One major success story for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020 has been the bullpen. The Dodgers have a team relief ERA of 2.75, down from 3.85 last year and leading the National League for the first time since 2017. The strong bullpen has contributed greatly to the Dodgers’ success this season.
Halfway through September, however, there are some serious question marks looming at the back end for the Dodgers. After hot starts to the season, several relievers have undergone significant regression. Kenley Jansen’s five-run implosion against the Houston Astros last Saturday underlined an important truth as the season starts to wrap up. The Dodgers need their bullpen to perform at the highest level possible.
Newfound Strength Showing Signs of Weakness
Dave Roberts has a diverse and impressive collection of talent to deploy from his bullpen. Whether the situation calls for a certain handedness, experience, or even strikeout rate, he usually has a formidable option.
Right-handers Blake Treinen and Dylan Floro lead the team in relief innings pitched and both sport ERAs under 2.50. Lefties Caleb Ferguson and Jake McGee lead the team in strikeouts, while Adam Kolarek is having a career year with an ERA of 0.60. With a deep offense, effective starting pitching, and a newly dominant bullpen, the Dodgers have looked unstoppable all season. However, Ferguson left Tuesday night’s game with an injury. The Dodgers are hoping it is not serious.
Los Angeles rode their strong pitching to the hottest start in baseball. The last couple of weeks, however, have not been so easy. Since posting a 2.77 team ERA by the end of August, that number has risen to 2.98. More specifically, the bullpen ERA this month is an alarming 4.11. As a result, the bullpen’s win-loss record in September is 5-3, after a spectacular 15-7 record in the first six weeks.
Some negative regression was likely going to come at some point after the tremendous start to the season. In fact, it’s probably better for the staff to work through some issues before getting to the postseason. Nonetheless, a shaky bullpen is obviously suboptimal as we get closer to October.
A Question Mark At Closer
Longtime closer Kenley Jansen had already lost some of his prime effectiveness, so it seemed, coming into the season. His 2018 and 2019 numbers dropped off significantly from the height of his performance from 2013-2017. Still, Jansen has been a productive closer in 2020. His 11 saves are the most in the National League. He has nine appearances in high leverage situations, indicating that the team is confident in his ability to get key outs.
The Dodgers’ tendency to give Jansen the ball in save situations this year is not unwarranted. At times this season, Jansen has looked terrific, even like his former self. In July and August, he converted nine saves in 10 chances with an ERA of 1.23. Like much of the Dodgers pitching staff, however, his performance has dipped significantly in September, with six earned runs in five and two-thirds innings inflating his ERA to 3.54. He has one loss and one blown save in the last two weeks.
In any case, Jansen’s underlying numbers are somewhat concerning. Most significantly, his strikeouts per walk ratio are the lowest of his career, at 3.11. This number is strikingly low considering his historically good command. Remember, Jansen, logged 51 strikeouts in nearly three months before his first walk of the 2017 season. Comparatively, his K/BB ratio was 15.57 in 2017. Furthermore, his ground ball to fly ball rate is by far the lowest of his career and his velocity is down.
With a playoff spot all but guaranteed, the Dodgers will likely give Jansen some chances to regain his confidence before heading into the postseason. As far as Dave Roberts is concerned, “he’s our closer. But obviously performance matters. It does. And everyone in that clubhouse understands that.” If Jansen doesn’t get back on track in the next couple of weeks, it won’t be surprising to see the Dodgers turn to another guy to finish off games, perhaps one of the aforementioned Treinen, Floro, or Kolarek.
Hoping Depth Will Prevail
Recent injuries, pitching struggles, and a questionably inactive trade deadline have tested the Dodgers’ prized depth. While they’ve suffered some disappointing losses in the last couple of weeks, there have been some welcome surprises as well. For instance, young LHP Victor Gonzalez has been their most effective reliever in September, firing seven scoreless innings. In addition, young starters Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin have eaten up lots of innings to aid the often overworked bullpen.
Come playoff time, Dave Roberts’ patience for his relievers won’t be nearly as long. If some of the key pitchers’ struggles continue, it will be a next-man-up mentality. While the recent weeks’ performances may be concerning, this area is precisely where the Dodgers have a distinct advantage: depth. A combination of high-flying youngsters and reliable veterans will have to get the job done for the Dodgers when the postseason rolls around.
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