For Adam Kolarek, he views every day in the big leagues as a tryout. He says that it’s the beauty, but also the curse of being a Major League reliever.
“You constantly have to prove yourself,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been around. It doesn’t matter what you did last night. It doesn’t matter what you did last year.”
Throughout his career in baseball, Kolarek has had to battle and earn his spot on a major-league roster. He’s had to make adjustments, and develop his game into what it is now. Though he spent a lot of time with the Dodgers in 2019, he was still fighting for a spot in the bullpen during summer camp.
“I was trying to make the team,” he said. “I know how fragile this game is. I know how things change every other day. Players come and go. I’ve been on the coming and going part of a lot of those conversations.
“Every day I come to the field, I’m looking to prove myself. That’s what I want to do, not to stick around, but I want to win. It’s a short window I have as a player. I don’t take anything for granted.”
Kolarek certainly doesn’t take being in the show for granted. He didn’t make his major-league debut until the age of 28, after spending seven long seasons in the minor-leagues, bouncing from team-to-team.
He was drafted in the 11th round by the New York Mets in the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft. Kolarek slowly worked his way up through the minors, appearing in AAA in 2013. In the spring of 2014, he received his first non-roster invite with the Mets. His 2014 campaign in AA that season was brutal, as he had an ERA of 6.07 in 48 games. That fall, Kolarek was assigned to Gigantes de Carolina of the Puerto Rican Winter League.
He was back in Binghamton (AA) for the 2015 season. His numbers improved a little, though he still finished with an ERA of nearly 4.50 across 51 games. In October of that year, the Binghamton Mets released Kolarek. Just a few weeks later, he signed a minor-league contract with the Baltimore Orioles. He was signed by the Bowie Baysox, but was then claimed by the Durham Bulls shortly after. In March of 2016, he was assigned to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Kolarek spent all of 2016 going back-and-forth between the Durham Bulls and the Montgomery Biscuits. Yet again, he just couldn’t crack through to the major leagues. In November of 2016, the Atlanta Braves signed him to a minor-league contract and invited him to spring training. He was assigned to the Gwinnett Braves, but was released by them in March.
The Rays signed signed him yet again to a minor league contract, and he went back to play for a familiar team in Durham. Then finally, on June 28, 2017, the Rays selected the contract of Kolarek from the Durham Bulls. He made his major-league debut on June 29 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He threw 1 1⁄3 innings of shutout ball, including a strikeout. He’d remain on the team through the next month, but struggled. In 11 games, Kolarek posted a 5.87 ERA with only four strikeouts. He was optioned at the end of July, and he made only one major-league appearance during the remainder of the season.
Kolarek spent 2018 going back-and-forth between Durham and Tampa Bay. Overall, he appeared in 31 games for the Rays in 2018, and actually looked really good, posting a 3.93 ERA and an even better FIP of 2.58.
He experienced an even bigger role with the Rays in 2019, as he appeared in 54 games with them through the end of July. Then, on July 31, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, when he went to the Dodgers, he was to be used primarily as a lefty specialist. A decision that may have changed his career, for the better.
In 2018, left-handed hitters batted only .208 against Kolarek. In 2019, they hit .178. Essentially with the Dodgers, he would come in to face one left-handed hitter, and his night would be done.
“Up until I became a Dodger, I wasn’t used solely in that role,” Kolarek said. “I would go one or two innings, I even went three innings [with the Rays].”
He’s right. In 2019, Kolarek threw at least one inning in 31 appearances. 28 of those came in Tampa Bay. In 2018, 19 of his 31 outings were at least one inning. After being traded to the Dodgers, Kolarek made 26 total relief appearances. As mentioned, only three of them were an inning long. In 16 of those outings, he faced only one batter.
“I love that role,” he said. “It’s fun and exciting to come in about every night or be available every night to face one hitter.”
Although his role completely changed once he came to the Dodgers, Kolarek didn’t let that bother him or let it change how he prepared for games.
“The focus is always there, it’s more just blocking out any outside voice that put in my mind that I’m only valuable as a lefty specialist,” he said. “When I’m preparing, I’m never planning on facing one hitter. I’m never looking into the dugout to see if Dave [Roberts] is coming to get me. You can’t take your foot off the gas and put it back on when it comes to your outings.”
During the offseason this past year, Major League Baseball announced a rule change that relief pitchers must face a minimum of three batters. However, if they come in and finish an inning, they’re off the hook. Essentially, this new rule prevented the Dodgers from utilizing Kolarek for what he was best at, coming in for one at-bat to get a lefty out. It didn’t bother him, though.
“I never thought it was going to be that big of a deal,” he said. “You can come in with two outs and get your lefty out. It just changes the strategy.”
Kolarek said that the biggest negative was that it would potentially limit the number of outings he would see. He pitched in a total of 80 games last year, nearly half of a teams schedule. The reason he was able to do that was the fact he’d only be coming in for a batter or two. Now, with him having to face more hitters, his arm will be less fresh and he won’t be able to appear as frequently.
“As far as the scenarios that come up, those are still happening,” he said. “I think overall it’s not going to change the game that much. It’s more the preparation side for being ready the next night. I just need to get back into that rhythm of seeing a righty in the box and attacking the hitter the way I want to.”
Kolarek said he has all the confidence in the world in himself. He now has the opportunity to show that he’s capable of being more than just a “lefty specialist”.
“This past offseason and every offseason I’ve had, I never just go in to practice facing lefties. I’m always practicing against righties. I’m looking forward to showing what I can do against righties as the season goes on.”
Though it’s a very early sample size, Kolarek has faced twice the number of righties in 2020 than lefties. He’s gone up against eight righties compared to four lefties. So far, RHB are 2-for-8 against him, while LHB are 0-for-4. Again, a very small sample size, but the Dodgers are showing early confidence in him facing both hitters. He’s still been able to appear in four of the teams eight games, half of them just like last season.
“I know what I have to do to not only have success on the field, but to stay in this strong bullpen that we have,” Kolarek said. “So far on the season, I’ve been happy with how I’ve been executing pitches. The couple hits I’ve given up, they’ve been soft contact. I’m looking to get weak contact. I believe that if I executive the game plan, the results will be there.”