The Quiet Boost to the Dodgers’ Bullpen

Tuesday night, the Dodgers played a crucial game against the Rockies, and it was all tied at two in the top of the tenth. After Scott Alexander retired Charlie Blackmon to lead off, he was replaced by Dylan Floro, who was tasked with facing DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado. After four pitches, Floro struck LeMahieu out. It happened on the following sinker:

After four more pitches, Floro struck Arenado out. The sequence included the following four-seamer:

And then it concluded with the following slider:

Floro’s time with the Dodgers hasn’t all been terrific. A month ago, Floro was on the mound when the Dodgers lost to the Mariners on a walk-off balk. That’s the kind of incident that can stick with you for a while. But, overall, Floro has been a stabilizing member of the bullpen since arriving in a midseason trade. The Dodgers have needed the help, and Floro has provided it, even though the trade with the Reds drew barely any attention. When Floro arrived, he was a ground-balling middle reliever. With a little bit of assistance, he’s become something more.

It’s worth stepping back and considering what happened to Floro in 2017. Years and years ago, he was drafted by the Rays. In January of 2017, they designated him for assignment. Floro was quickly grabbed by the Cubs, and then, almost as quickly, he was designated for assignment again. He cleared waivers and stuck around, and in May, he got a promotion to the majors. Then he immediately went back to Triple-A. Then he got another promotion to the majors. Then he immediately went back to Triple-A. That happened another three times, until ultimately, at the end of July, he was designated for assignment. He was claimed by the Dodgers, and barely over two weeks later, he was designated for assignment. He cleared waivers, and ended the calendar year as a minor-league free agent.

Floro wouldn’t have known what his career had in store. He would’ve felt like the 40th-best player on any 40-man roster. The Reds signed Floro in January and gave him a job. It’s never a bad idea for a pitcher looking for a job to sign with the Reds. At this writing, in 2018, Floro has appeared in 52 major-league games, throwing 63.1 innings. He’s sitting on a 2.13 ERA, and a top-20 ground-ball rate.

Credit goes to the Reds for seeing something. They must have liked Floro’s arm, and his stuff played up, compared to last season. Through the time that Floro was traded to the Dodgers in early July, he had a .282 expected wOBA, good for 56th place out of 378 pitchers with at least 100 batters faced. To me, though, the even more interesting part of the story involves what happened next. Since the trade, Floro has a .224 expected wOBA, good for seventh place out of 304 pitchers with at least 100 batters faced. By this one measure, Floro has been utterly dominant.

And to paint the overall picture, 2018 Dylan Floro has a combined .259 expected wOBA. That places him between Jacob deGrom and Ryan Pressly. There are 244 pitchers who have faced at least 250 batters this season. By xwOBA, Floro ranks ninth. Ninth, in all of baseball. For a pitcher who, before the year, was practically anonymous.

Floro, this year, has been very good. Since joining the Dodgers, he’s become even better. And you don’t have to rely on Statcast statistics to see it. Floro has a better ERA with the Dodgers than he had with the Reds. He has a better FIP, and he has a better xFIP. His strikeout rate has improved by 12 percentage points. His swinging-strike rate has improved by six percentage points. Looking at everyone before and after the date of the Floro trade, only Matt Barnes has seen a greater whiff-rate increase. Floro’s improved, and he’s been trusted with higher-leverage appearances as a member of a bullpen that had caused an awful lot of headaches.

Floro was already perfectly fine with the Reds. He had good feel for a sinker around 93 miles per hour, so he kept the ball down. And you might have noticed in the earlier clips that Floro throws across his body. Here’s Floro at release, compared to Jake Arrieta:

Hitters have suggested that this kind of release point is deceptive. It makes it seem as if the ball is coming out of shortstop. Floro and Arrieta aren’t the only pitchers who throw like this, but they’re both over there on the third-base side of the rubber. It might make it a little more difficult to command where the ball is going, but it also seems like it could make it a little more difficult for the hitter to pick up the ball out of the hand. No hitter would choose to face this kind of pitcher. At least, no right-handed hitter, the likes of which Floro faces the bulk of the time.

That’s a small part of this; so far the Dodgers have slightly limited Floro’s exposure to lefties. But he’s also done well against the lefties he’s faced. And this is where we get to the Dodger-specific influence. With the Reds, Floro threw a sinker, a slider, and a changeup. With the Dodgers, he’s all but eliminated the changeup, and he’s more heavily leaned on the slider while also incorporating a four-seamer. Here are two images, from Texas Leaguers. On the left, Floro with the Reds. On the right, Floro with the Dodgers.

You can see how the changeup has almost disappeared. And you can see how Floro has thrown plenty more four-seamers, where before he barely ever used it. Floro isn’t throwing what I’d call a high-spin four-seamer, but this is where the general understanding is wrong. It’s not only high-spin four-seamers that ought to be thrown up in the zone. Any four-seamer is capable of changing the eye level, and Floro uses his four-seamer now to target the upper half. That gives hitters something else to think about, while they consider low sinkers and sliders.

I don’t know what it was about Floro that made him stand out to the Dodgers in the first place. I don’t know what the Dodgers were looking at that indicated to them Floro should throw far fewer changeups and far more four-seamers. Maybe it was all Floro’s decision-making, and it just so happened that he changed his approach when he changed his team. One way or another, there’s no arguing with the results. And I’m reminded of Tony Cingrani, who the Dodgers picked up last year and made instantly better. Maybe Cingrani was going to have success anyway. But the Dodgers had a plan for him, and it worked. Could be a case here of history repeating.

Dylan Floro is not the most important member of the Dodgers bullpen. If things ever get to the point where he is, it’s likely that something else has gone terribly wrong. The Dodgers likely wouldn’t tell you Floro is their best reliever, and perhaps they wouldn’t tell you he’s their second-best reliever. I can’t speak for them. I can only speak for what I can see. What I can see is the Dodgers addressed a weakness while hardly anybody noticed. A good midseason trade doesn’t have to make headlines.

We hoped you liked reading The Quiet Boost to the Dodgers’ Bullpen by Jeff Sullivan!

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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.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
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Roger McDowell Hot Foot

Sometimes I dream of a Fangraphs that’s just 100% fascinating articles on middle relievers. #MiddleReliefGraphs

pedeysRSox
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pedeysRSox

Someone like Ryan Brasier

tb.25
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tb.25

#TheFollowerGraphs once the Rays’ Opener strategy expands to all 30 teams ;)

(the Follower is a proposed name for the pitcher following the Opener)