The Dodgers are 40 games (16-24) into the 2018 season – a season that can so far be defined by lackluster performances across the board. The offense, defense, starting pitching, and relief pitching have all shown glimpses of their 2017 glory, but have otherwise been inconsistent and, unfortunately, mediocre. But what I’ve found is that there isn’t a component of this team that elicits a more contentious reaction than talking about the bullpen. So, first up in a series of early-season report cards, I’ll dive into ratings and analysis for the crew that sports MLB’s 22nd ranked ERA at 4.51.
The “High Achievers”:
Ross Stripling: A
I’ll admit, I’m as surprised as you are to be putting Ross so high on this list – but if we take a look at what he’s been able to accomplish this year as a reliever, he’s been leagues ahead of the rest of the staff. For one, in 15.1 innings this year his ERA is 0.59. For reference that’s the 4th best ERA for a qualified reliever in baseball. If you’re skeptical about solely using ERA to evaluate RPs (I am), he’s also leading Dodgers’ relievers with a 2.11 FIP (20th best in MLB).
He’s managed to strand 94.4% of baserunners, second only to Josh Fields – but he’s managed to do it with a more sustainable BABIP of .300. He’s also holding opposing hitters to a .214 average, and inducing soft contact more often than his counterparts. On top of his performance, he gives Doc the flexibility to go multiple innings or make spot starts, which has been immensely valuable given the number of Dodgers’ starters hitting the DL. Yes, we should expect some regression from Ross as the season progresses, in part because his stats are propped up by an unsustainable 0.00 HR/9, but given the Dodger’s BP struggles this year he has emerged as one of the few bright spots. For that, Ross deserves an A.
Josh Fields: B
It has been another consistent performance from Josh Fields in 2018, who has seemingly become a workhorse producer in the bullpen since his call-up last year. All in all, there are few outliers from what he’s delivered so far this year in comparison to what he managed in 57 innings for the Dodgers last season. He’s delivered a team best LOB% of 94.6, a 2.45 ERA, and he’s holding opposing hitters to a .206 BA through 18.1 innings.
He doesn’t walk many batters, has a strikeout rate of 22.9, and a WHIP of 1.04. As a pitcher he’s unfortunately been bitten by the same home run bug that’s plaguing many of the relievers on the staff, and is only inducing about half as many ground balls as last year, which may be cause for concern. Even further, his FIP is over 4 and BABIP of .224 may be due for some regression. Still, we should look forward to another solid season from Fields; so long as he manages to stay healthy he and Baez will likely anchor the bullpen from an IP perspective.
The “Needs Improvement”:
JT Chargois: B-
Another somewhat pleasant surprise emerging from the bullpen – although after his most recent outing his stats aren’t quite as convincing – Chargois has managed to show a proclivity for high leverage situations and timely outs in his short Major League career. Considering before this year he had only thrown 23.0 innings in the Majors, I fully expected him to be a longer term project for Honeycutt and new bullpen coach Mark Prior. Instead, Roberts has used him at times to setup for Kenley Jansen or against the heart of the opposing team’s lineup.
He’s managed a healthy 11.9 K/9 (3rd behind Cingrani and Baez), the also team’s 3rd best left on base percentage 79.2%, and is holding opposing RH hitters to a meager .195 average. Before his last appearance, he had a 2.59 ERA and the team’s second lowest HR/9 rate – his ERA has since jumped to 4.40. So far it seems his biggest struggle has been command, having issued 10 walks in 14.1 innings. Still, I think the future is bright for Chargois. If he can continue to dominate RH hitters and continue to miss bats with his sinking four-seamer and exceptional slider, he will play a pivotal role in a charge for the postseason.
J.T. Chargois was the first reliever out of the Dodgers' bullpen yesterday. He threw a 1-2-3 inning, with two strikeouts, and averaged 95.5 mph on his fastball. Waiving him is one of the few head-scratcher moves the Falvey/Levine front office has made. Worth tracking all season.
— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) March 30, 2018
Pedro Baez: B-
And so we arrive at Dave Roberts most frequently used reliever this year, who leads the bullpen in innings pitched thus far at 18.2. It’s already been a rollercoaster of a year for Pedro as he recaptured the setup role early in the season, and has subsequently been used earlier and for multiple innings in his most recent outings. His ERA is a laborious 3.86, he’s middle of the pack when it comes to LOB%, his walk rates and WHIP are up, and he’s struggled to get left handed hitters out.
That said, he’s actually been the Dodgers second most valuable pitcher with 0.3 fWAR. Of all the Dodgers’ pitchers, he’s been the most victimized by “bad luck.” On balls in play, hitters are batting an absurd .420 – the MLB average is around .300 and Pedro’s career average is even better at .273. With more appearances we will likely see this number stabilize. From a FIP perspective, at 2.67 he sits just behind Ross Stripling this year and nearly cracks the top 50 for all MLB relievers (min. 10 innings pitched). His strikeout rate is up and his HR/9 is down from last year. We should see some of Pedro’s core numbers stabilize, and whether you like it or not he will probably be another innings-eater out of the pen this year.
Kenley Jansen: C
baseball: there are two outs, the Dodgers are up three runs, and Kenley Jansen is on the mound. the game is over
also baseball: nah pic.twitter.com/538JZnNCTe
— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) April 3, 2018
I could not have ever imagined grading Kenley this low, considering that over the past 2+ seasons he’s emerged as one of the most dominant closers in baseball. His mid-90’s cutter is what legends are made of, and he’s been described as this generations Mariano. So it’s with a heavy heart I admit, that Kenley Jansen has been pretty bad this year. Will things get better? Most likely, yes. In fact, things are already trending in the right direction. Kenley’s cutter velocity has been the most talked about issue in the bullpen. In 2017, his cutter averaged 93.6 MPH – through the first week of April this year it was down to 91.2 MPH. It’s steadily been increasing into May, a good sign that perhaps he was just shaking off-season rust, overuse from the previous World Series run, or a slight mechanical flaw.
Kenley will need to work back from a 3.78 ERA, 4.5+ FIP, and a 3.24 BB/9 (over 3 times higher than last years incredible 0.92). He’ll also have to reestablish his ability to induce soft contact, and return to his elite ability to leave base runners stranded. After two early blown saves, Kenley’s allowed just 1 ER in his last 9 appearances – walking only two batters over that stretch, striking out seven and allowing just six hits. It would be naive to expect Kenley to repeat the level of production he had last year; in many respects it’s unlikely we will ever see a year like that from a Dodger reliever. Still, Kenley’s abilities aren’t reflected by his current numbers and he still projects to be a very good closer for the Dodgers this year.
The “At Risk”:
Tony Cingrani: C-
Cingrani’s shown glimpses of dominance this year:
Tony Cingrani in 2018: 15 strikeouts, 0 walks.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) April 23, 2018
Where his performance has really stood out this year is in his ability to induce ground balls and his elite strikeout numbers – 14.4 K/9 (ranked 10th best in MLB). On the flip side, he’s hurt the team by failing to strand runners – performing well under the rest of the crew. He’s also struggled to get left handed hitters out, who are hitting a healthy .318, and his performance on the road has been nothing short of awful (8.10 ERA). Despite having the worst ERA of relievers on this list, much like Baez he is also a candidate for luck reversal. With more appearances we should see his BABIP of .375 improve, whereas his FIP of 2.93 is likely a better indicator of where his numbers will end up.
Scott Alexander: D
The expectations for Scott Alexander were sky high; so much was made of his elite ability to induce ground balls that he was referred to as “Zach Britton Lite” and the answer to Brandon Morrow’s departure. Watching Alexander’s sinker work, which he throws ~90% of the time, it’s not difficult to imagine the comparison and understand the success he enjoyed for the Royals last season (2.48 ERA, 4 Saves, 9 Holds). But as far as his body of work shows this year, things have not been nearly as exciting. Despite it being his bread and butter he’s inducing 13% fewer ground balls, walking more batters and striking out fewer than he managed last year. The result is an ERA and FIP above 5, and an unsurprising demotion to AAA. He’s since been recalled – here’s to hoping the short stint in Oklahoma City helped clear his mind.
Not included: Adam Liberatore, Brock Stewart, Daniel Hudson, Yimi Garcia, Wilmer Font, Pat Venditte, Zach Neal
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