Taking the saying “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” to a whole new level, the Dodgers inked former Red Sox reliever, Joe Kelly to a three year- $25 million deal just months after the 30-year old flamethrower dominated his now teammates in the World Series. But, with Kelly now friend not a foe, the storied relief pitcher pushes the Dodgers’ bullpen into elite territory.
Building an elite bullpen has long been a task that Andrew Friedman has strived to achieve. However, with the exception of Kenley Jansen, the now stand-alone general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers has primarily worked from within and in minor league deals to put together his relief corps.
Brandon Morrow was 2017’s story, a minor league free agent inked to a minimalistic contract and ultimately added to the major league roster where he shined as bright as Kenley Jansen did. Morrow was so successful he earned himself a healthy paycheck from the Cubs in 2018 and never looked back.
Although not as successful as the former, Daniel Hudson was Andrew Friedman’s reclamation project in 2018. Hudson signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers and was ultimately promoted into a relief role where he pitched his way to a 4.11 ERA with a 95 ERA+. It was no Brandon Morrow but the Hudson signing was not a complete failure. And, Andrew Friedman loves doing that.
“It is never really my strategy to buy expensive free agent relievers,” Friedman said. “They seem to never really pan out. Look at what happened in Colorado and many other places.”
Honestly, he is not totally wrong. I have no hardcore statistical evidence but, anecdotally and by the eye test, big-name relievers that get big contracts tend to struggle on their new teams. Wade Davis made the jump from perineal Cy Young candidate out of the bullpen to a slightly above average pitcher in terms of ERA+, a statistic that does account for the ballpark played in. Davis is not the only one but that is not nearly the focus of this article.
Joe Kelly represents a change for Friedman. He will cost him $8.3 million a year and will be under contract with the Dodgers through his age 33 season. So, how does he make the Dodgers so good?
Kelly had a rough year in 2018. His ERA+ was limited to just the league average mark of 100 but when you broaden your search just a tiny bit you would notice that Kelly has not been a full-time reliever for all that long. Through 2015, Kelly was a full-time starter, a decent one sure but he had no fulltime relief experience.
In 2016, Boston converted the 28-year old Kelly to the pen and he far exceeded expectations thus warranting a full transition to the bullpen. In 2017, Kelly shined when he pitched in 54 games with a 2.79 ERA with a 164 ERA+. Combine his 2017 and 2018 seasons and Kelly ranks 86th amongst all big league relievers in ERA+ with a minimum of 75 games pitched across the two seasons. Considering 189 pitchers qualify, that is not awful at all.
Now put that number into the rest of the Dodger bullpen and the team is actually stacked with relievers making a mark in the ERA+ category. Kenley Jansen, Josh Fields and Pedro Baez all rank in the top 50 in the grand leaderboard while Scott Alexander and Ross Stripling slot in within the top 100. The Dodgers only qualified reliever, not in the top 100 is Tony Cingrani.
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Now let’s find some perspective here. Every single pitcher I just mentioned is in the Dodgers’ bullpen and all of them with the exception of Cingrani have ERA+’s well above 100 over a two-year span. That is a lengthy period of sustained success with definitive numerical evidence of being above league average.
And we can compare this to some all-time great bullpens. To do that I took a single season of greatness and stretched it to combine the amazing year with the one before it. For example, the Cincinnati Reds 1990 bullpen, one of the best of all time, had four players (Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Tim Layana) in the top 100 of ERA+ between the ’89 and ’90 seasons. Again, the current Dodgers with Joe Kelly have six.
More recently, we can look at the 2003 Dodger bullpen, a staff lead by that season’s Cy Young award winner, Erc Gagne. When combining 2002 and ’03, that Dodger bullpen had five players in the top 100.
Historically speaking, this Dodger bullpen has the numbers to be incredible and they do not need to be done building it yet. Adam Ottavino, David Robertson, Zach Britton and Andrew Miller are all still free agents. Albeit some financial restraints, if the Dodgers add any of those four pitchers, their top-100 ERA+ total moves to seven.
When you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em. The Dodgers adopted that strategy when they added Joe Kelly. Not only does Kelly go from the dark side to the light, but he actually moves the needle for this bullpen from good to great.