The Los Angeles Dodgers had one of the most dominant bullpens in the majors in 2019. If you run down the stats, they’re littered with top 5 and top 10 finishes. There was no doubt that if LA could get to the 6th or 7th inning with a lead, the opposing team was in trouble. Not only was Kenley Jansen looming at the end of the pen, but the likes of Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, and Julio Urias were there to greet opposing hitters along the way. Not exactly the welcoming committee other teams wanted to see.
Flash forward to 2020 and not much has changed in the Dodgers’ relief corps. Kenleyfornia is still manning the leading role. A few names have changed, but Pedro Baez, Joe Kelly, and Ross Stripling are all returning to their posts, as well. On top of that, LA has added Blake Treinen and Jimmy Nelson to the fold. If you thought this bullpen was tough to crack last year… just imagine if Treinen has any kind of return to form. We could be looking at the best pen in all of baseball if things break right at Chavez Ravine.
|Kenley Jansen||Pedro Baez||Blake Treinen||Joe Kelly||Ross Stripling||Adam Kolarek/Scott Alexander|
Closer – Kenley Jansen
While he’s not quite the Kenley of old, Kenley Jansen is still an effective closer and not someone opposing hitters are hoping to see on the mound while trying to mount a late comeback. Despite the uptick in ERA in 2019 (3.71), Jansen posted a better FIP (3.48), K% (30.4%), SwStr% (15.7%), and HR/FB% (13.2%) than he did in 2018. While it doesn’t look like he’ll be returning to his 100+ strikeout days any time soon, considering he’ll be 32 this season, Jansen has shown that he can still miss bats and get hitters out.
Jansen’s bread and butter is still his cutter, which he threw 74% of the time in 2019; he mixed in his four-seam and slider otherwise. Kenleyfornia has remained an effective final boss at the end of the LA bullpen despite steadily declining velocity for the last six years. His four-seam has lost nearly 2.5 MPH since 2014, but it hasn’t stopped Jansen from inducing weak contact. He’s ranked in the top 10% of the league each of the last four seasons in average exit velocity allowed and xwOBA. He’s not dicing up hitters quite like he used to, but they also haven’t solved him by any means.
Setup – Pedro Baez
Pedro Baez has been a staple in the Dodger bullpen dating all the way back to 2014 and I see no reason why the start of the new decade should be any different. Baez posted a 3.10 ERA in 2019 to go along with a 3.52 FIP and a 0.95 WHIP and he did that with a below-average strand rate of 64.9%—much lower than his 76.7% career average. So, you could even posit that he was a little unlucky. Consistency has been the key for Pedro over the years, as he’s routinely notched numbers in key categories that straddle his career marks: 25% K rate, 8% walk rate, 15% swinging-strike rate, and a 74 ERA-. No, none of these metrics jumps off the page as a league leader, but the total package of above-average peripherals has resulted in top-rate production in high leverage situations. Should Jansen be relieved of his duties for any reason, Baez would be one of the first in line for the closer role.
The stout right-hander’s arsenal features a steady diet of four-seamers (51%), followed by a healthy dose of changeups (32%) and topped off with a smattering of sliders (17%). Looking at Baez’s pitch chart, it’s easy to see that he has a plan and he sticks to it. His 96 MPH fastball gets very good ride and he pounds it at the top of the zone. The cambio, which he throws 2.5x more often to lefties, is dropped in low to the arm side at about 10 MPH off the fastball. Finally, we have the slider, used almost exclusively against righties, which is buried glove side and comes in hard with bite at 86 MPH. Similarly to Jansen, Baez isn’t a putaway master, but he knows his way around an at-bat and knows how to get hitters out.
Setup – Blake Treinen
The Dodgers organization is a tremendous fit for Blake Treinen. If there’s anyone who can help Blake get back to his filthy ways, it’s going to be LA’s advanced player development staff. Treinen will come into the year in a lower-leverage setup role where he can establish himself with his new team and get back on his feet—hopefully. A return to form is not a forgone conclusion, of course.
In 2019, just about every measurable pitching metric declined for Blake as he saw his season go up in flames. It was a campaign that was about as bad as his 2018 was good. His K rate dropped by 33%, his walk rate nearly doubled, his HR/FB% quadrupled, the swinging strike rate fell… and we won’t get into the ratios. Just know they left a bit to be desired.
A cursory review of his savant page shows that Treinen lost nearly a full tick on his sinker in 2019 as well as some horizontal movement on his slider. You’ll also notice that the four-seam and sinker are less distinct from each other, essentially becoming slightly varied versions of the same offering. Now, it’s entirely possible that a few pitch design sessions and minor tweaks could be all that Treinen needs to emerge as an elite reliever once more, but we can’t outright dismiss that Blake will turn 32 this summer and stuff doesn’t last forever.
Middle – Joe Kelly
Joe Kelly is an enigma. The man still absolutely rips his fastball and curve (98th percentile velocity and 99th percentile spin, respectively) and has some filthy, filthy stuff. All his offerings sit well above the league average velocity thresholds and have good movement, to boot. Yet… we still find ourselves wondering why his stat lines don’t reflect that. Kelly did manage to post a career-high K rate (27.4%) in 2019 and an improved 9.7% walk rate, but those were accompanied by a 4.56 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. Blech. Those kinds of ratios are poison to any fantasy staff.
The good news for Joe Kelly is that despite some ugly ratios on the surface, 2019 was a step in the right direction. His K rate went up, his BB rate went down, he maintained his swinging strike rate (10%) and his FIP (3.78) and xFIP (3.19) were much, much more palatable. His ultimate downfall was the inability to keep the ball in the park (25% HR/FB%!!). So, if Kelly is able to limit the taters in 2020, there’s a chance we could see a career year from him.
Middle – Ross Stripling
For a minute there, it looked like Ross was going to be free from Dodger-itis and claim a starting role down in Anaheim. Alas, it was just a tease. Instead, it looks Ross will resume his role of swingman for the Dodgers. He’s bounced back and forth between the rotation and the ‘pen dating back to the 2016 season and he’s had nothing but success. Stripling has posted an ERA- better than average each season which strikeout rates in the mid-20s, walk rates between 5-6% and he keeps the ball in the park. Sure, more strikeouts would be ideal, but it’s hard to argue with the value he’s brought to the table.
While LA clearly prefers to limit his exposure as a starter, Stripling clearly boasts a deep enough repertoire to get the job done despite his mediocre velocity. He features a four-seamer (36%), curve (28.5%), slider (15.9%), and changeup (14.7%), and works them all in consistently. Among his plethora of offerings, it’s Stripling’s curve that stands out above the rest as his out pitch, earning a 33.3% whiff rate in 2019 and a 27.1% put away rate. Don’t be scared away by the uncertainty of his role. Think of Stripling as a tweener who will rack up close to 100 innings with a strikeout per inning and good ratios. Just temper the expectations for the win column and you’ll be set.
In a bullpen chock full of righties, there’s got to be a token lefty, right? Well, let me introduce Adam Kolarek… probably. There’s a chance that both Kolarek and Scott Alexander will occupy this role during the season depending on whoever has the hot hand, so I wanted to touch on both guys.
Kolarek is a soft-throwing (89 MPH) sinkerballer who thrives on producing weak contact and ground balls. He mixes in a four-seam, changeup, and slider, too, but all at 10% or less in terms of usage. He was effective in the role in 2019, notching a 3.27 ERA, but the underlying numbers are less than tantalizing. Kolarek failed to reach the 20% mark in K rate, but isn’t a command master either with a 7% walk rate. Combine that with a 4.27 FIP, and this probably isn’t someone who should be on your fantasy radar. It’s imperative to note that the No. 3 batter could wreak havoc on Kolarek’s numbers as he was much less effective against righties in 2019 (.350 wOBA vs .212 against lefties).
Much like his southpaw sidekick Kolarek, Scott Alexander features a sinker from the left side, but a little harder at 93 MPH. Alexander only tossed 17 innings in 2019, so we’ll reference his 2018 stat lines since they were a bit beefier at 66 innings. Frankly, his numbers are very similar to Kolarek—low strikeouts (21%), weak command (10% BB), tons of ground balls, and a solid ERA (3.68). These guys bring nearly identical arsenals to the table and you’ll likely have to monitor the situation closely to see who holds the lead on the job coming out of camp.
The projected long-man coming out of spring training this year is currently none other than Jimmy Nelson. Coming off of two lost seasons and a truckload of throwing arm injuries, Nelson is likely seventh or eighth on the rotation depth chart and is most likely to come out of the pen to start the year. LA signed him for pennies on the dollar ($1.25 million guaranteed!) and as such they likely view him as a low-risk, high-reward option for them who probably won’t get much of a leash should things go south.
The last time we saw Jimmy toe the rubber, he was sporting a sinker/slider/four-seam/curve pitch mix and sitting in the low-90s—a tick or so below his 2017 velocity. Speaking of 2017, Nelson had broken out that season with a 3.49 ERA over 175 innings with a 27% K rate and a 6.6% walk rate. That said, it’s been nearly three calendar years since we saw Nelson at the top of his game. Though his stuff may take a step up in a bullpen role, it’s hard to pin down what we can expect from Jimmy until we see him in action. For now, keep expectations low and see what he looks like in camp. If the velocity is good and his stuff is biting, there could be something here, but you don’t want to bet on it.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)