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The Dodgers Are the NL’s Best Team. Can They Survive Their Worst Unit in the Playoffs?

Bullpen woes have plagued L.A. all season. But for a 106-win team that benefits from postseason pitcher usage trends, will that one weakness matter?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the overwhelming favorites to win the NL pennant, as one might expect of a team that won 106 games in the regular season, which is not only a franchise record but the most by any National League team in 21 years. Baseball Prospectus rates the Dodgers as having above-average production at every offensive position, led by MVP favorite Cody Bellinger, who hit .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs.

Three Dodgers pitchers made the All-Star team this year: Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Walker Buehler. Kershaw, the newest Skechers pitchman, is not the same pitcher he was five years ago, but the Dodgers can more than withstand a bit of decline from him because Ryu and Buehler have both been even better than the three-time Cy Young winner this year: Ryu led all qualified starters with a 2.32 ERA, while Buehler led Dodgers starters with 5.7 WARP and 215 strikeouts.

Any team that finished 50 games over .500 and outscored its opponents by 273 runs is going to have very few weaknesses. In fact, the Dodgers have only one: their bullpen. There might not be a more heartbreaking way to lose a baseball game than to control the action almost from wire to wire, only to cough it up thanks to one bad inning from a reliever. Just ask the Brewers, who on Tuesday lost the NL wild-card game in precisely this manner.

According to Baseball-Reference, the Dodgers’ bullpen was worth 3.8 wins below league average in 2019, tied for 22nd in baseball. That’s worse than the Phillies, who by season’s end had more good relievers on the IL than the active roster; the Mets, whose closer, Edwin Díaz, spent the year performing high-altitude ballistics experiments; or the Tigers, who were the worst team in baseball and traded their closer in July.

Dodgers relievers blew 28 saves, second most in the National League, and as a unit posted a cumulative win probability added of minus-2.51, the second-worst mark of the 10 playoff teams, ahead of only Washington, who finished dead last in all of baseball at minus-10.82. (More on the Nats later.)

It’s not for neglect or lack of investment that the Dodgers’ pen is that bad. Since 2012, their closer has been the Kenley Jansen, who saved his 300th career game this month. Like a gigantic Mariano Rivera, Jansen has spent the past decade living and dying—mostly living—by his exceptional command of his cutter. After the 2016 season, the Dodgers lavished Jansen with a five-year, $80 million contract, and were rewarded in 2017 with the best season of his career: a 1.32 ERA, a league-leading 41 saves, and more than 15 strikeouts for every walk on his way to a fifth-place finish in the NL Cy Young race.

That October, Jansen ended up on the losing end of two of the wildest World Series games of the century, with a blown save in Game 2 and a walk-off loss in Game 5, two games that proved to be the difference in the Dodgers’ seven-game loss to Houston. Jansen then blew two more saves in the 2018 World Series, as the Dodgers lost to the Red Sox. Jansen’s decline isn’t among the top 100 messiest closer collapses in baseball history, but it’s been precipitous enough to mean that he’s no longer one of the best closers in baseball.

Jansen, who turned 32 on Monday, posted a career-high 3.71 ERA in 2019, and converted just 33 of his 41 save opportunities. His average cutter velocity is down 2 miles per hour from what it was in 2016, and in September it dropped to 91.89 mph, his lowest average for a month in seven years. Jansen also posted a negative full-season WPA for the first time in his career.

The Dodgers have poured resources into their bullpen over the years. In 2017, they brought in Brandon Morrow as a free agent and traded for Tony Watson, Tony Cingrani, and Sergio Romo during the season. Last year they signed Daniel Hudson and traded for lefty ground ball machine Scott Alexander and righty Dylan Floro. But the churn is constant. Floro posted a 1.63 ERA for the Dodgers in 2018, and saw that mark rise to 4.24 this year. Alexander saw his K/9 ratio cut by more than a third this year and is currently on the shelf recovering from surgery to correct a nerve issue in his throwing hand. Watson, Romo, Morrow, and Hudson all left the club as free agents, and Cingrani, out for the season with a shoulder injury, was traded to the Cardinals at the 2019 deadline.

The latest round of outside reinforcements came in the form of ex–Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly, who signed a three-year, $25 million contract this past winter, and while Kelly’s underlying 2019 numbers aren’t bad at all (3.27 DRA, 61.2 percent ground ball rate, 10.9 K/9 ratio), his 4.56 ERA and minus-0.97 WPA make any potential high-leverage postseason appearance a white-knuckle affair. The most reliable Dodgers reliever right now might be Pedro Báez, who’s posted an ERA+ of 130 or better each of the past four seasons.

Bullpens dominated the postseason earlier in this decade. The 2010 and 2012 Giants, the 2014-15 Royals, and the 2016 Indians built a compelling case that a deep bullpen could make up for a host of deficiencies elsewhere. Even last year’s Brewers made a compelling case on their run to the NLCS. But fortunately for the Dodgers, the past three World Series winners have pushed the pendulum back the other way.

In 2016, the Cubs paid a king’s ransom at the trade deadline to land closer Aroldis Chapman, only to watch him blow three of his seven save attempts that postseason, including one in Game 7 of the World Series. They won it all anyway. In 2017, while the Astros were putting up big numbers on Jansen and his confreres, the Dodgers were smashing Houston’s bullpen from pillar to post. Astros closer Ken Giles had an ERA of 11.74 that postseason, including coughing up a lead in Game 2 an inning after Jansen blew his save. All-Star middle reliever Chris Devenski allowed four earned runs, two homers, and a blown save in five World Series appearances, and he performed better in that World Series than any other round. And last year, the Red Sox, despite having one of the greatest closers of the 21st century in Craig Kimbrel, changed their tactics after Kimbrel had a few shaky outings in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

In fact, the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox provide the template for the most likely solution to the Dodgers’ problem. Managers with weak bullpens but otherwise strong teams have become extremely aggressive about using starters in relief during the postseason. In the 2017 playoffs, Astros manager A.J. Hinch brought Justin Verlander out of the pen during the decisive Game 4 at Fenway. Thereafter, Verlander and Dallas Keuchel were the only two pitchers he used on any sort of normal rotation. His other nominal starters—particularly Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr., but also Joe Musgrove, Brad Peacock, and Collin McHugh—all worked out of the pen at some point or other when they weren’t needed in the rotation. So, too, last year’s Red Sox. Their top four starters—Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Nathan Eovaldi—combined to make nine relief appearances in 14 playoff games, three of them by Eovaldi alone in the World Series. No. 5 starter Eduardo Rodríguez made one postseason start and six relief appearances, and when it came to the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5 of the World Series, it was Sale, not Kimbrel, who stormed out of the pen to close it out.

The Dodgers are already setting up to operate this way. Their top three starters could all work an inning out of the pen on a throw day; in fact, manager Dave Roberts called on both Kershaw and Rich Hill to do just that in the 2018 playoffs. Moreover, many of the Dodgers’ relief innings this fall will probably go to pitchers who worked parts of the 2019 season out of the rotation.

For the past several years, the Dodgers have purposely gone into the season with more starting pitchers than they can use, as a hedge against injury or ineffectiveness to one of their starters. When October rolls around, anyone who’s healthy but won’t fit in a four-man rotation gets shipped off to the bullpen, and as a result, the Dodgers’ postseason relief corps gets reinforced at just the right time.

Hill, who’s recovering from an injured MCL, will start Game 4 of the NLDS, if required, but can only go three or four innings. He’ll be available out of the pen earlier in the series, and a nominal starter—one of Dustin May, Julio Urías, Ross Stripling, or Tony Gonsolin—will pick up the middle innings from Hill in Game 4. At least two others will be on the postseason roster, able to pick up the slack if Kelly or Báez falters in a setup role.

Kenta Maeda, who’s made 103 starts in four big league seasons, will once again operate out of the pen, as he did in 2017 and 2018. In 17 postseason relief appearances across those two seasons, Maeda has held opponents to a .212/.268/.318 batting line and allowed an ERA of 2.08. He worked out of the bullpen in September to prepare for a high-leverage role in the playoffs. Stripling, who made the All-Star team as a starting pitcher last year, has also spent September biting off smaller chunks. He missed August with a biceps injury, and while he’s pitched well since returning—a 2.57 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings—he hasn’t gone more than three innings in any single appearance. He’ll also work out of the pen full time this postseason.

The Dodgers have two other things going for them. The first is that their starting rotation and offense are so good they might be able to build up huge leads early in games, rendering them more or less immune to a blown save. The second is that they’re not the only club in the playoffs whose worst unit is its bullpen, and their road to the World Series is heavy on clubs with shaky relief corps. The Dodgers’ NLDS opponent, the Washington Nationals, have been trying and failing to figure out their high-leverage approach all season—indeed, they’ve been trying and failing to figure it out since about 2014.

The Braves, meanwhile, ranked 11th in team bullpen ERA and 14th in WPA, and no individual reliever on the active roster has posted an ERA below 3.00 this year (minimum 10 innings). The Cardinals might have the strongest relief corps of remaining NL teams, but no. 1 starter turned closer Carlos Martínez and 2016 Cleveland playoff hero Andrew Miller aren’t the pitchers they used to be. There is no Nasty Boys or Miller–Cody Allen partnership in the NL bracket. And the Dodgers are better than their competition pretty much everywhere else.

Not that any of this will be particularly reassuring to Dodgers fans if Kelly loses his command in a key moment or Jansen starts grooving his cutter. But it’s a reminder that even great teams have vulnerabilities, even if, in the Dodgers’ case, that vulnerability is not as great as it would appear at first glance.