Dodgers Bullpen: Peeking Past Kenley Jansen
At 7.5 games out of first place and a 13-19 home record, the Dodgers are playing bridesmaid to the Giants in the NL West. With the league’s highest payroll, expectations couldn’t be higher this season. However the Dodgers’ bullpen has not lived up to the hype, nor justified their $33 million in combined salary. With closer Kenley Jansen throwing harder than ever, is there reason for concern given his short arm action from catching many years? Fantasy baseball owners have to identify future closers before injuries occur, which is why ROTOscouting continues to unearth treasures from MLB bullpens.
The State of the Dodgers Bullpen
The Dodgers’ bullpen has not been pulling its weight, posting a 0.1 WAR, 4.38 BB/9 and losing 14 games. The group has earned $570,000 (0.1 WAR x $5.7 million per WAR) or 1.7% of their salary with two-thirds of the season left to play. However they are also top-6 in K/9 (9.34), ground balls (51.9%) and swinging-strikes (10.9%), buoyed by 26 year-old Kenley Jansen.
The right-hander has increased his velocity one-to-two mph in 2014 with mixed results. The extra gas has upped his strikeout rate from 14% to 15.23 K/9, but the walk rate has increased nearly 40% as well.(Info via Brooks Baseball)
Jansen’s BABIP (.393) and LOB% (77%) have room to regress, and a 1.81 xFIP suggests a positive correction is coming for the closer. The movement and velocity of his cutter continues to garner elite swing and whiff rates. Numbers only tell half the story, though, as throwing harder increases the chance of injury. As SI’s Tom Verducci notes in a recent article about Jose Fernandez:
“What you have to remember is every incremental increase in velocity increases the force by multiples,” said one MLB medical professional who did not want to be named. “It’s like the Richter Scale. And quick jumps in velocity are particularly troublesome. We have a pitcher who can throw 97, but we don’t want him to. He’s much better off throwing 94.”
Even though he’s throwing fewer sliders, Jansen is firing more fastballs at higher speeds. Fantasy owners should look for a handcuff if Jansen goes down. The question is, who will take over ninth-inning duties in the Dodgers’ bullpen?
Veterans Trending Down
Age MLB Years Saves Brian Wilson 32 9 171 Chris Perez 28 7 133 Brandon League 31 10 74 J.P. Howell 31 9 21
The front office has constructed a highly experienced bullpen. With almost 400 career saves combined, the Dodgers have internal options. Unfortunately Brian Wilson currently sports a 7.23 BB/9 and a 5.49 FIP. Chris Perez has a 4.77 FIP, and his strikeout and walk rates are going the wrong way. The best years are behind Brandon League, as indicated by a 1.91 K/BB ratio and an xFIP (3.37) significantly above his ERA (1.91). J.P. Howell’s K/9 is up 21%, but with a 35% increase in BB/9. Look for Wilson or Perez to get first crack if an injury occurs, but these overpaid veterans are not the options to close.
The Youth Movement
The Dodgers have overpaid to build an experienced bullpen, but several minimum-salaried arms have more upside than current veterans:
Paco Rodriguez, LHP, age 23 (Triple-A)
Traditionally lefties don’t make the best closers. However Aroldis Chapman, Glen Perkins, Sean Doolittle and Baltimore’s Zach Britton are proving southpaws can shut down games. Rodriguez has a career .210 wOBA against lefties and a .282 wOBA versus righties. He has posted a 21:6 K/BB ratio in 14 IP at triple-A, and his cutter-sinker-slider combination has generated a 10.19 K/9 and 47% ground ball rates in the majors. Jeff Reese was impressed by his arsenal last year, and if he can refine his command Rodriguez will freeze guys like this:(Video courtesy MLB.com)
Chris Reed, LHP, age 24 (Double-A)
Reed is a former college reliever-turned-starter currently repeating double-A. The results so far have been impressive, including a 23% bump in strikeouts along with a 13% decrease in walks. However Mike Newman saw Reed in Chattanooga last year and came away unimpressed:
Reed presented with solid stuff too, but just couldn’t find his release point. His fastball/slider mix were down a tick or two from last year, but Reed appears to have quieted his mechanics in the hope of trading velocity for command. If this had been my first look, I’d be thinking reliever all the way.
After multiple looks in 2012 and 2013, Chris Blessing was impressed with the development of his secondary stuff but said his fastball/slider mix “will play up in the pen.” If he cannot refine the command issues soon the former reliever will return to a relief role in Los Angeles.
Pedro Baez, RHP, age 26 (Triple-A)
Blessing recently scouted Baez, noting a 96-97 mph fastball and a fringy slider. The development of the slider will ultimately determine his upside and role in the bigs. At 6-foot-2, 230 lb. the big righty has the potential to be a high-leverage reliever, and is a flier worth watching.
Chris Withrow, RHP, age 25 (Triple-A)
A converted starter, Withrow took off out of the bullpen, establishing himself as a feared bullpen arm in the National League. Before succumbing to Tommy John surgery, the right-hander allowed just 10 hits in 21 innings pitched including 28 strikeouts. 18 walks is ugly, but explainable given the injury. If he returns at 100%, Withrow has the ability to jump other pitchers listed.
It is difficult to imagine anyone other than Jansen closing in Los Angeles, but his arm action, combined with increased velocity leaves Jansen a lingering injury risk. Another converted catcher, Jason Motte, recently returned from Tommy John surgery after experiencing an uptick in velocity during the 2012 season.
It’s not time to sell Jansen by any means, but it makes sense to watch-list a Dodgers bullpen with big, inexpensive arms. While the veterans continue to underwhelm, youngsters will earn opportunities, or be shipped to other organizations with a chance to earn immediate playing time. Either way, the Los Angeles relief corps is fertile ground for fantasy baseball owners.
16 Jun 2014 / Joseph Pytleski / 1