Dodgers Make Haste to Re-Sign Brandon League

Following Sunday’s conclusion of the World Series, there began the relatively brief Quiet Period — a period of time during which teams have exclusive negotiation rights with pending free agents. After the Quiet Period, anybody can reach out to anybody. Any player can sign with any team that he wants. The Los Angeles Dodgers had a pending free agent in Brandon League, and they didn’t want to risk exposing him to the open market, so Tuesday night, word got out that the Dodgers had signed League to a three-year contract.

With a fourth-year vesting option, based on games finished. As is, the three guaranteed years are worth $22.5 million. That is, the Dodgers signed League to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. The contract could end up being bigger than that, when it’s all said and done. We can all agree that paying this sort of money for a non-elite setup man would be ridiculous. And that isn’t what the Dodgers have done, as Ned Colletti says that League will be the team’s closer going forward. Closers make more money. It’s in the very definition of “closing”.

Said Colletti, among other things:

“We think that, after what he did the last two or three weeks in the season, that closing is the role,” Colletti said.

In September and October, League threw 16.1 innings, striking out 13 while walking eight and hitting one. Boom! That easy, right? Ned Colletti, so easily mockable.

But of course it isn’t that simple, because nothing is ever that simple. First of all, before we move on, we have to acknowledge that we don’t know what the free-agent market is going to look like yet. This could conceivably end up looking reasonable, and this could more conceivably end up looking like an overpay. Additionally, we have to acknowledge that, even if this is an overpay, it’s only a bit of an overpay, given the Dodgers’ budget. Say you’re down on Brandon League. The next three years, League will earn $22.5 million. Say you think he’ll instead be worth something like $10 – 12 million. We’d be talking about something like $4 million of wasted money a year. The Dodgers can deal with that possibility, and it would hardly set them back. This Brandon League contract can be neither genius nor crippling, and it just seems like a minor inefficiency.

Okay, so now we can actually talk about Brandon League, the player, again. Brandon League pitched in 74 games last season. His overall numbers were underwhelming, especially relative to his track record. The Dodgers, presumably, like League for what he did in a Dodgers uniform, as opposed to what he did in a Mariners uniform before. We know that you shouldn’t just look at a partial season, when you have an entire season. What League did with Seattle matters too, and with Seattle League wasn’t very good, at least in 2012. But there’s reason for Colletti to place extra emphasis on League’s limited Dodger time. As a Mariner last year, League struck out 14 percent of the batters he faced. As a Dodger last year, League struck out a quarter of the batters he faced. That’s much better!

And the Dodgers think they have an explanation. After the trade, League’s strikeout rate went way up. His contact rate, accordingly, went way down. His groundball rate went way up. From Don Mattingly in early September:

“[The coaches] felt like he was just kind of going sideways a little bit and not having a direct line. Rick and Kenny both have worked with him to get his lines better, get his direction better. He’s worked hard. He works every day. And it’s paid off. He’s been consistent for us now.”

So, mechanics, basically. The Dodgers made a mechanical tweak and Brandon League’s numbers improved. They say he re-discovered the feel for his splitter, which is absolutely lethal when it’s working. I don’t know if I can isolate the mechanical tweak, but here’s one idea. League as a Mariner, and League as a Dodger, from 2012:

As a Dodger, League seems more up-and-down, with a slightly lower arm slot. His glove is out in front of him. As a Mariner, League seems to be leaning more to first base, and his glove is a little off to the side. I don’t know if this is in any way meaningful — I might be seeing things, or these might not be representative images. But courtesy of Texas Leaguers, it sure seems like League did a better job of staying down in or out of the zone after getting dealt. Below you’re going to see fourth pitch-location charts. The first pair shows League against righties before the trade (left) and after the trade (right). The second pair shows League against lefties before the trade (left) and after the trade (right).

I wouldn’t say the differences are dramatic, but they seem like they’re there. We see fewer pitches up, implying better command. League is a guy who wants to pitch in the lower half, if not the lower third, and the meaningful numbers as a Dodger are sufficiently different to suggest a meaningful change.

So the Dodgers are confident that the Brandon League they saw is better than the Brandon League the Mariners saw in 2012, and therefore they don’t care too much about Brandon League’s 2012 Mariners performance. Let’s say that they’re right. The Dodgers version of Brandon League is more worth this contract, but is he fully worth this contract? As a Dodger, League actually threw more first-pitch balls than first-pitch strikes. His overall strike rate was below 60 percent. Against left-handed batters, he had more walks than strikeouts. His xFIP- was still very good, on account of the strikeouts and grounders. You’re usually going to be good if you can get those two things.

The contract seems like less of a stretch if you believe in Dodgers League, but it’s still kind of a stretch. Incidentally, very often with free agents, teams end up paying for what players have already done. The Dodgers are paying for what they think League could do, based on the way that he finished in 2012. Obviously, Brandon League has tons of potential, based on his raw stuff. The Dodgers are paying him to pitch closer to his ceiling.

Yet I might just be skipping around the major point. Brandon League has closer-type stuff, and the Dodgers want League to close, but the Dodgers already had an effective closer in Kenley Jansen. Granted, Jansen just underwent heart surgery, but his outlook is very good and he intends to be at full strength come spring training. Last year Jansen had 99 strikeouts in 65 appearances. He’s dominant when he’s pitching, and on top of that, he’s cheap. So the Dodgers aren’t paying League to fill a gaping void. That makes this move seem more unnecessary.

And League has supposedly figured it out before, only to lose it again within weeks or months. The fact that he had to re-discover the feel for his splitter says that, previously, he has lost the feel for his splitter after having had it. League, at his absolute best, is a very good reliever worth millions of dollars, but he’s seldom at his absolute best and he’s hardly been the model of consistency. The Dodgers didn’t just make a godawful move. They made a move that’s easier to criticize than defend. Individual inefficiencies aren’t a big deal, but individual inefficiencies do add up, and the Dodgers seem to be adding them up.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


28 Responses to “Dodgers Make Haste to Re-Sign Brandon League”

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  1. Dave9000 says:

    This move would allow the Dodgers to be a slave to the save stat with League, while deploying Jensen in all non-9th-inning-with-lead high leverage situations.

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    • bawfuls says:

      This is the only silver lining I can think of. But knowing NedCo and Donnie Baseball, they aren’t going to do this intentionally.

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    • Jon Sullivan says:

      I see your point – and it’s not without merit – but if that is the organization’s actual thought process, it seems silly that the team wouldn’t just forget about the save stat altogether.

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      • payroll says:

        There is also the not unlikely scenario where the save situation is also high leverage.

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      • Jon Sullivan says:

        payroll,

        That’s true, but in a high leverage save situation you would still put your best reliever in the game. I may have not clarified this, but the point would be to let leverage determine reliever usage rather than a save situation.

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  2. Petruchio says:

    Perhaps the move is strategic? Jeremy Affeldt is a valuable lefty reliever for the Giants and has a track record of postseason dominance. Does signing League to this risky contract price Affeldt out of the Giants’ range? Even if League isn’t as good as he was in 2012 with the Dodgers, weakening a division rival significantly most certainly makes up for it. Kenley Jansen also serves as good insurance in case League implodes.

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    • Timothy says:

      This deal probably won’t change the market for other relievers significantly. The Dodgers are likely the only team that would be willing to pay this kind of money for a reliever. If Affeldt tries to play the “well League got that much money” card then the Giants will just say “then go sign with the Dodgers then.”

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    • Nivra says:

      LOL. If that’s the Doyers strategy, I hope they do that for every potential FA the Giants have.

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    • mike says:

      The problem with putting league in a fixed role is that he’s terrible vs lefties and you’re forcing him to pitch against whoever is up in the 9th rather than using him when he is most effective. He basically has the stats of a righty specialist.

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    • Shankbone says:

      I would not put it past Agent Ned. Coletti is looking at Randy Choate as a FA, Scott Elbert and their new draftee Steven Rodriguez as his potential left handers in the pen. Running out of ways to spend money on the diamond, why not light the beacon for Affeldt. I give this theory some credence.

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    • bawfuls says:

      More likely that Ned is a sleeper-agent for the Giants.

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  3. Evan says:

    The Dodgers are also going to be over the Luxury Tax threshold which means that this contract will most likely cost them closer to $30 million

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  4. jacob says:

    dave9000 read my mind.

    if you were a GM would it be worth overpaying for a closer so your better relief pitcher could be used in higher leverage situations.

    obviously it would be better not counting saves as a state and hiring a manager who agreed, but that might be too radical and for the fans so you keep face with a high priced closer since that’s what “good teams do to win”

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    • Dreamin says:

      Overpaying for a lesser player to make it seem like you care about a thing old school baseball fans think is important to ensure your better reliever remains underpaid enough to stick into the most high leverage spots so you can satisfy new school fans (and actually get the job done better) whilst not offending the old guard.

      I love that this is still a thing. Seriously baseball, you are weird sometimes.

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  5. Phrozen says:

    So National League League may be better than American League League?

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    • joser says:

      Back when I still glanced at box scores in newspapers, the Blue Jays employed both League as a reliever and Dave Bush as a starter so occasionally the pitching line read:
      BUSH
      LEAGUE

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  6. Marcat says:

    Approximately one year from now Clayton Kershaw is going to sign the wealthiest contract for a pitcher in MLB history. I can’t even imagine the numbers. Talk about being in the right place at the right time…!

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    • B N says:

      “Dodgers sign Kershaw for 10 years/$240m, plus agree to take on Carl Crawford’s salary for a second time. After being informed that they had already taken Crawford’s salary on board the prior year, the Dodgers vowed to just take the money and tie it to a weight, then drop it into the sea.”

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  7. mr33 says:

    I was thinking League and Matt Lindstrom are fairly similar, but Lindstrom’s $4MM option gets declined. Even assuming the Dodgers went overboard, it seems like this set a market for the DBacks to pick up the option and trade him if they don’t want him.

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  8. Not to whore my own work but … I’m gonna whore my own work.

    http://www.chadmoriyama.com/2012/09/brandon-league-his-mechanical-fix/

    I think they did change him mechanically, I just question the logic of people assuming the change is permanent.

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  9. Zak Hendsch says:

    Jonah Keri had a nice article on how the Dodgers are playing a different game than everyone else:
    http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8306109/financial-concern-window-comes-new-dodgers-regime

    It’s not about WAR/$ but about WAR/roster spot. The question then is given the spot they are trying to fill, namely someone who can be the closer but will not complain too much if they set up for Jansen instead, could they have gotten a better player?

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  10. Hal Steinbrenner says:

    Man, look at those Dodgers. This is really bad for baseball.

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  11. Bip says:

    Who knows? Matt Kemp’s extension early last offseason looked huge, but then Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols signed contracts that blew it out of the water. I think Fielder is at the same level as Kemp, so in comparison, the Dodger saved money by spending money.

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  12. Bip says:

    Also, Ned Colletti aside, I’m curious if the Dodgers are going to tend to overpay because players know that they have the money to do it, or if they’ll get discounts from players who want to play for a contender more than they want the extra money.

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    • joser says:

      For that to work, the Dodgers first have to demonstrate on the field they’re actually a contender. As we’ve seen, spending a lot of money and making a lot of noise in the offseason doesn’t necessarily, or at least automatically, translate to playing in the postseason

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      • Bip says:

        But playing in the postseason doesn’t make a team a contender. A team is a contender based on its probability of making the playoffs at any particular point in the season. Given how the Dodgers are constructed, at this point their chances are among the best in the NL. Of course that probability will be adjusted as the season begins and games are played, but free agents are going to be signed before that point.

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  13. joser says:

    I wonder if League’s biggest mechanical adjustment was pitching to a catcher who can block balls in the dirt, giving him the confidence to throw his splitter in more situations (and also thereby getting a better feel for it).

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  14. JT says:

    Is Colletti the worst GM in baseball?

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