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Dodgers mailbag: Dodgers depth, reliever usage, roster churn, Bobby Miller

How does the Dodgers’ position player depth compare to recent seasons?

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I asked for questions, and you provided them. Here are my answers about the bench, the bullpen, the minors, and more, in both written and podcast form.

David Young: I tend to see a lot of criticisms of the Dodgers for the lack of “depth” in position players beyond the active roster. I recognize that you can’t always time the prospects such that one is on the threshold knocking down the door, ready to go in case of injury a la Cody Bellinger in 2017. Do you have ideas for ways the Dodgers can sign better players to play at OKC and contribute if/when they get the call? Or should we just be resigned to the idea that the crème de la crème of players stashable in AAA ball are the Kevin Pillar types?

It really is remarkable how deep the Dodgers were on both sides in recent years. Think about it — they lost two key starting pitchers to free agency after 2019, and Kenta Maeda and Hyun-jin Ryu finished second and third in American League Cy Young voting in 2020, yet the Dodgers won the World Series anyway. Having incredibly effective rookies like Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin ready to step in — so much so that another longtime contributor, Ross Stripling, was traded away because LA had no room for him in the rotation — certainly helped.

Free agency, and the promise of regular playing time, called for both Enrique Hernández and Joc Pederson after 2020, and the Dodgers struggled to fill those holes on offense. The rookies they tried as reserve fill-ins — Sheldon Neuse, Zach Reks, Luke Raley, DJ Peters — didn’t quite work, unlike hitting the rookie jackpot with Alex Verdugo, Matt Beaty, Edwin Ríos, and even Kyle Garlick two years prior.

Last year they were forced to scramble. But adjusting on the fly seems to be the norm for the Dodgers, who tend to try several options for these roles to see what sticks. Some players they tried as midseason pickups who didn’t quite work out in recent years include fan favorite Josh Reddick, Curtis Granderson, Brian Dozier, Kristopher Negrón, Jedd Gyorko, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Billy McKinney, Steven Souza Jr., to name a few.

Having ready-made all-world rookies like Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger step right in and be All-Stars made it easy to paper over the rest. That fellow top-prospect Gavin Lux wasn’t amazing right out of the gate changed the equation a bit, making the Dodgers more vulnerable to a weaker bench.

As for how they fix it, I think it’s two-pronged. The main thing is acquiring a starter-worthy position player by the trade deadline, and put Dave Roberts’ well-honed skills at managing playing time to good use. The roster improves from the top down. The spring solution for this was already in-house. Had they simply signed Kenley Jansen and kept AJ Pollock, rather than trade Pollock for Craig Kimbrel in a mostly luxury-tax-neutral move, that would have looked more like the depth LA is accustomed to. Ironically, Pollock is hitting just .239/.280/.352 with four home runs and an 80 wRC+ (through July 8) with the White Sox, which isn’t exactly the type of offensive infusion the Dodgers need.

The other way is by having better players available at the ready in Triple-A. Kevin Pillar seemed like an ideal fit, being able to play all three outfield positions, with some pop and above-average numbers against left-handed pitching. But his time with his hometown team, at least this year, ended after all four games, thanks to a broken shoulder. Again forced to scramble, they’ve turned to Trayce Thompson and Jake Lamb, and so far it’s worked. Back to trying several options to see what sticks.

But also, the retired David Freese is only 39 years old, and is just a phone call away if they need someone to occasionally mash lefties.

Dodger John: Do you think anyone in the Dodgers organization, as of today, not on the 40-man roster gets added to the 40-man roster before the season ends?

Absolutely, 100 percent yes they will add someone currently in the organization who is not currently on the 40-man roster. Even putting aside for a moment the big names like Bobby Miller and Miguel Vargas, the Dodgers have veteran relievers Dellin Betances (currently in Triple-A) and old friend Pedro Báez (in the Arizona Complex League) working their way back from injuries. Neither are currently on the 40-man.

The final three months of last season were instructive in just how much roster churn there can be.

Starting at the beginning of July 2021, the Dodgers added these players from within the org to the 40-man roster — Jake Reed, Darien Núñez, Josiah Gray, Yefry Ramírez, Kevin Quackenbush, and Justin Bruihl. That doesn’t even count Neftalí Féliz, and Andrew Vasquez, minor leaguers who were acquired during the second half and later added to the majors. Depending on whether there are some roster crunches with relievers reaching the five-option limit, you could see veteran minor leaguers getting the call for a short “we need bullpen coverage today” move, only to get designated for assignment the next day.

BotFot: I have a question about bullpen usage: It sure seems to me that when Doc brings a guy in a second day in a row (we saw this especially with Kenley, and now even more with Kimbrel) they are FAR LESS effective that second consecutive day. (and it would be understandable) Am I just imagining this, or is there any data to back that up?

This year, Dodgers’ relievers have been bad while pitching on back-to-back days, with their 5.02 ERA in those games ranking just 24th in MLB. But the underlying numbers aren’t too bad, with a similar home run rate and actually a better strikeout-minus-walk rate in no-rest games versus relieving as a whole. Over the last few seasons, the Dodgers have thrived in zero-rest situations, even when using them quite often.

Dodgers pitching on zero days rest

Year Appearances 0-rest ERA overall ERA 0-rest K-BB overall K-BB 0-rest HR overall HR
Year Appearances 0-rest ERA overall ERA 0-rest K-BB overall K-BB 0-rest HR overall HR
2019 108 (9th) 3.40 (7th) 3.85 (5th) 19.0% 17.1% 3.0% 3.2%
2020 37 (7th) 2.78 (5th) 2.74 (2nd) 14.7% 17.2% 2.2% 2.3%
2021 136 (2nd) 2.67 (5th) 3.16 (2nd) 17.4% 15.0% 1.6% 2.3%
2022* 50 (t-10th) 5.02 (24th) 3.28 (6th) 22.2% 19.2% 2.6% 2.3%
(MLB rank) *through July 8, 2022

Kimbrel’s ERA is 4.50 in his seven games on zero rest, but he also struck out 12 at a 44.4-percent clip, a perfect microcosm of his season, really. Brusdar Graterol had a few blow-up outings on no rest, leading to his 8.53 ERA in seven games. Two of the Dodgers used most frequently on zero rest have been most effective in that role — Alex Vesia with a 1.69 ERA in eight such games, and Phil Bickford at 1.29 in seven games.

Overall, the Dodgers are using relievers on zero rest even less often than last year, but it’s also unavoidable over a long season. Being able to pitch relatively often is one of the duties of pitching in relief. Caleb Ferguson just spent two weeks on the injured list with neck stiffness partially because he wouldn’t have been able to pitch on back-to-back days during a particularly busy stretch of the schedule.

One thing I will note is that the Dodgers have generally been pretty good about giving relievers extra rest whenever possible, depending on the circumstances. For instance, the Dodgers through Friday, July 8 had 50 appearances on zero days rest. After 36 of those games, the pitcher got at least two days off before pitching again.

The Dodgers have used a pitcher three days in a row three times this season — Alex Vesia (May 20-22), Brusdar Graterol (June 24-26), and Phil Bickford (June 26-28). All of those streaks included at least one outing of under an inning, and in the first two instances had two outings under 10 pitches.

This is definitely something to watch going forward, especially since the 13-pitcher limit went into effect on June 20, after two seasons plus two months of expanded pitching staffs that helped teams navigate through all those innings. That security blanket is no longer there.

go786: Why have we not seen Bobby Miller pitch in the majors yet? Instead, we see Pepiot, Grove, White, etc. He seems to be doing well in AA. Is this service time manipulation?

First and foremost, there is still refinement left on the bucket list for Miller, the club’s top pitching prospect, before he’s ready to come to the majors. His walk rate this year (8.9 percent) is a big jump up from last year (5.6 percent), for instance.

Mitch White, who pitched in a variety of roles over parts of the last three seasons, had some major league success, and earned at least a shot at a rotation slot given his stuff and previous results. After getting stretched out he’s proved capable in the role, posting a 2.93 ERA in seven starts, albeit averaging a tick under five innings over the last five starts.

As for the other pitchers who have stepped into the Dodgers rotation directly from the minors, circumstances certainly helped. Ryan Pepiot was the first to get the call to the majors, on May 11, even though he, like Miller was off the 40-man roster, because he was closest to the majors in development. Pepiot at the time of his MLB debut pitched 17 times in Triple-A, and showed great improvement this year (2.05 ERA, 33-percent strikeout rate) compared to last year at the minors’ highest level.

Grove got the second spot start in the majors, and he jumped directly from Double-A, but I think that was more of a function on already being on the 40-man roster, unlike Miller.

I don’t think Miller is that far off from the majors, and could very well start games for the Dodgers in the second half. I would imagine he gets promoted to Triple-A before reaching the majors, especially if he has more starts like he did his last two starts, with 19 strikeouts and no earned runs in 11 innings.

Side note: There are plenty of actual cases of service time manipulation in MLB — Walker Buehler getting optioned during the 2018 All-Star break, then falling four days shy of a full year of service time, such that his free agency was delayed by a year, is Dodgers example, for instance — such that we don’t need to assume that every time a minor leaguer isn’t called up has to do with service time, let alone a pitcher in Double-A.

Urbino: Do you prefer Dr. Pepper, or Diet Dr. Pepper?

I’m glad you asked, urb! Did Tommy Blackjack put you up to this, by chance?

Dr. Pepper is the finest soft drink ever conceived, such that I’ve managed to suppress my rage at the various Larry Culpepper commercials during recent college football Saturdays.

But I don’t drink sugary drinks anymore, so I’ve shifted to diet soda for my caffeine fix. Diet Dr. Pepper was perfectly fine but is noticeably different from the original. As Mitch Hedberg noted, “The commercial for Diet Dr. Pepper says it tastes just like regular Dr. Pepper. Well, then they fucked up.”

Diet Mountain Dew is a mainstay for me because I like the taste. Diet Coke has always been passable, but no match for the original. This changed when Coke Zero Sugar entered the scene, with a taste much closer to actual Coke. It’s great.

Last year, Dr. Pepper introduced Dr. Pepper Zero Sugar, and they hit the jackpot. It tastes very close to the original, so that’s my pick these days as favorite soft drink.

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