The Dodgers Can’t Afford Their Bullpen Problem

The biggest story to come out of the Dodgers camp yesterday was the acquisition of Chase Utley from the Phillies for two minor-league prospects, Darnell Sweeney and John Richy. While Utley will no doubt provide support to a middle infield that is thinner with the injury to Howie Kendrick, there was another event going on in Oakland yesterday — a major-league baseball game, in fact — and one important part of the Dodgers pitching staff once again reminded us that it too might be in need of some help.

I refer to the current state of the Los Angeles bullpen, which has, by a multitude of measures, accounted for among the worst performances in baseball during the 2015 season. On Wednesday, the Dodgers were “swept” in a two-game series by the 53-69 Oakland A’s; this was made especially painful to players and fans alike, I can imagine, considering Clayton Kershaw started the opening game of the series.

Kershaw was able to go only seven innings during that game, exiting with the score tied, and he handed the ball over to a multitude of relievers who displayed various levels of ineffectiveness. That game resulted in a 10-inning Oakland walk-off win — with the bullpen blowing a three-run lead — while the second and final game of the series saw them unable to keep the A’s close in the final frames of another tight contest. The two-game series was probably an encapsulation of a lot of what Dodgers fans have become painfully accustomed to.

Today, we’ll highlight some numbers related to the Dodgers pen, and see what options the Dodgers might have in bolstering the current weakest part of their team.

We have two statistics here, created in 2010, called Shutdowns and Meltdowns. They’re a way of measuring a given amount of win probability added or subtracted (.06 or 6% WPA, to be exact) during a relief pitcher’s performance, and they help outline the struggles we’re talking about. First, let’s take a look at the 10 bullpens in baseball that have the most Meltdowns, i.e. occasions on which a relief pitcher lowered his team’s chances of winning by at least 6%:

Meltdowns

We have a lot of teams with bad records here — teams that are rebuilding, teams that sold off many of their bullpen pieces during the year, and teams who are far outside the playoff picture. Then we have the Cubs, Dodgers, and Twins. Obviously, Los Angeles is the only team on this list that is leading their division, and that’s not exactly a coincidence; you have to go all the way to the Astros at 17th to find the next division leader. It’s hard to win a lot of games if you have your high-leverage pitchers decreasing the probability of winning by more than 6% very often.

The Cubs also have the third-most Shutdowns in baseball, which tells us that we should probably account for positive performances in relation to those negative performances. With that in mind, let’s look at the ratio of Shutdowns to Meltdowns, i.e. how often relief pitchers on a team shutdown the opposition for every meltdown they accounted for. Again, take a look at the bottom 10:

SD-MD_Ratio

Again, there are only two potential playoff teams on this list, and only the Dodgers are leading their division. Getting just over one-and-a-half positive relief performances per negative one is not what a potential playoff team should be hoping for, but it’s currently what the Dodgers have gotten this season. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the playoff-hungry Blue Jays while we’re here, but their steps toward remedying some of their late-inning pitching issues was well documented last week.

Now we know the Dodgers bullpen has been prone to melting down. And, as it turns out, when they meltdown, they generally do so in a big way — and often during the clutch: the Dodgers are currently second-worst in the majors in total bullpen Win Probability Added (with -4.09), second only to the Athletics. Considering the A’s have had a historically bad year pitching in high-leverage situations (their total bullpen WPA is -7.07, which would be the fourth-lowest mark of any team since 2000), this sort of company is not the type a team wants to keep.

That discussion leads directly into the impact bullpen meltdowns have on Win-Loss records. The struggles of the Athletics bullpen was well documented in the context of BaseRuns on these digital pages by Dave a few months ago, and the season-long impact of bullpen over- or underperformance on Win-Loss records has been written about extensively. Now we can apply those ideas directly to the Dodgers here by looking at our BaseRuns standings, which is interactive and can be scrolled over for more information:

Their are two main culprits in the Dodgers’ underperformance of their context-neutral record by five games: one is the bullpen, as we’ve outlined above (seen most acutely in the Dodgers’ 16-20 record in one-run games), and the other is a lack of timely hitting. These two factors have helped keep the NL West race tight, allowing the Giants (who only have a -1 BaseRuns/actual Win-Loss record difference) to keep touch-tight on their division rivals.

What is to be done with the Dodgers bullpen for the stretch run? Externally, there simply aren’t many true upgrades available for Friedman and Co. Any available relievers might cost them more than they’re interested in giving up, or simply wouldn’t be big enough upgrades to merit a trade. Internally, Chris Hatcher has been great since returning from the disabled list, and should assume more of the setup work behind closer Kenley Jansen. Pedro Baez and J.P. Howell aren’t as bad as they’ve been for the past two weeks (5.14/5.40 ERA, respectively), and Jim Johnson isn’t going to post a .650 BABIP for his entire Dodgers career.

Manager Don Mattingly seems to shy away from using Jansen in any situation besides the ninth inning (Jansen has appeared in the eighth inning just twice this season), which is something he may want to reconsider in the future when games are on the line. The good news? The bullpen is very well rested. Per JP Hoonstra, only two relievers on the Dodgers are on pace for 60 or more innings: Howell and Yimi Garcia. That bodes well for the stretch run, but well rested and effective are two different things. The Dodgers bullpen probably isn’t as bad as it has been for the past few weeks. They also can’t afford to be this bad for any longer.

We hoped you liked reading The Dodgers Can’t Afford Their Bullpen Problem by Owen Watson!

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Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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acommenter
Guest
acommenter

Kind of strips out the “Colletti is bad/Zaidi is good” narrative established back in April after a few weeks of the season, right?

http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside/story/los-angeles-dodgers-bullpen-joel-peralta-nicasio-garcia-baez-rodriguez-hatcher-liberatore-042215

Mike
Guest
Mike

Thanks for saving me the effort to find that.

Nope, no predisposition to laud every little good outcome by a sabre GM as the product of cutting edge player evaluation abilities. Nothing to see here, move along.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

Colletti tried to trade for a reliever with a known shoulder problem, and was mad that the Dodgers analytics department prevented him from doing so, even when that pitcher went on to get hurt and be unavailable for the playoffs.

This isn’t bias. This is recognizing that analytics work, and that ignoring analytics is worse that embracing them.

Mike
Guest
Mike

If you think gushing over a 3 week sample of relief pitching is a way to prove that analytics work, then you probably don’t understand them yourselves.

Everything does not have to be a knee jerk defense of a sabre GM. THAT’S A BIG PART OF WHAT DRIVES PEOPLE CRAZY. Cameron wrote a silly fanboy ode to a GM crush. Just because he wrote it about someone you admire shouldn’t change that fact at all.

Loosen up a little and learn to laugh at stuff like that. You’ll enjoy life more, not feeling like people are just out to get your heroes.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

So, you can see fanboy bias in that article if you want. I don’t completely disagree with the notion that Cameron and other stat-inclined writers will judge a saber GM’s moves more favorably with less information. However, the basis Cameron used to write that article hasn’t proved to be small-sample fanboy fantasies, it has proved to be correct.

He based his argument on K%, BB%, and GB%. While this is by no mean advanced analytics, one of the basic things analytics have shown is is that those things stabilize to a pitcher’s talent much faster than other stats, and that you can therefore use them in a more predictive way. Dodgers bullpen ranks:

K%: 2nd
BB%: 10th
K-BB: 1st
GB%: 29th, lol, but
SIERA: 4th

So, nothing Cameron said in that article has since been invalidated, because he used stats that are relatively stable. What has happened is that the results haven’t been there. So, is your problem with Cameron, or is it with the idea that the basis he and I are using to evaluate the bullpen are faulty?

Rangers
Guest
Rangers

Clearly nobody is arguing with you that “analytics aren’t important”. They are obviously incredibly important, but that’s not the only thing that matters. Scouting, choosing when to “go for it”, arguing/discussing trades, etc are all very important. Yeah, they might not be as “sexy” to talk about, but they definitely matter.

Who?
Guest
Who?

Which reliever was a Coletti target?

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

Not really, if you look beyond superficial stats to evaluate them. And, without seeing the results, it’s pretty hard to look at the two processed used by either GM and think the Colletti had the better process.

acommenter
Guest
acommenter

I’m not saying Colletti had a good process. But this bullpen has problems, and Dave had the brilliant idea of using super SSS data to claim that the Dodgers did something excellent and advance the silly “saber GM is better/Colletti is a dumb dumb” narrative. Their recent SSS data says the bullpen pretty terrible. The truth, boring as it may be, is somewhere in between. This was never an elite bullpen, nor is it this terrible. Even the numbers used in this article are a bit misleading.

Using a “top 10 MD” leaderboard is a bit dishonest, as the Red Sox, 15th in baseball in meltdowns, are very close at 53. The “terrible” Dodgers pen is pretty damn close to the middle of the pack when looked at like that.

And looking at SD/MD ratio is somewhat useful (the Dodgers are a few percentage points close to 20th, but there’s a good gap between 20 and 19, so call them bottom third in SD/MD ratio). However, it also highlights which teams give their bullpens more opportunities. With Kershaw and Grienke constantly going 7-8 innings, the bullpen simply doesn’t need to be used as much.

j
Guest
j

Consider the difference in costs of those two bullpens.

Ridiculous
Guest
Ridiculous

If you think Dave was bad in his bias a Fangraphs article praising Friedman’s relief acquisitions compliments Howell and Peralta as ‘crafty veterans.’