Dodgers: Left-Handed Specialists key to 2018 Bullpen
By Mike Margy
In 1990, the Dodgers were two years removed from a world championship, and the then-rival Cincinnati Reds were the cream of the crop in baseball.
The Reds finished five games ahead of the Dodgers, in the NL West, eventually advancing to and winning the World Series. But the Reds’ World Series title was really the backdrop to who they were that year. Cincinnati’s bullpen ushered in a new era in baseball: the specialized reliever.
For younger fans, think 2015 Kansas City Royals.
The Reds had three players at the back end of their bullpen who could pitch the seventh, eighth or ninth innings equally well, and Reds manager Lou Piniella wasn’t afraid to use any of the three in any situation.
Right-hander Rob Dibble and lefties Randy Myers and Norm Charlton formed the “Nasty Boys,” one of the most feared bullpen groups ever. In fact, Dibble actually threw at a runner once ON PURPOSE!
Myers was the main closer with 31 saves in 1990, but all three of them closed games that year.
The 2018 Dodgers won’t quite be the Nasty Boys, but they have built the type of bullpen that will be able to do many of the same things those Reds did.
L.A.’s bullpen begins and ends with closer Kenley Jansen, but it could be the lefty specialists who will make or break this group.
The Dodgers will face several tough lefty bats in the NL West this season – Arizona’s Jake Lamb, Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon and San Francisco’s Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford.
Come playoff time, the Dodgers could find themselves in critical situations facing Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo or Kyle Schwarber, St. Louis’s Matt Carpenter, or a barrage of lefties in Washington, including Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton and some guy named Bryce Harper.
Being able to get those guys out in key late-inning situations will fall upon the shoulders of holdovers Tony Cingrani and Adam Liberatore, and newcomers Scott Alexander and, possibly, Henry Owens.
The loss of Tony Watson, who signed with the Giants this week, means Cingrani will more often than not be the first left arm out of the bullpen most nights. (Jeff Sullivan wrote a nice story on Cingrani here).
Cingrani’s 2017 numbers may be a bit skewed. He joined the team in a deadline day deal, the same day as Tony Watson, who had been the closer for the Pirates before becoming a prime setup man down the stretch and into the post-season for L.A., significantly lightening the load on Cingrani.
With zero career saves heading into 2016, Cingrani saved 17 games for the Reds that year despite a 4.14 ERA. After ERAs of 4.55, 5.67 and 4.14 from 2014-16, the Dodgers asked Cingrani to use his slider more and work on better placement of his fastball, taking a cue from what the Reds had asked of him before last season.
Left-handed batters were 18-for-73 (.247) against Cingrani with six home runs and 14 RBIs in 2017. His groundball rate of 41.3 percent isn’t ideal, but his nearly 11 K/9 rate and his better than 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio make him a valuable asset heading into 2018.
The Dodgers acquired Alexander from the Royals in a shrewd, three-team January trade, sending Luis Avilan to the White Sox and Trevor Oaks and Erick Mejia to the Royals.
Alexander was a key part of the Kansas City bullpen in 2017, finishing 5-4 with four saves and a 2.48 earned run average in 58 games.
In an era in which launch angle is all the offensive rage, Alexander has an astounding 73.8 percent ground ball rate, making him a perfect fit in the Dodgers’ bullpen and hitter-friendly Dodger Stadium.
Against left-handed batters in 2017, Alexander allowed a .250 batting average in 72 at-bats and only one home run. His 7.7 K/9 ratio isn’t eye-popping, but his better than 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio fits nicely with this group.
(Dodgers Way colleague Jacob Rudner wrote a great introductory piece about Alexander here).
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Liberatore, 30, is beginning his fourth season in the L.A. bullpen. He could not be counted on much last season, appearing in only four games. He began the season in AAA, then was recalled April 23 before being sent back four days later.
After being recalled again May 8, his physical troubles began two days later when he was placed
on the disabled list with a left groin strain. One week after being activated, Liberatore went back on the DL June 1 for left forearm tightness, eventually being moved to 60-day DL on July 28.
When he has pitched over the past three seasons, Liberatore has allowed a .208 batting average (30-144) against lefties, including one home run and 15 RBIs.
The 25-year-old Owens allowed a .226 batting average against versus lefties as a member of the Red Sox bullpen in 2015-16, including a .185 batting average against versus lefties with no home runs and two RBIs in 2016.
Owens strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t what the Dodgers usually look for in a specialist, however at 71/44.
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Owens appeared in only 26 minor league games for Boston last season. Selected off waivers from Arizona two weeks after the Diamondbacks selected him off waivers from the Red Sox in December, Owens will get a shot at the bullpen this spring, but he is the least likely of the foursome to break camp with the big club next month.