Why All The Worry About The Dodgers Bullpen?


A potentially underrated bullpen addition

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason has obviously brought changes to the Dodgers, and especially the Dodgers bullpen. Whether that’s Brian Wilson being jettisoned, or Brandon League being shopped, probably ignoring Chris Perez‘s phone calls, and bringing in high upside arms like Chris Hatcher, Juan Nicasio, Joel Peralta, or potentially Adam Liberatore. There was a bullpen shakeup, and nobody really seemed to notice. Maybe that’s shock and confusion over the Matt Kemp/ Dee Gordon trades, but there are still a lot of critics on the state of the dodger bullpen.

Last season’s team was enormously flawed, they basically won by having one of the best offenses in Dodger history, Zack Greinke putting up the second best season in his career, and Clayton Kershaw having the best season a pitcher has had since Pedro Martinez. They won the NL West with a bullpen ranking 18th in Win Probability Added, 25th in adjusted ERA, and 23rd in adjusted FIP.

Nowadays, well over 90% of all baseball games end with a relief pitcher on the mound, a big part of a reliever’s job is to protect a lead in the highest possible leverage situation, so it would make sense to strengthen that area. Just look at the 2014 postseason: the Royals had 3 of the best relievers on the planet and a solid high upside base, the Giants didn’t have a great bullpen, but they were managed to perfection and got hot at the right time, the Orioles had a bullpen to rival the Royals after the Andrew Miller trade, and the Cardinals bullpen was more than usable. Having a great (but also top heavy) bullpen isn’t a ticket to the playoffs (the Mariners and the Padres both missed the playoffs), but once you get there shortening the game is essential by utilizing the bullpen correctly, and the Dodgers pen is much improved.

Despite this, the contributions to the bullpen have been largely overshadowed. We’ve talked a lot about Chris Hatcher: a pitcher who throws in the mid 90’s, a nasty slider, has intense facial hair and already has a season’s worth of success as evidenced by his 5.00 K-BB ratio/2.56 FIP (important because he’s new to the whole pitching thing). Hatcher’s prospects for being a productive setup man are high, way higher than we’re giving him.

But this isn’t it, Juan Nicasio, a failed starter (who actually pitched worse outside of Coors Field) was sitting 93-97 at the end of last season according to pitch(fx) and held batters to a .300 weighted on base average (slightly above the league average for pitchers) in his first try at being a reliever. He’s a bad 2 pitch starter turned reliever, plenty of those have become really good relievers so it’s more than blind hope driving the Nicasio bandwagon.

Joel Peralta is productive and old, but still productive! The hope is that his strikeout rate and walk rate are for real and the hard contact issues are just noise. But even if Peralta’s peripherals overrate him, he’s a fine step up from Brian Wilson’s 2013. Peralta has thrown 269.1 innings pitched in the past 3 seasons, owning peripheral stats of 9.79 K/9 2.81 BB/9 1.07 HR/9 and a 3.58 ERA/ 3.40 FIP split.  Those numbers aren’t anything spectacular, but they got him for nothing, and the stability he brings adds something the Dodgers had NOTHING of last October. Maybe this prevents Pedro Baez exploding in, game 1 of the NLDS, or maybe this prevents Scott Elbert throwing meatballs in game 3. He pitches a lot and he pitches well most of the time, I’ll take that.

Adam Liberatore has put up some shiny numbers in the minors and even if the stuff doesn’t match the results so far (it doesn’t), nobody should expect him to be Wade Davis in the major leagues. He’s limited the home runs, his strikeout numbers are high, he keeps his walks in check, and he kills lefties, you could find worse LOOGY options. He’s expected to be depth this season with a chance to be more than that.

Finally the internal options are getting a chance. Instead of the Perez’s, the Correia’s, the Fauxto’s of the world taking reps from Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, and Paco Rodriguez, they finally get an opportunity to provide meaningful reps to the major league organization. Garcia has the distinction of having insane high spin fastball numbers. You know that velocity generally correlates well with missing bats, but movement is arguably more important  (especially against major league hitting), and Garcia has exhibited some excellent high spin fastball numbers. That method of movement is mainly how low velocity guys get the most out of their fastballs, and how high velocity guys become even more nasty.

Keep in mind that these are samples from last year, and they’re not particularly large, but 2 impactful major leaguers appeared on list that baseball prospectus provides. Hutchinson just came off of a season where he struck out 9 batters per 9 innings and earned 1.8 runs against WAR. And perhaps most importantly in context of the study of high spin fastballs, Hutchinson’s fastball was recorded at 5 runs above average according to fangraphs’ pitch(fx) values.

And if you payed any attention to the Phillies (lol), Ken Giles might just be the most exciting thing that franchise has left. His fastball was worth 5 runs above average according to pitch(fx) and was one of the nastiest fastballs in the game (leading to a 1.18 ERA [!!!]/1.34 FIP [!!!] split). So Garcia really has a chance to contribute, Paco is not far removed from being one of the better, young left handed relievers in the game, health permitting. And Pedro Baez has been pitching for all of 2 professional seasons (him refining his breaking pitches and command would not be in the least bit surprising).

The overhaul that was expected was real, and no not all of these pitchers will reach their respective ceilings. Pedro Baez might just be an older one pitch relief prospect who gives up a lot of dingers, Paco might not rediscover his form, Juan Nicasio may never get over his home run problems, Chris Hatcher might regress. But even so, if improving the bullpen was a goal of the offseason, then the front office has succeeded, the bullpen has a higher collective floor and higher collective ceiling than the 2014 Dodgers.

Everybody talks about the defense and back end of the rotation offsetting the offense the Dodgers lost, well, maybe the bullpen is the piece that makes this particular Dodgers team better.