The Dodgers gave their bullpen a new look last week with the addition of Scott Alexander in their three-team trade with the Royals and White Sox.
Is he better than Luis Avilan, the left-hander he replaced on the depth chart? I don’t know. Avilan has been effective for a few years, especially against left-handed batters, holding them to .200/.284/.293 with a 27.8% strikeout rate in his 2½ years as a Dodger.
Alexander is different though, in that he relies heavily on his sinker and in 2017 induced ground balls at a rate the Dodgers haven’t seen for some time.
In his major league stints with the Royals in 2015 and 2016 Alexander used his sinker 68.8% of the time, per Brooks Baseball, and averaged 91.83 mph on that pitch. In 2017, Alexander upped his sinker usage to 92.5% of the time, and saw a velocity spike to 93.51 mph. That allowed him to stay in the majors nearly all season, and the results were very good — a 2.48 ERA, a 3.23 FIP in 69 innings, with 59 strikeouts.
“I rely heavily on my sinker. That was kind of what I did last year. I like to attack hitters and get after guys, and kind of just trust the defense,” Alexander told MLB Network Radio on Friday. “Hopefully I can bring my own personality to this team and we can blend well.”
Alexander brings that heavy sinker to a Dodgers team with above-average defenders at all four infield positions.
Highest ground ball rate 2002-17
His ground ball rate in 2017 was 73.8%, tops in the majors among any pitcher with at least 30 innings. Alexander also joined rare company, one of just 10 pitching seasons since 2002 (the first year FanGraphs has full batted ball data) with a 70% or higher ground ball rate.
Six of those 10 seasons came from just two pitchers — Zach Britton and Brad Ziegler.
During that time the highest ground ball rate by a Dodgers pitcher came from Brandon League at 67.5% in 2012. Jamey Wright was a tick behind at 67.3% in 2014, with starter Derek Lowe at 67.0% in 2006.
The Dodgers had one of the best bullpens in the majors in 2017, top four in baseball in ERA, FIP, strikeout rate and K-BB% to name a few categories. But they were just 28th in MLB with a 41.1% ground ball rate, so Alexander can definitely bring a new look.
Alexander had the fifth-highest ground ball rate of the last 16 years in 2017, but three of the top four years came from Britton in 2014-16, in his prime with the Orioles after switching from starting to relief.
As mostly a starter with Baltimore from 2011-13 Britton threw his sinker 41.3% of the time and averaged 92.81 mph with that pitch. But for the next three seasons in relief Britton found another gear, averaging 96.87 mph with his sinker. It’s no wonder he threw it 91.11% of the time in those three years.
Britton had a 1.38 ERA in 209 innings from 2014-16, with 215 strikeouts.
Pardon me if I bristle just a little every time I see Alexander referred to as Britton-lite, either in the comments here, on FanGraphs, or on Twitter. Relief pitching is so, so volatile, and for the vast majority of pitchers performance varies too much to truly count on anything.
It is a pretty common comparison though, given their stuff, and one that even Alexander hears. In an interview with David Laurila of FanGraphs in July, Alexander said he learned his current sinker grip from old friend Scott Erickson:
“I hear Zach Britton’s name quite a bit, but when I first came up, Dallas Keuchel was a guy I watched a lot. I felt like we were very similar with our sinkers. I guess that now I’m throwing harder than he does, though.”
Elite relievers — like Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, and only a handful of others, including Britton — are to be cherished and held on to tightly with both hands for as long as humanly possible because they are so rare. Even Britton’s future is murky after suffering through an injury-plagued 2017 and out for the first half of 2018 after surgery.
The rest of the lot usually can be good for a while, until they aren’t. Before Brandon Morrow, Grant Dayton was the last great bullpen find by the Dodgers, plucked from obscurity from the Marlins. Dayton was very good in 2016, but was inconsistent and injury-plagued in 2017 and needed Tommy John surgery that will likely wipe out nearly all of his 2018 with Atlanta. Relief work is fleeting, is what I’m trying to say.
The wider the variety of styles the Dodgers have in their bullpen, the better.
Not that the Dodgers shouldn’t try to find the next Britton, or the next Morrow. Alexander might be that, or he might not. But at the very least, for now, he looks like a quality addition with a unique skill set that could prove quite useful in their bullpen. That he has two options remaining and five years before free agency doesn’t hurt either.