Zugzwang: In defense of Craig Kimbrel
Zugzwang (pronounced ˈzəɡˌzwaNG,ˈtso͞oɡˌtsvaNG)
noun - a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage.
I state for the record that I did not fall asleep on my keyboard and I have been waiting for an excuse to reference zugzwang and by extension, The IT Crowd, in my essays. If nothing else you learned a new word today. Zugzwang is the word for when you are forced into a move and that move leads you to a disadvantage. And if you are familiar with chess, once you are in zugzwang, your situation tends to snowball in a bad way until you are able to mollify your disadvantage.
Stop me if you have heard this one before: during this 2022 season, the Dodgers have a slim, lead and it’s time to bring out the closer. It’s time to get the Rooster; it’s time to get Craig Kimbrel. And then your blood pressure goes up to Todd Worrell-esque levels. Heck, that situation arose yet again last night against the Twins.
As far as I can tell Kimbrel does not actually have an official nickname. I have previously seen Dirty Craig (gross), the Velocity Raptor (dumb), and the Bird of Prey (boo). If you watch him warm up in the pen (he’s constantly kicking at the ground) and in the game (that bend), I initially thought “chicken.” But then, I remember a male chicken is a rooster and there we go. I suppose if you wanted to go with Cogburn as a nickname, that might work, too. But I figure that True Grit is a bit of reach for most baseball fans.
Here comes Kimbrel, and suddenly everyone’s blood pressure spikes and a clean inning is (usually) not had. As of last Friday, Kimbrel has had a clean 1-2-3 inning seven times out of forty appearances as of August 4, 2022.
Craig Kimbrel has seven clean innings in 40 appearances this season, if I'm counting correctly.— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) August 4, 2022
Maybe the Dodgers win, maybe the Dodgers lose, but everyone starts pining for the other guy. You know who I am talking about: Kenley Jansen: The Wiggle. Again, no one called Kenley Jansen that nickname either.
Let’s be honest - you aren’t mad that Craig Kimbrel is here and has been inconsistent (to be kind); you’re mad because you finally realize how good things were with Kenley Jansen and now he’s gone. And, unlike you, I booed Kenley Jansen to his face (and he responded by not giving up another hit for the rest of the year when I was around). That said, I did think Jansen finally figured something out in 2021 and was electric when he was on.
As an aside, I seem to come up with amazing nicknames and no one uses them. I am fairly sure that David Young came up with the Manfred Man (or it might have been me, he will let me know in the comments, I am sure), but I think we are the only ones who actively use it. Anyway, as I have previously defended the Manfred Man, I now turn my eye to something that has everyone on edge. This argument is especially true with the season-ending injury to Daniel Hudson, along with the other injuries in the bullpen.
Now that the trade deadline has passed and the Dodgers have chosen to rely on internal options and Chris Martin, the Dodgers have to live with their decision at the beginning of the season to trade for Kimbrel, and hope that Tommy Kahnle / Blake Treinen / Victor González / Brusdar Graterol / Danny Duffy / Walker Buehler can help bolster the backend.
Admittedly, the Dodgers are on a hot streak right now - ten victories in a row and they have just been outright fun to watch. But while we have covered other defects in the Dodgers’ armor, specifically, the runners left in scoring position/issues in extra innings (which we covered previously), the injuries to the team (which we will probably cover at some point), it is important to remember that Craig Kimbrel did not just magically appear out of nowhere. As tempting as it is to blame Kimbrel for the Dodgers’ drama in late innings, for which he does bear some degree of fault, it would be foolish to solely blame Kimbrel. There are two core reasons the Dodgers have ended up in this position.
Reason One: Zugzwang or one bad decision has led to others.
If you go back far enough, and remember why things happened the way that they happened in the 2020-21 offseason, you will likely realize that Kimbrel’s unlikely arrival (and subsequent struggles) has a genesis. I will give you a photographic hint on how were got here.
Much like an actual butterfly effect, which I now realize probably would have been an equally good title for this essay, the decision to sign Trevor Bauer has rippled out to moderately disastrous effects on the Dodgers, and that statement is not even discussing his ongoing legal and administrative issues.
The Dodgers' offseason plan, after the 2020 championship, was not terrible as you could see the thread of logic in it.
- Let Enrique Hernández, Joc Pederson, Alex Wood, and Jake McGee walk as they will command more money and/or playing time than the team is willing to spend.
- Trade for and sign Corey Knebel. Re-sign Blake Treinen and Justin Turner.
- Lock up Julio Urías, Walker Buehler, and Cody Bellinger through arbitration.
- Trade Adam Kolarek for Sheldon Neuse to provide bench depth.
- Rely on the budding prospects, including Luke Raley and Edwin Rios, for additional bench depth to replace Hernández and Pederson.
- Sign Trevor Bauer to the largest annual contract in the history of the sport with two opt-out clauses.
- Profit and/or defend the title.
Looking at this list now, yeah, this plan was never going to work as intended. But baseball is hard. Remember, in 2014, A.J. Preller traded Trea Turner before he was Trea Turner to Washington as a Player to be Named Later, and the Dodgers traded Pedro Martinez before he was Pedro Martinez. And Friedman traded Yordan Alvarez in 2016 and Oneil Cruz in 2017. Oof.
Wood and McGee excelled in San Francisco, ultimately breaking the Dodgers division title streak in what now appears to be “the mother of all flukes” seasons. While I tip my hat for last season, it’s probably fair to say that the Giants overachieved in 2021 and are underachieving this year. But I was playfully blamed for the streak being broken last year yesterday, so that was fun.
So we straight up lost the division last year because of you, Michael https://t.co/gJ22dV4amX— Jake Reiner (@Reiner_Jake) August 10, 2022
Anyway, Hernández and Pederson thrived in their new jaunts, with Pederson getting another ring with Atlanta (boo). Prongs two and three mostly worked as intended as Urías and Buehler had career years before fatigue caught up with them. Bellinger - we’re not going to talk about it.
However, prongs four through six were a categorical disaster. Neuse couldn’t hit my weight, much less his own weight. Rios went (essentially) 0 for the season, which I had a front-row seat to, before going down with a season-ending injury. Virtually no one in AAA or any of the fringe signings provided any depth whatsoever as there was no duplication of Chris Taylor or Max Muncy. Steven Souza, Jr. had statistically meaningful at-bats in 2021, including in the postseason. It physically hurt me to write that horrifying sentence, which is now moot because he finally retired a few weeks ago.
And then there was Bauer, who was effectively gone by the fourth of July in a spectacle that permanently damaged my view of various members of the League’s office and the Dodgers’ organization. Leaving the giant elephant of the reasons behind Bauer’s suspension for a moment, it is important to remember that prior to his arrival in Cincinnati in 2020, Bauer was the pitcher who had one of the most bizarre meltdowns that have ever been recorded in the history of the professional game.
Terry Francona looks like he is a pretty mellow guy, but I do not think I can ever recall a manager outright pointing for a pitcher to go sit down in the dugout like a scolding parent. However, to Bauer’s credit, he went from that embarrassing display to a Cy Young award (in a truncated season) within a year. If there is one thing that Americans like, it’s a comeback story - even with the clear red flags in front of them, focusing purely on the field behavior. Again, this essay is not focusing on any behavior alleged outside of the lines of play, which is a giant asterisk to this discussion.
I will admit and acknowledge that after Bauer got himself traded for Yaisel Puig right before the 2019 Trade Deadline in a swap of terrible final impressions, from what I could find, there were no complaints about Bauer’s on-the-field behavior in Cincinnati. Frankly, I almost forgot about both incidents.
These were Trevor Bauer and Yasiel Puig's final on-field moments before being traded. pic.twitter.com/wHwHCwsSmb— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 31, 2019
After a truncated campaign with the Cincinnati Reds where he won the Cy Young in 2020, the Dodgers signed Trevor Bauer for a 3-year, 102-million dollar contract to bolster the rotation. Again, at the time, you can see what the front office was thinking as to this decision.
All of this recap brings us back to Kenley Jansen.
We had the lockout - which I have covered in depth - and the Dodgers did not want to pay the highest tier of luxury tax for the upcoming year. With Bauer’s salary, during this past offseason, the Dodgers were already above the highest tier of $290 million at the time of the trade for Kimbrel. The front office deemed it a priority to re-sign Kershaw before moving to try and re-sign Jansen, which I do not think anyone will complain about.
Much like someone making a six-figure salary who is somehow living paycheck-to-paycheck, the Dodgers did what anyone who is strapped for liquidity - in my view, they attempted to move some money around while telling Jansen they were working on the situation. And rather than wait, the Dodgers missed their opportunity with Jansen.
The Dodgers first re-signed Kershaw, which I do not think anyone has a problem with. But in the interim, Jansen signed a one-year deal with his boyhood team in Atlanta, and that signing would appear to be that. Had the Dodgers not ever signed Bauer, and assuming the team did not sign anyone else, at this point in the 2021 offseason, the team would have had a payroll of about $246 to $250 million (depending on bonuses, through a back-of-the-envelope check at Fangraphs.com), which is enough below the newly created highest payroll tier. Therefore, there is a plausible to strong argument that had Trevor Bauer become a Met instead of a Dodger, the 2022 Dodgers could have afforded to both keep AJ Pollock and re-sign Kenley Jansen.
Hence, zugzwang. While a change of scenery was probably the best thing personally for Jansen, the Dodgers now had a hole at the end of the bullpen. In order to fix the problem, the team had several options:
A) Trade for a closer.
B) Panic but ultimately do nothing.
C) Promote a prospect and make Treinen the closer.
D) Sign a fringe reliever and attempt to “Evan Phillips / Alex Vesia” him.
E) Cut Trevor Bauer, eat the salary and use the “savings” to sign someone else.
The Dodgers went with Option A and traded AJ Pollock for Craig Kimbrel. Option B was never a realistic option because standing pat is generally not the modus operandi of this front office. Option C seemed like the plan until the Pollock for Kimbrel trade. Option D is the plan generally, but not for the closer, but that approach is how you get an Alex Vesia, Evan Phillips or a Yency Almonte, or a Reyes Moronta (paywalled).
Option E was not possible, and that statement requires a bit of an explanation.
Why the Dodgers simply could not cut Trevor Bauer for the savings
I have made no secret in my view that the Dodgers have done a poor job in their interactions with the media and the public regarding the League’s Bauer investigation and subsequent suspension, which is currently under appeal to the League’s arbitration panel. Simply put, the Dodgers were barred from getting out in front of the League regarding any discipline as to Trevor Bauer in this matter.
Per Section III, Subsection B, Clause 1 of the League’s Domestic Violence Policy (“Policy”), the Commissioner’s Office retained the authority to discipline a player under the Policy until the Commissioner’s Office provides notice to the Union and the Player that authority is being delegated to the club. If the Commissioner’s Office does not transfer its authority, no Club may take any disciplinary or adverse action against a Player arising from an incident involving a Qualifying Offense, with two exceptions that are not applicable to Trevor Bauer.
If the Commissioner’s Office notifies a Club, the Player, and the Union that the Commissioner’s Office will not impose discipline, a Club then, may, discipline a Player who commits a Qualifying Offense for just cause, regardless if that Player was put on Administrative Leave or whether the League conducted an investigation. If the Club imposes discipline on a Player, then the Player has the right to appeal as described above.
So, in layman’s terms, until the Commissioner’s Office notified Bauer, the Union, and the Dodgers that it was not going to discipline Bauer, the Dodgers were barred from doing anything even if they wanted to.
Here is my issue with the Dodgers’ handling of the Trevor Bauer affair. It should not have taken a deep dive into the Collective Bargaining Agreement or the Domestic Violence Policy to figure out what the team could and could not do. A team can be respectful of an accused player’s rights while acknowledging what the team and the league can and cannot do and state that sexual assault is wrong and morally reprehensible. And then with those truths acknowledged, the team and the league can then say we have no further comment at this time until everything plays out. Instead, we got the farce that played out in Washington, D.C. around early July 2021.
Reason Two: Kimbrel has been let down by the defense
One last point before concluding this piece: Kimbrel has been levels of ineffective, but he has been let down by his defense on at least two occasions so far, as of this essay. One of these incidents I was present for, the other I was not. And by no means is this list exhaustive.
May 29, 2022 - @Arizona
Kimbrel is brought in to close out a 3-0 game. After hitting getting a quick strikeout of Geraldo Pedomo, Kimbrel hit Alek Thomas. Daulton Varsho flew out to left fielder Kevin Pillar. Then David Peralta came up and one pitch later...
Peralta would be stranded at third you can see from the earlier video I posted in this essay. Is blood pressure elevated? Sure. The Phoenix locals actually had something to cheer about for about three minutes. But no harm was ultimately done.
June 19, 2022 - vs. Cleveland
Kimbrel is brought in the top of the ninth to preserve a 3-3 tie. After getting a quick strikeout of Owen Miller, Óscar González draws a walk. Josh Naylor comes up and two pitches later, Eddy Alvarez’s afternoon from hell in right field manages to somehow get worse as he takes a terrible route to a fly ball, which results in a double.
Alvarez was attempting to go somewhere in right field but unfortunately, it was not a route conducive to catching the ball. Per Savant.com, the expected batting average of Naylor’s flyball was .030. This fly-ball-that-was-an-out turned into a “thank you very much” double. Runners are now at second and third. Kimbrel intentionally loads the bases by walking Steven Kwan. Andrew Gimenez hits a two-run single and that was basically that. The Dodgers went quietly in the bottom of the ninth and the Dodgers lose.
Now, obviously, that inning goes completely differently if Naylor’s fly ball is caught, as there is no reason to intentionally walk Kwan. But again, I fully acknowledge that Kimbrel has been a high-wire act this year. It does not help the stability of said act when the stagehands figuratively set the rope on fire.
Help may be coming, but Treinen, Kahnle, González, and now Hudson, are not walking through the bullpen doors to alleviate Kimbrel’s burden any time soon. While the relief corps has been boosted by the addition of Martin, it is not as if the Dodgers traded for the Royals’ Scott Barlow during this trade deadline season.
Alex Vesia appears to be less effective than he was last year but is still quite good. David Price may need to be relied on more often than folks might like, but he has been quite effective. Yency Almonte and Evan Phillips have been revelatory, but would anyone trust them to close out games over Kimbrel at this point? Do the Dodgers have Walker Buehler fill the role that Kenta Maeda and Julio Urías have filled in prior postseasons, because there is not enough time to get Buehler back to a starter’s workload? I have no idea and in this regard, I am grateful I do not have to decide. The Dodgers are on a roll right now, and I would not want to disrupt that in any way.
For want of options, Dave Roberts is sticking with Kimbrel. And as of late, that faith has been rewarded with clean outings against the 2nd place Padres in early July and Kimbrel’s effective wildness during the recent sweeps of the rival Giants.
However, when all you have are bad moves (including the option of overpaying in a trade for additional help), that is the definition of zugzwang and it is up to the front office to find a way back to a position of advantage.