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Dodgers bullpen overwork is overstated

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Dodgers relievers lead the National League in ERA (2.83) and WHIP (1.017), and rank second in FIP (3.54) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.12).

Who predicted Joe Blanton leading the Dodgers relievers in innings pitched?
Who predicted Joe Blanton leading the Dodgers relievers in innings pitched?
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The once-maligned Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen is now an acknowledged strength of the team, buoyed by recent stellar performances (as recently documented at Dodger Insider). But now concerns arise that the relievers are having to pitch too many innings and are overworked. However, due to one very key mitigating factor, the individual arms are not actually being worn out to a significant degree.

There is no doubt that the Dodgers bullpen usage is a bit high. They are projecting to accumulate over 532 innings pitched for the relievers this season.

reliever innings David Young

(2016 is projected, based on the NL having played 54.9% of their total games and the Dodgers 56.2% of theirs.)

While that level of usage is clearly above average, the Dodgers are currently only sixth in the NL in reliever innings pitched. So how are the relievers not dropping from exhaustion from this pace? Well of course, the eight-man bullpen. Very simplistically, the extra arm adds 14.3% (one-seventh) to the bullpen, and the increase to 532 innings from 467 innings is 13.9%, or nearly the same.

Believe it or not, the Dodgers have carried eight (or more!) relievers on their roster for about two-thirds of the season so far. It is a bit of a luxury that carries a cost of a short four-man bench for the position players, but it allows the Dodgers to spread the bullpen workload around.

Reliever Use and Projection David Young

(Current includes innings with other minor and major league teams, projected based on the Dodgers having played 56.2% of their schedule.)

Only Blanton has a projection over 80 innings. There have been only 19 reliever-seasons over the past four years that exceeded 80 innings pitched, and four of those involved pitchers who also made between six and nine starts. Blanton's usage may have to be curtailed a little.

Fien and Baez projecting to the mid-70s probably bears watching, but 70 innings is a reasonable season for a reliever, if on the high end, as there have been 69 reliever-seasons of 70 innings or more in the past four seasons.

Clearly the bullpen cannot withstand more 10-game stretches like the homestand that opened July and ended with the All-Star break, which saw the relief staff average 4 1/2 innings per game, an unsustainable pace of over 720 innings in a season. But that was an unusual and extreme circumstance and was partially mitigated with judicious use of Carlos Frias and Luis Avilan.

The good news for the bullpen is:

  • Clayton Kershaw and his penchant for deep starts should return soon, perhaps after only one more turn in the rotation
  • Other starters are capable of six- and seven-inning starts and those should be popping up from time to time, like Kenta Maeda's excellent seven innings to close the first half
  • Julio Urias has already started his regimen to adjust to bullpen work
  • With more starters set to return from the disabled list, Bud Norris and Alex Wood might be candidates to join the bullpen
  • It's only six weeks until the Dodgers can expand their roster and reinforcements such as Frias, Avilan  and perhaps Yimi Garcia and Frankie Montas could be added once healthy.

Also, this is exercise is a bit crude, based on innings pitched. At the extreme edge, consider that Jansen has pitched one more inning than Hatcher but has actually faced 26 fewer batters. The Dodgers are surely monitoring their relievers using better metrics — maybe stress factors weighted the total number of each kind of pitch? — and will likely continue to make decisions that keep the bullpen workload as manageable as possible.

But even this thumbnail analysis seems to show that the Dodgers are actively trying to keep from overusing the arms of their league-leading bullpen and we should expect them to continue to do so.