Dodgers bullpen goes from 'The Slump' to the sublime just in time

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Monday, October 23, 2017

LOS ANGELES -- How do you tell the story of a breakout star that isn't a person but a collective of mostly anonymous bit players? You can start by looking at the sum, rather than the parts.

The emergent group in question is the postseason bullpen of the Los Angeles Dodgers. How anonymous you actually consider them to be is entirely dependent on just how deep your baseball fandom goes. That fandom doesn't have to go very deep for you to be quite familiar with the work of 6-foot-5, 275-pound stopper Kenley Jansen.

Beyond that, the Dodgers have cobbled together a recently formed troupe of hurlers to collectively get the ball from the starters to Jansen. Together, these bridge guys have helped make the Los Angeles bullpen into a fine-tuned machine.

"They're just executing pitches and they're ready when called upon and they're competing," manager Dave Roberts said. "It's a close-knit group down there. Josh Bard, our bullpen coach, has done a fantastic job with those guys, along with [pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt. And just the preparation. Those guys know exactly what they want to do, and they're going out there and executing."

This postseason, the machine has been damned near perfect. When Jansen plunked Anthony Rizzo with a pitch during Sunday's Game 2, it snapped a string of 24 straight hitters the L.A. relievers had gotten out -- the longest such streak in playoff history. The Dodgers' postseason bullpen ERA this month is 0.94, and together, the relievers have recorded 32 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings and walked two batters.

They are getting it done from both sides of the rubber: Playoff hitters are 6-for-55 against the righty relievers and 6-for-41 against the lefties.

Finely tuned, indeed.

The Slump

The brilliance of the L.A. bullpen is a fact we couldn't have taken for granted even five weeks ago. That was during The Slump: the stretch of 16 losses in 17 games the Dodgers endured after starting the campaign with a 91-36 record. If they continue to steamroller the opposition this October all the way to a championship, that stretch is going to look like one of the great statistical oddities in sports history. Really, it already does.

It was a teamwide meltdown, but the bullpen played its part and in many ways seemed like the group most likely to have its problems linger past the end of the regular season. Not Jansen, of course, constant as the North Star as he is. He threw only four innings and allowed just one run during that time frame, extending from Aug. 26 to Sept. 11. His club wasn't getting any leads for him to protect, and Roberts was intent on keeping him fresh for the postseason. Jansen had one save chance during The Slump, which he converted.

Nevertheless, the bullpen ERA during that troubling time was a collective 5.40. Many of those innings were compiled by struggling pitchers who weren't cinches for the postseason roster anyway.

Still, one of them was Pedro Baez, one of Jansen's primary setup men the past two seasons. He had an 11.57 ERA during the downturn and didn't get much better even after the Dodgers started to win again. He made L.A.'s division seriesroster but wasn't used, then was left off the roster for the NL Championship Series.

"Pedro had a great year for us," Roberts said. "But I think with the matchups and us going with seven guys in the pen versus eight, that led into that decision, as well."

Meanwhile, the Dodgers' key bullpen lefties from last year's playoffs, Luis Avilan and Grant Dayton, both ended up on the disabled list. And while they had been throwing pretty well, we wondered just how much high-leverage confidence Roberts had in his other lefties, in-season pickups Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson.

After Sept. 1, the right-handers in the bullpen other than Jansen posted a combined 7.03 ERA. Brandon Morrow was doing well, but, beyond that, it was easy to envision Roberts being shy a middle reliever, or even two, at key moments in the postseason. That could lead to overstretching Jansen or even staff ace Clayton Kershaw -- a scenario the team had seen before.

Would this righty reliever problem prove to be the Achilles' heel on what otherwise seemed like a fully complete roster?

It all starts with Kenley

As you surely noted, none of the previously noted concerns had anything to do with Jansen, a pitcher so consistent that he's a walking anachronism in a position group for which consistency is its most elusive trait.

Jansen is really the heart of the Dodgers. He hails from the Caribbean, yet his use of Tupac Shakur's "California Love" as his walk-in song at Dodger Stadium is baseball's ultimate marriage of sound, circumstance and setting. It's better than Mariano Rivera's use of "Enter Sandman", both because the Yankee great's song has nothing to do with New York and because Rivera doesn't exactly seem like a Metallica guy. Meanwhile, during Players Weekend in MLB a couple of months ago, the nickname Jansen chose for the back of his jersey was "Kenleyfornia."

"Their closer is the linchpin, obviously," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "The guy that's a little otherworldly in regards to what he's able to do because he pitches multiple innings with minimal pitches, too. That's part of his allure."

Anyway, Jansen might be on his way to becoming the second-best reliever ever, behind Rivera. Don't believe me? Among those with at least 200 career saves, only Craig Kimbrel has a lower ERA than Jansen's 2.08. They are the same age, so that might be a good race.

Jansen just keeps getting better: Over the past three seasons, he has struck out 293 and walked 26, a ratio of over 13 strikeouts for every free pass, all while posting a 1.81 ERA and converting 93 percent of his save chances.

Given how long Rivera was able to dominate with his cutter, and given Jansen's powerful build and the care the Dodgers take in deploying him, you have to like his chances at becoming one of the few short relievers to combine dominance with longevity. Recently, Jansen even expressed an interest in spending some of the offseason picking Rivera's brain.

"For him to want to get information from a great person and player in Mariano, that says a lot for Kenley and how great he wants to be," Roberts said. "It's unique when you have a great player who understands that there is room to grow and get better, and Kenley has that."

The foundation of a bullpen is also its anchor, a mixed set of metaphors that works only in baseball parlance. He's a two-time All-Star who just started a five-year, $80 million contract to throw about 70 high-leverage per regular season. But this time of the year, his prominence really moves to the fore.

During the Dodgers' current run of five straight division titles, Jansen has four more postseason saves (11) than any other pitcher and he's never blown a playoff save chance. His K-rate is even higher this time of the year -- 15.4 per nine innings -- and his cumulative ERA is 2.05 despite the heightened competition. He has thrown more than an inning eight times, including seven over the past two postseasons, and, in those outings, he has allowed three hits and zero runs in 14 2/3 innings while striking out 25.

"Everybody just has to be ready," Jansen said. "We can match up against everybody. We know that we can face lefty and righty. The fact that we have these options, it's unbelievable."

In other words, the starting point of the L.A. bullpen is as good as any in the game, and that advantage shines especially bright once we get to October.

"Those guys are unbelievable," Kershaw said. "It's a great sign for us. We know that if we can keep it close, we've got a pretty good chance."

Piecing it together

Since the 2015 season, when the current front office of Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi and Josh Byrnes took the reins, the Dodgers' 3.52 bullpen ERA is the fifth-best in baseball. Even though the rotation has been one of baseball's best during that time, the relievers ranked 13th in innings pitched because of the organization's aversion to heavy workloads.

"There have been times you look back in the season and Kenley was down," Roberts said. "And as a manager, that's not a good feeling essentially to make that decision prior to the game that your closer's not going to pitch even in a save situation. But taking the long view, that's something that we believe as an organization."

What's more, the Dodgers have had 1,657 individual relief appearances during the last three regular seasons, more than any other team except for Coors Field-addled Colorado. Remember, this is even though the rotation and the bullpen have been really good. Part of this is because of short outings stemming from the Dodgers' extreme fealty to playing matchups. But a lot of it is because of the iterative nature the front office has taken to putting together the relief staff, a process that continued all the way into the latter stages of the 2017 season.

Jansen and Baez are the only relievers to hurl an inning for L.A. this season who also did so in the last pre-Friedman season of 2014. Jansen, Ross Stripling and Josh Fields are the only relievers to appear on this year's NLCS roster who also were on last year's NLCS roster.

"Competition is always a good way to get the best out of any individual, I believe," Roberts said. "There's always competition. There should be. So guys that are on our roster have earned it. But even the guys that are not on our active roster have had huge contributions to getting to where we are. We definitely don't ignore that at all."

The Dodgers are constantly trolling the personnel waters for relief options. It never stops. They kind of have to because the guiding philosophy of their regular-season bullpen program is to balance quantity with quality. Roberts is charged with playing matchups and piling up the wins while managing the workloads of those who figure to play key roles in October. On top of this, he's got to win over the confidence of a group that isn't slotted into rigid roles.

"I think [buy-in] is probably the most important barrier in the sense of having the players buy into what we're doing as a team and understanding that their role is a pitcher on the ballclub," Roberts said. "Whenever they're asked to take the baseball, they take it and perform."

Among the 40 pitchers this season who had at least 10 saves, 11 of them threw more innings than Jansen's 68 1/3, though he nonetheless led them all with a 1.32 ERA. It was all about keeping him ready for the multi-inning postseason appearances he's becoming known for.

"I mean, that was the plan," Jansen said, adding. "We know that this moment's going to come, and we know that I'm going to throw multiple innings, so I was ready for it."

This is despite the fact that the setup staff in front of him never stopped evolving. The Dodgers had 15 relievers make at least eight appearances during the regular season. There are three relievers filling key playoff roles who weren't in the L.A. bullpen at all during the season's first half, a time in which the Dodgers had the second-best bullpen ERA in baseball.

That trio is composed of the lefty acquisitions, Cingrani and Watson, and the righty Kenta Maeda -- the most unlikely addition of all.

Bringing it into focus

After all the iterations of the Dodgers' bullpen through the season, it was perhaps the acquisition of a starter that actually put all of this into focus for Roberts. That was the trade for Yu Darvish at the trade deadline that eventually meant Roberts would have to boot two quality starting pitchers from his playoff roster. One of those was lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, whom they deemed unadaptable for relief pitching.

The other was Maeda, who started 57 games for L.A over the past two seasons and three more during last year's playoffs. He pitched well in a couple of relief outings earlier this season, then finished the season in the pen once it was determined that he would be the odd man out in the rotation.

Maeda turned out to be a revelation as a reliever. As a starter, including the postseason, he has posted a career 3.94 ERA, allowed a .688 OPS and struck out 24.8 percent of opposing batters. Over his first nine career relief appearances, he's at a 1.38 ERA, he has a .414 OPS allowed and his K-rate is up to 36.2 percent. As a starter, Maeda's average fastball velocity was 90.6 mph; as a reliever, it's been 92.9, and this postseason, he's sitting at 94.2.

"Kenta's doing a great job," Roberts said. "And we saw a little bit of it this summer, and the stuff really played up. I think the credit goes to Kenta as far as buying in and understanding that every out in the postseason is important. So when he gets his opportunity, he's been lights-out."

As well as he has pitched and despite his very recent background as a starting pitcher, even Maeda is asked to do only so much, and Roberts has been hesitant to match him up against lefty hitters. That's the job of Cingrani, Watson and righties with less pronounced platoon splits, Morrow and Jansen.

"Each out is so important," Kershaw said. "If we can, we want to try to match up all the way through, and that's what we're going to do. Cingrani, the way he's been throwing the ball, you want to get him out there as much as possible.

"Kenta, it's amazing what he's doing. We want to try to get those guys their matchup as best we can."

Most importantly, Maeda has embraced his new role, a trait common on a roster full of teammates who could probably do more if only they were asked. But thanks to Friedman and his staff, and especially Roberts, each player seems to not worry about bigger roles but only focus on doing his best with the one he is given.

"Each guy has a specific role or part of the lineup that we target, and the confidence that we have in Kenta, obviously, that's validated some things, the move, and kind of heightened his confidence," Robert said. "But to have him in a certain three-hitter spot, and even also to give us length is a luxury that we have. Yeah, it's good."

And it's not as if players aren't rewarded for succeeding at these micro roles. Maeda hasn't just filled a middle relief role; he's filled that righty middle relief hole the Dodgers looked as if they might have when the regular season ended. So when the Dodgers needed a righty for a high-leverage inning in their NLDS clincher over Arizona, it was Maeda who got the call.

"Kenta Maeda, being asked to go to the bullpen when he's been a starter all year, I don't think anyone in this room would have thought that in the eighth inning of a clinching game, Kenta would have the ball," third baseman Justin Turner said. "But he's been unbelievable."

The 21st-century bullpen

It often feels as if the postseason has become a game of bullpen matches, and it has in many respects. It felt like that in the Cubs-Dodgers NLCS matchup, where Chicago's tired and beleaguered relief staff had Maddon grasping for answers and squirming under the microscope of the Windy City media.

Having great relief performances seems like a must for a championship aspirant, circa 2017. It might not actually win you the World Series -- if the elite teams all have elite bullpens, it's not much of a differentiator. However, having holes in your bullpen can quickly undo a title run, whether it's because of blown leads, a tired closer, a tired ace starter or all of the above.

"They have been really good," Maddon said. "They got us on at the right time, obviously."

Now the Dodgers will put their bullpen to the test on the ultimate stage. And if you have a microfissure even as tiny as, say, a righty sixth-inning guy, in the pressure cooker of October baseball, that tiny scratch quickly morphs into a yawning wound.

Lately, the Dodgers' bullpen has looked less like an Achilles' heel and more like Thor's hammer. The deeper we go, we'll see the Dodgers try to match the relief power of the Yankees or match up with the dynamic offense of the Astros, and this collection of little substories increasingly turns into a major headline for L.A.

If you think of a bullpen as a hand, only as strong as each of its fingers, the Dodgers' bullpen has become a fist. And it has come together just in time.