Brandon League Comeback?


Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon League is

quite possibly

the most hated Dodger, by far. It’s not even a question, Josh Beckett may not be liked a whole lot, but he’s on an expiring contract and just came off of a serious injury which history has shown it is hard for pitchers to come back from, he has an excuse to being awful. But Brandon League 2013 edition was brutal. We all heard the boos in every home game he appeared in after the middle of June. The whole stadium loathed him, by the time Kenley Jansen mercifully relieved him of his closer duties on June 11th, League had already blown 4 saves with a miserable 6.00 ERA. And we can go on and on about how much I hate 3 year deals for non-elite relievers (which certainly doesn’t fit League), this post is dedicated to show hope for a comeback (I swear).

Lets start off by saying Brandon League is 30 years old. He is in the middle of his “physical peak”, if you look at his velocity charts on his primary pitch, his sinker, there aren’t many red flags, he still throws really hard. His velocity wasn’t an issue last season, but take one look at his numbers and you’ll see that Brandon League was one of the worst relief pitchers in baseball last season primarily because of the amount of home runs he surrendered. In the last 3 seasons his home run per fly ball rates went as followed: 6.5%, 2.1%, 19.0%. He’s always been below average at preventing home runs (13.4% HR/FB careerwise) but nowhere near as bad last season. In terms of relief pitchers, he ranked 2nd worst in home run prevention per fly ball.

This trend likely wont continue. It’s extremely difficult for a pitcher to allow this amount of home runs, Brandon League can be outright unhittable at times (h/t to Chad Moriyama). That pitch is simply filthy, and when he has his mechanics working he’s impossible to figure out. And while everything about last season for League was pretty horrible, there are some signs of progress. His Line Drive Percentage was .2% below his career average of 19.3%. His Groundball Percentage hovered right around his career average (59.8% vs 59.5%). He increased his GB/FB rate in 2013 (2.83)  from 2012 (2.19) and 2011 (2.35). Everything was pointing up except for that damn home run rate. His Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA) hovered at a much more respectable 3.70. Baseball Prospectus defines SIERA well,

"Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average estimates ERA through walk rate, strikeout rate and ground ball rate, eliminating the effects of park, defense and luck."

SIERA has always liked League, and it stands to reason that based off of his groundballs, strikeout rate, and walk rate this past season, he was a very similar pitcher to his career averages (3.70 SIERA this season vs a 3.80 career ERA). League plays in a division/park that for the most part keeps balls in the yard if you’re susceptible to giving up home runs. You could do worse than play in a division that has Dodger Stadium, AT&T Park, and Petco Park. If you looked at his stats from 2010-2012 (his time with the Mariners) he had a really nice career there. His HR/9 was a nice 0.5/9, and he rode those groundball rates to a solid 3.14 ERA  He pitched in parks like Safeco Field, Angel Stadium and the Coliseum frequently which all assisted in keeping the ball in the park.

I guess what should be said is that Brandon League was a very solid reliever for 3 years in a park/division that is very similar to the one he plays in now, with essentially the same stuff, same groundball rates, and same line drive percentages. We know how volatile relievers are because anything can happen in a 60 inning sample size, Justin Verlander can look like Edinson Volquez, Jeremy Guthrie can look like Clayton Kershaw in such a small sample of innings. And while there is no way that he comes close to being worth his insane contract, there is a pretty good chance he gets back to being effective again. And with a bullpen of Jansen-Wilson-Withrow-Paco-Howell-FA signing/Dominguez-League, that’s all you can really ask for, because an effective League makes that one of the better bullpens in baseball.