Dodgers: Is the biggest problem still in the bullpen?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Pitcher Joe Kelly #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers gets a visit by manager Dave Roberts and is pulled in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 06, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Pitcher Joe Kelly #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers gets a visit by manager Dave Roberts and is pulled in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 06, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images) /
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For the past few seasons, the narrative has always centered around the bullpen. Is it good enough? Is it overworked? Is it finally fixed?

Well, I’m here to tell you that it really has not gotten much better over the past three seasons, but you probably already knew that. From Brandon Morrow to no one and then to Joe Kelly, the Dodgers have not gone all-in on a bullpen at any point during my time as a Dodger fan, and they especially have not over the last few seasons.

Why haven’t they? Why have the Dodgers zigged when so many other teams have zagged in the direction of building a bullpen before and during the regular season to utilize in the postseason?

It’s tough to tell, especially from the couch in my dorm, which is about as far removed from the Dodgers’ front office as you can get. One possibility is that they anticipated a resurgence in the need for starting pitching, which the monopolized rotations of the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros may point to. But even then, the Dodgers have not gone all-in on a rotation either, instead opting to build the team cheaply on the trade market and mostly from within.

While the farm system is strong enough to pump out contenders for the next half-decade at least, there probably is not a system in baseball, outside of San Diego’s maybe, that has the depth to create a World Series level starting lineup and rotation without much tweaking.

The Dodgers need to utilize their budgetary surplus and their currently deep roster and make a few key tweaks, namely in the bullpen. In this article, I’ll go through why the team needs to invest in a bullpen. Really, it comes down to two key reasons.

For starters, the team needs to protect its starters. Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, and whoever else emerges on top of the pile at the end of 2020 Spring Training will all need to have their innings limited to ensure their October freshness and to try and avoid late-season stress-related injuries and fatigue.

Kershaw is aging and in need of more rest than ever and Buehler is still not fully-fledged as an ace thanks to some injuries he’s sustained over the last few years. Even Kenley Jansen needs more rest in 2020 to be effective.

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If the Dodgers can protect their starters for the postseason, the offensive woes will matter even less, though it seems like their will have to be a change to the lineup next season after the dreadful 2019 NLDS performance.

More importantly than protection, the new-look bullpen would need to have experience and a history of success pitching in high leverage situations. Last season, the Dodgers bullpen had 17 relievers throw pitches during high leverage situations (according to Fangraphs).

Of those 17, 16 got outs, 14 got more than one out, and only nine faced more than 10 hitters. It doesn’t get any better from there either. Of that core nine relievers trusted to a very limited extent in high leverage situations, only four had ERAs under 10.00, and none of them had ERAs under 4.50.

That will not cut it, especially when every postseason inning should, in theory, resemble a high leverage situation, even if it does not statistically.

If you think that most relief pitchers have bad ERAs in high leverage, simply because you’re bound to make more mistakes in tough situations, your logic might be sound, but you’d of course be dead wrong.

In 2019, 15 relievers pitched to 10 or more hitters and did not allow a single earned run, and one did not allow a walk or a hit either, and he faced 11 hitters (his name is Tyler Clippard, someone I wanted the Dodgers to acquire before the 2019 season, but that’s beside the point). Sure, it’s still a small sample size, but it just goes to show that the Dodgers bullpen did not even luck into anyone who could pitch successfully out of high leverage situations.

How do elite relievers usually do in high leverage though? Do they all have 7.77 ERAs like Kenley Jansen when they face 93 hitters in these sorts of scenarios?

Nope.

Last season, 13 relievers faced more than 93 hitters in high leverage situations, and none of those 13 had an ERA above 6.50. Even more impressively (or for Dodgers fans more depressingly), only six of them had ERAs above 4.50. Kirby Yates and Will Smith both faced over 100 hitters in these situations and both had sub-2.00 ERAs.

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If the Dodgers are going to compete with playoff-caliber offenses from the American League, and even pesky NL offenses like the Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves run out there, then they’ll need to be able to lock in and pitch well in tough situations, like when the bases are loaded and you’re facing Howie Kendrick in a tie game with no outs in an elimination game in the postseason to name an example.