Dodgers relievers have been a strength again this season, with the deep corps combining to form one of the most effective bullpens in the game. This year has had the added bonus of a reduced workload, which could benefit the club down the stretch.
The team is still aggressive with the hook, outside of Clayton Kershaw. Dodgers starting pitchers have faced an opposing lineup a third time through for just 448 plate appearances this season, third-fewest in baseball and well below the average of 519 PA. Roughly a third of the Dodgers’ PA in such situations have been facing Kershaw.
In a few recent radio and podcast interviews, I have been asked if the Dodgers bullpen can hold up given the Dodgers’ aggressive use of relievers. Given how the relievers have been used so far, I think they can.
For one, I think it is far too simplistic a narrative to blame bullpen fatigue for the Dodgers’ 2016 NLCS loss to the Cubs. Yes, Joe Blanton did throw 80 relief innings during the regular season, then allowed a deciding grand slam in Game 1 against the Cubs. But he was lights out during the NLDS against the Nationals. Nobody knows when the buzzer will sound, but sometimes it’s not that linear. Sometimes, you just hang a slider, or three.
Anyway, back to the point. Last year the Dodgers bullpen was awesome. And busy as hell.
In 2016, the Dodgers bullpen led the majors in ERA and strikeouts, and was fourth in FIP and strikeout rate. They also pitched the most innings of any bullpen in baseball (590⅔), and set a major league record with 607 relief appearances.
This season, the bullpen is again near the top in several categories -- second in ERA (2.99) and FIP (3.34), second in strikeout rate (28.3%), and third in xFIP (3.70) and strikeouts (340).
But the usage is way down.
Dodgers relief pitchers rank 16th in the majors in innings (294⅔) in 2017, and are tied for 13th in appearances (275). That is a pace of 530⅓ innings and 495 appearances this season, down 10.2% and 18.5%, respectively.
There are a few reasons for this.
The Dodgers have spread the work around, with eight different pitchers appearing in 23 or more games in relief. Only five pitchers are on pace to pitch in 50 games in 2017, and Ross Stripling (70⅔) is the only Dodgers reliever on pace to pitch 70 innings.
No Dodgers reliever is in the top 25 in the National League in games pitched this season. In 2016, Blanton (75 games), Pedro Baez (73) and Kenley Jansen (71) were all in the top 18.
The Dodgers, like last year, have carried a 13-man pitching staff most of the season, allowing them to utilize several options. They have also shuffled some starters in and out of the bullpen -- Kenta Maeda and Hyun-jin Ryu each have a four-inning save this season -- and have cycled through pitchers up and down from Triple-A Oklahoma City as well.
But the club has been even more judicious in bullpen usage this year. In 2016, the club had a reliever pitch on three straight days 19 different times, including Jansen three times. They also had a stretch of four straight days, by Louis Coleman.
So far in 2017, with the season 55.6-percent done, only four times has a Dodgers relief pitcher appeared in a game for three straight days, and none by Jansen. The three-straight-days- club in 2017 consists of Sergio Romo and Luis Avilan, two times each, and no such stretches since the beginning of June.
Another big reason for the bullpen getting some relief this season has been the strength of the Dodgers’ starting staff. That starts with the health of Clayton Kershaw, who missed 10 weeks in 2016 with a herniated disc in his back.
Having a healthy Kershaw around — he’s averaging 6.96 innings per start this season — does wonders, it seems. But he’s not alone.
In 2016, Dodgers starters not named Kershaw averaged just 5.06 innings per start, and they had to go to that well 141 times in 162 games.
This year, the rest of the staff is averaging 5.34 innings per start. That roughly one extra out per game doesn’t sound like much, but over a full season it adds up. In the roughly 130 games expected to be started by non-Kershaws in 2017, that extra 0.28 per game adds up to 36 innings for the season, accounting for roughly half of expected bullpen usage between this year and last.
So, can the Dodgers bullpen keep this up? Very likely, they can. And given their usage to date, they should be relatively fresh down the stretch.