Bullpens are the most volatile aspect of baseball. One year they can be great, the next not so much. And sometimes your closer has a heart problem, but that has nothing to do with what I’m addressing here.
In 2015 and ‘16, the Dodgers’ bullpens were decent, but they ultimately led to their undoing — especially in 2016. Last year, the bullpen was excellent. The thing that all three of these bullpens had in common were the fact they missed bats and gave up a lot of fly balls. The 2018 iteration of the bullpen is different, and that might not be a bad thing.
The Dodgers acquired Scott Alexander back in January. He was known as “Zach Britton-lite” because he relied heavily on his low-90s sinker. He posted an MLB-best 73.8 percent ground ball rate last season among qualified relievers. This season, he’s at 71.2 percent — second to Brad Ziegler. Alexander is leading the Dodgers’ relievers in innings pitched, despite a short midseason trip to Triple-A Oklahoma City. He gets an astounding 86.2 percent of his grounders on his sinker.
They also added JT Chargois in a waiver claim from the Twins in late February. He has a 58.8 percent ground ball rate in 28 2⁄3 innings. He’s not a true sinker ball pitcher like Alexander, but it’s classified that way on Baseball Savant. He gets 54.8 percent of his ground balls from his sinker.
The Dodgers claimed Erik Goeddel off waivers from the Mariners in May. In his 28 innings, he has a 48.9 GB%. Not a pure ground ball guy, but if you’re close to 50 percent, you’re doing alright.
The next guy came from within in Caleb Ferguson. Known for having an excellent sinker, Ferguson has thrived in a relief role for the Dodgers — 1.29 ERA, 2.25 FIP and a 54.9 GB% in 21 innings. His ground ball pitch is being classified as a 4-seamer, and it has a 71.4 GB% since moving to the ‘pen.
Continuing the trend of ground ball-focused relievers, the Dodgers acquired Dylan Floro from the Reds on July 4. Since coming over (back?), he has a 53.8 GB%, down 3 percent from his time with Cincinnati this season. But his strikeout rate has almost doubled in that time, so a 3 point drop on grounders is just fine. For good measure, they also acquired Zach Neal in that deal. He may not pitch again in the majors this season, but he’s a ground ball guy as well.
Finally, they grabbed John Axford at the non-waiver trade deadline. While his first outing with LA was forgettable, he had a 53.3 GB% with the Blue Jays.
This ground ball focus in the Dodger bullpen has been different from years’ past. Sure, guys like Pedro Baez, Josh Fields and Kenley Jansen are still here and allow a lot of fly balls, but there has been a shift within the Dodgers’ bullpen philosophy. Let’s look at the last four seasons.
As you can see, the increased ground ball rate is apparent, as is the decreased strikeout rate (which can also be attributed to Jansen’s K-rate dropping by 14 percent). What’s strange is that the home run rate, despite the ground ball pitchers, hasn’t decreased. Well, sinkers aren’t always going to sink, unfortunately. To go along with that, sinkers/2-seamers are sometimes difficult to command, which can also explain the highest walk rate in four years from the Dodgers’ relief corps.
While I, personally, prefer a bullpen that misses bats more than one that induces grounders (and in an ideal world, you have both), the new affinity for ground ball-focused relievers could be a real weapon come the postseason. It also puts a little more pressure on the defense, which may not be the worst thing. And these guys — Alexander, Axford, Chargois, Ferguson, Floro, Goeddel — all could see significant innings down the stretch and hopefully into October.
Missing bats is great. But if you can’t acquire guys who do that consistently, acquiring guys who keep the ball on the ground and (hopefully) in the yard is the next-best option.