown at them at an almost historic pace, the real test is always going to be the playoffs.  In recent years emphasis has been placed on relief pitching in the playoffs and the Dodgers’ bullpen currently comes equipped with the third lowest ERA, fourth lowest FIP, third highest K/9, and the lowest BB/9 in the entire MLB.  They’re leading all those categories amongst teams in the National League.  Needless to say, they’ve been good and a big reason why when the Dodgers have a lead, they usually don’t lose (unless they’re playing their kryptonite, the Braves).

There’s been talks of what the Dodgers’ rotation is going to look like come October with the recently acquired Yu Darvish.  Clayton Kershaw, if healthy, is the no brainer number 1.  After that it’s a question of not only who, but how many.  Last year’s playoffs saw the Dodgers stick to a 4 man rotation consisting of Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, and Julio Urias.  However, in 2015 the playoff rotation in the NLDS against the Mets featured just 3 in Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Brett Anderson.  This year with the acquisition of Yu Darvish, the Dodgers have somebody with a similar pedigree of a Zack Greinke and with the way Alex Wood has thrown, he’s pitching just as effectively too.  Whether they go with 3 or 4, somebody is going to be the odd man out and most likely be used in the bullpen.  Not only that, but with the amount of starting pitchers currently on the Dodgers’ payroll, it’s possible they would want some of them in the bullpen anyway and it might be to their benefit if you look closely at two relievers in particular.

Pedro Baez has been an enigma in the bullpen in recent years but this year for the most part he’s found a way to be effective.  Some will look at his 1.89 ERA and be impressed seeing as that is a pretty low number for a pitcher and much improved for Baez.  Look a little further and the ERA sticks out as kind of dubious.  Pedro Baez currently has his lowest K/9 since his debut year in 2014, his highest BB/9, and his highest FIP and xFIP ever.  The biggest change this year though?  Pedro Baez’s LOB% is at 94.4%, a career best and is 20% higher than the average for a reliever.  The amount of hard hit balls has not changed drastically off of him and his ground ball rate is also under league average...all of this seems to point to something giving way at some point.  There has only been one season in Baez’s career where his ERA has been higher than his FIP and with almost nothing changing to suggest a drop in ERA of almost a run and a half, it might benefit the Dodgers to go with somebody like Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, or Brandon McCarthy come October.

Baez isn’t the only one of concern in this department either, Josh Fields is also having a very similar season to Pedro Baez.  Josh Fields K/9 and BB/9 are actually better than league average for a reliever and in line with his averages, but the concerns start to crop up when you look at the same thing: LOB%.  Josh Field’s LOB% is sitting at 93%, that is 3rd in the MLB among qualified relievers (Pedro sits at 2nd).  Not only that, but Josh Fields’ ground ball percentage of 26.8% is the 3rd worst in the MLB, only behind teammate Chris Hatcher and the Cubs’ Koji Uehara.  When you look at the leaderboard for LOB%, their names start to stick out amongst the others like Craig Kimbrel, Archie Bradley, and Corey Knebel (Knebel and Kimbrel being All Stars, Bradley leading the Diamondbacks’ bullpen in fWAR).  It’s hard to keep a LOB% of 90 even if you’re among the elite in the game, and none of Pedro Baez’s or Josh Fields’ stats seem to indicate that they’ve been among the elite besides that LOB% and to an extent ERA (which is problematic for relievers as it is).  While Pedro’s BABIP this year is of less concern in this department as it is around his career average, Josh Fields’ is almost .80 points lower than his average and that could be of a concern come October when a ball in play might just fall in for a hit in a crucial part of the game.

Of course all of this is just guesswork and hypothesis, Baez and Fields have not faltered enough to be a large detriment to the bullpen.  All these numbers are evidence but none factor in the human element of the game and come October if they’re still maintaining their LOB% and other supplementary stats to be effective, they might earn the spot on the playoff roster.  It’s baseball and crazier things have happened than going an entire year with very good luck when it counts.  However, the Dodgers’ managerial staff led by Dave Roberts has not been known to be very cookie cutter and by the books (just ask Rich Hill and Ross Stripling when they were taken out of their perfect game/no hit bids).  If the more advanced analytical front office has any say (and they have access to the same numbers, if not more detailed ones) there might be some hurt feelings for the best later in the season.

The Dodgers are sitting on a wealth of pitchers in their rotation.  Health is a factor for some, but when Kershaw comes back from his back problem and if McCarthy gets his blister under control, there are plenty of solid choices to go into the bullpen for a Postseason run.  The Dodgers have already started top prospect Walker Buehler on a transition to the bullpen to be ready for the major leagues later in the year.  Kenta Maeda and Brandon McCarthy alone have a better FIP than both Fields and Baez and Hyun-Jin Ryu since late June has been terrific.  Even if 1 of those names is kept as an emergency long-man for the postseason (even though Ross Stripling has done very nicely in that role), the Dodgers still can replace Baez and Fields and take their bullpen from arguably one of the best to the absolute best when the games start to matter.

All stats current as of 8/9/17

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