The bullpen remains an area of needed improvement for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020, but MLB’s new rule may indirectly impact one of the team’s relievers.
When Major League Baseball announced their new rule requiring that all pitchers (Dodgers and all other teams alike) will be held to a three-batter minimum beginning in the 2020 season, it was met with a mixed response. From the obvious benefits to the speed of play to the worry over the potential loss of pitching roles, there were positives and negatives to the rule change.
On one hand, the league has been heavily focused on improving the speed of play. In a world dominated by attention spans measured by the length topics trend on social media, the three to four hour MLB experience has long been perceived as the culprit to waning interest among younger viewers. Speeding up the length of games has meant a lot of more subtle changes to what happens between the foul lines. While limiting mound visits in a game to the use of a pitch clock have had their benefits, the league felt it still needed to do more. The use of relief pitchers, and their subsequent need to warm-up when entering the game, became a target. Hence the three-batter minimum was instituted.
According to an MLB.com report, any starting pitcher or reliever must now pitch to a minimum of three batters or pitch until completion of the inning. While this doesn’t hurt the new fascination with “openers” as they typically work through the first part of the order anyway, it does directly impact the usage of a LOOGY (Left-handed, One Out Guy). The specialists brought in to face a tough lefty hitter with a platoon weakness would now be forced to stay in to face the right-handers that often follow those batters.
In looking through the Dodgers roster, there is one specific arm this might impact.
Los Angeles acquired lefty Adam Kolarek from the Tampa Bay Rays at the 2019 trade deadline, and he was a significant addition to the Dodgers relief corps. In 26 appearances for the Dodgers, Kolarek went 2-0 with a 0.77 ERA down the stretch and making three scoreless appearances in the postseason.
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The problem with Kolarek is two-fold.
Firstly, he has drastic platoon splits. He undoubtedly does his job against like-handed hitters, who hit only .178/.221/.262 off of Kolarek last season, and lefties own a lifetime .199/.243/.281 slash again him. However, the story is much different for right-handers. Those with the platoon advantage hit him to the tune of .282/.362/.495 last season and .299/.368/.480 over the course of his career. Likewise, his hard-hit rates take a big swing as well, from just 18.5% against lefties to 44.0% against righties.
As you can guess, Kolarek is the epitome of the LOOGY. As such, the Dodgers let him face multiple batters in just 10 of his 26 appearances for Los Angeles. Only six times did he face three or more hitters in a Dodgers uniform.
That likely means a change of role for Kolarek in 2020, but some of that could revolve around the health of another arm in the Dodgers’ pen.
Kolarek’s addition to the team in 2019 was made necessary when Scott Alexander underwent season-ending surgery to address a nerve issue in his left arm. A stalwart in the pen a year before, Alexander struggled last season, when his strikeout rate dropped to a career-low 4.7 K/9 and his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 5.06 was nearly a run and a half higher than his actual ERA.
Alexander had made four appearances in Spring Training before the Coronavirus shutdown, and the results were a bit more promising, with the lefty surrendering just one earned run over four innings of work and registering three strikeouts. Meanwhile, Kolarek has been shelled for eight earned runs and 10 hits over 4.2 innings of work this spring.
With a shortened season ahead – if the league is able to play at all – and the new rule in place, tough choices will need to be made. Kolarek may be the odd man out of the Dodgers bullpen competition. He does have a minor league option available, but with 40-man roster spots at a premium and a tough track record against righties, the Dodgers may not choose to exercise it.
Baseball’s focus on evolution could make Adam Kolarek just one of many victims of the game’s war against the clock. A man from a now obsolete era.