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Dodgers need pitchers to take the burden off the bullpen

LA relievers have pitched more innings than starters in July

MLB: JUL 19 Giants at Dodgers
Dave Roberts has made a ton of pitching changes in July
Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you’re already suffering from trade rumor fatigue, I completely understand. But with the deadline still 10 days away, it’s only going to get worse. That the Dodgers need, and are pursuing pitching is no surprise, but the month of July illustrates just how acute that need is.

On the surface, the Dodgers staff as a whole — currently 14 pitchers on the active roster, sometimes 13 — is acquitting itself quite well. Their 3.16 ERA in July ranks third in the majors.

Nothing really to complain about that there, considering Los Angeles’ season ERA is a majors-leading 3.21. July seems right in line. But doing some digging, the cracks have started to appear this month.

Dodgers pitching by month

Month ERA FIP K rate BB rate
Month ERA FIP K rate BB rate
April 3.06 3.37 27.3% 7.1%
May 3.44 3.98 27.9% 8.5%
June 3.17 3.49 28.5% 8.7%
July 3.16 3.93 23.9% 8.7%

The Dodgers’ strikeout rate in July is four ticks below their season average, and the FIP is their second-highest for a month this season. The only higher FIP was in May, when the Dodgers started to scramble to fill in for Dustin May, who tore the UCL in his elbow on the first day of the month. They used three bullpen games in May, and one more on the first day of June.

The arrival of Tony Gonsolin from the injured list alleviated the need for bullpen games for a while, but in July the Dodgers have had to fill in for the loss of both Trevor Bauer and Clayton Kershaw.

Providing salve this month has been two bullpen games, plus a pair of pseudo bullpen games with David Price working his way into the rotation with starts of three and four innings his last two times out.

Gonsolin’s inability to pitch deep into games has exacerbated the burden on the bullpen, lasting more than four innings once in his eight games, including needing 80 pitches to record only 10 outs in Monday night’s loss.

“In the big leagues, stuff and command go hand in hand. You can have all this stuff, but you’ve got to get ahead of hitters, you’ve got to sequence the right way, and you’ve got to command the baseball,” manager Dave Roberts said. “When you don’t, good hitters take advantage of it.”

The bullpen has been so taxed in July that the Dodgers have cycled through a bevy of pitchers, 20 appearing in a game this month. When Josiah Gray makes his debut on Tuesday night, he’ll be the 21st pitcher used by the Dodgers this month. The only month in franchise history with more pitchers was September 2016, when 24 were used, back when active rosters could expand to 40 players during the season’s final month.

Dodgers pitching workload splits

Month Starter IP Starter % Bullpen IP Bullpen % Relief apperances/game
Month Starter IP Starter % Bullpen IP Bullpen % Relief apperances/game
April 164.0 67.1% 80.3 32.9% 3.11
May 139.3 57.9% 101.3 42.1% 3.59
June 141.3 62.3% 85.7 37.7% 3.27
July 63.3 48.3% 67.7 51.7% 4.53

The breakdown of the innings on the Dodgers’ staff has been striking, with relievers pitching more innings (67⅔) in July than the starters (63⅓). During the first three months of the year, starters accounted for 62.5 percent of Dodgers innings pitched.

There are a few caveats on the classifications. For bullpen games, I’m counting the first pitcher as a reliever, so even though Jake Reed gets credit for a game started on July 7 in Miami, that one inning counts as a reliever. Victor Gonzalez started on July 1 in Washington D.C., so his outing counts in relief, though that wasn’t a true bullpen game. Tony Gonsolin followed with bulk innings, which for him on that rainy night meant three innings, a total I’m lumping in with the starters. Gray’s outing on Tuesday will go in the starter pile, even though he’ll be following a yet-unnamed left-handed opener.

While the Dodgers’ overall pitching performance in July has been reasonably good, using a bullpen that much is not sustainable. The more relievers used, the more likely at least one of them will have a bad night, like Victor Gonzalez allowing four hits in the seventh inning that broke open Monday’s game.

There’s also the shortened bench, the result of carrying so many pitchers on the active roster, that limits flexibility and robs the team of an extra pinch-hitter at the very least.

The cupboard’s not completely bare. Kershaw will be back at some point in August. Maybe Gray provides something in the short term. Gonsolin could find his command. Price could reach five innings in his next time out.

Finding anyone who can pitch reasonably well for a considerably long time, preferably over half of the outs in a given game, is a must right now for the Dodgers.

Game info

Teams: Dodgers (58-37) vs. Giants (59-34)

Location: Dodger Stadium

Time: 7:10 p.m.

TV: SportsNet LA, MLB Network (out of market)