When the Dodgers traded for Craig Kimbrel during spring training, the plan was for him to be their closer. After losing Kenley Jansen in free agency, Los Angeles added what they hoped would be stability at the backend of the bullpen by acquiring the only active pitcher with more saves than Jansen.
The experiment hasn’t gone exactly as they had planned, though. Kimbrel has been inconsistent all season, allowing a career-high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) that seems to suggest bad luck, but when the bad luck persists all season, you have to start wondering.
Kimbrel looked like he had turned a corner a little over a month ago, throwing nine straight scoreless appearances in which he allowed a total of four baserunners in 9.1 innings. And still he has a 2.57 ERA since August 16, allowing just four earned runs in 14 innings.
But all four of those earned runs came against the Diamondbacks, and three of them came on home runs in key situations. It’s kind of funny, because homers haven’t been Kimbrel’s problem all season, but now that his BABIP luck finally turned around, he starts giving up homers.
So now, Kimbrel is no longer The Closer. He’s just another reliever in the bullpen. He pitched the sixth inning of an 11-0 loss on Friday, his first time entering a game earlier than the eighth inning in exactly a year.
On Saturday and Sunday, the Dodgers went other routes to close out games. After Clayton Kershaw’s six-inning gem on Saturday, L.A. manager Dave Roberts went with Chris Martin, Evan Phillips, and Tommy Kahlne to close out a 6-2 win. On Sunday, Michael Grove went five innings, Brusdar Graterol pitched the sixth, and Andre Jackson picked up the three-inning save in the 4-1 win. Jackson became the 11th different pitcher to record a save for Los Angeles this year.
After Saturday’s game, Roberts hinted at his bullpen approach for the postseason, suggesting a matchup-based approach, as reported by Jack Harris in the L.A. Times.
It’s not traditional, but it’s what the Dodgers have decided is best for their bullpen, one that gave the struggling Kimbrel every opportunity to figure things out before finally pulling the plug this week, and that still doesn’t know exactly who will be healthy when the playoffs begin in less than three weeks.
“I’m going to use whoever is available that night and who is the best option for that part of the game or the lineup,” Roberts said.
Phillips has been the Dodgers’ best reliever this season, which has led to many calling for him to be installed as closer. What we saw this weekend, though, is that the ninth inning isn’t always the hardest one, so L.A. would be limiting Phillips’ value by locking him into that inning. Phillips has entered the game any time between the sixth and ninth innings this year, often in situations where the game is on the line.
Phillips has inherited 22 runners this year, and just five of them have scored. He, Graterol, and Alex Vesia have been the pitchers most often deployed by Roberts when runners need to be stranded, and the three of them have combined to strand 51 of the 71 runners they’ve inherited.
A “closer by committee” approach makes the most sense for the Dodgers right now. Frankly, it makes the most sense for most teams most of the time, but closers have created a mystique about the powers of the ninth inning, how it’s just different. That’s fertilizer, as Vin would say.
The Dodgers have a bullpen full of effective relievers who can get outs in whatever situation they’re in, and they should act accordingly.
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