The Dodgers have the highest payroll in baseball, the best pitcher in baseball (Clayton Kershaw, who remains on the DL since July 1), the National League Rookie of the Year who might also be the MVP (Corey Seager) and so much money that they are paying players $73 million not to play for them (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Hector Olivera, Yasiel Puig, etc.). But when you ask manager Dave Roberts why Los Angeles has gotten within one game of the Giants in the NL West, he doesn’t hesitate to say that it’s because of a rather low-budget, low-profile collection of assorted pickups.
"The most important part of our team without a doubt is our eight-man bullpen," Roberts said. "We’ve used them a lot collectively, but when you look it individually we don’t have anybody among the league leaders in games. What makes the eight-man bullpen work is that all of them are unselfish and willing and able to pitch whenever called upon. There are no egos."
Since last year, teams have paid huge prices in talent and dollars to acquire relievers such as Aroldis Chapman (Yankees, then Cubs), Ken Giles (Astros), Craig Kimbrel (Red Sox), Jonathan Papelbon and Mark Melancon (Nationals) and Will Smith (Giants). The Dodgers, with president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman channeling his bargain-hunting and sabermetric-savvy ways from his years running the Rays, have built a historically great bullpen while shopping the bargain aisles.
This might surprise you: L.A.'s staff is the toughest staff to hit at the end of games the sport has ever seen. Here's a look at the lowest batting average allowed in innings seven through nine in baseball history:
1. 2016 Dodgers: .197
2. 1968 Tigers: .204
3. 2001 Mariners: .205
3 (tie). 2003 Dodgers: .205
5. 1967 White Sox: .206
5 (tie). 1968 Orioles: .206
5 (tie). 2012 Athletics: .206
Overall, the Dodgers are 20th in innings from starting pitchers, but they have the best bullpen in baseball when it comes to allowing base runners (1.063 WHIP) and being tough to hit (.204), and their 'pen ranks third in ERA (3.10). Couple that with smart deployment in shifting—only the Cubs’ defense is better at turning batted balls into outs—and Los Angeles is playing “smart” baseball as well as any team in the majors.
Closer Kenley Jansen is a star reliever having a career year who has been unhittable lately. In his past four appearances he has retired 13 straight batters (nine by strikeout) while throwing a total of only six balls (44 of 52 pitches for strikes). The other seven relievers all had under-the-radar paths to the Los Angeles bullpen: one converted infielder, two cheap free agents and four minor trade acquisitions. The Dodgers’ deep front office has played the bullpen analytics game as well as any one.
Major league relievers this season are on pace to throw more innings than ever in the history of the game, breaking the record set in 2007. But whereas bullpens then were used passively as a defensive mechanism to react to offense, now they are deployed as a pro-active tactic to depress offense.
The formula goes like this: Use more pitchers in shorter bursts. When you narrow the time hitters see these pitchers, you can deploy specialty pitchers who don’t have the weapons to pitch effectively even one full way through a lineup but are effective in brief exposures.
When teams look for specialty relievers, they place a greater emphasis on outliers among the modern analytical measurements we have today: spin rates, release angles, extension, exit velocity allowed, et al. Clubs aren't looking for guys who do many things in the average range; bullpen usage now is about deploying specialists.
The 3,000 Hit Club
The Dodgers have no one younger than 27 in their bullpen. They like seasoned pitchers who have gone through their learning curve and narrowed their repertoire to exactly what works best. Here is a profile of L.A.'s relievers and how they were acquired. Note in each case that the Dodgers have identified at least one pitch or trait that makes that pitcher something of an outlier.
• Luis Avilan, LHP, 27 (acquired via 2015 trade with the Braves): Heavy changeup usage; reverse split tendencies make him tough on righthanders.
• Pedro Baez, RHP, 28 (converted minor league infielder): High-velocity, high-spin–swing-and-miss fastball.
• Joe Blanton, RHP, 35 (2016 free agent): Premium spin (slider, curveball) with short extension.
• Jesse Chavez, RHP, 32 (2016 trade with the Blue Jays): Very hard cutter and high-spin four-seamer.
• Grant Dayton, LHP, 28 (2015 trade with the Marlins): Deceptive 91-mph–four-seam fastball.
• Josh Fields, RHP, 30 (2016 trade by the Astros): Turbo cutter with above average extension.
• J.P. Howell, LHP, 33 (2013 free agent): Exceptional low-spin rate sinker.
• Kenley Jansen, RHP, 28 (converted minor league catcher): Freakishly hard cutter with extreme extension.
The other part of the modern bullpen story the Dodgers have mastered is sheer volume. The above list doesn’t include the plethora of pitchers who have shuttled among Los Angeles, Triple A Oklahoma City and the disabled list, including Louis Coleman, Casey Fien, Carlos Frias, Yimi Garcia, Chris Hatcher, Adam Liberatore and Josh Ravin. It sounds cruel, but the supply of specialty pitchers is so enormous that injuries and options are built into the equation.
Avilan, for instance, has been optioned four times to Triple A, recalled four times and designated for assignment once—all this year. The Dodgers are averaging 47 transactions a month this season. They have used 18 relievers already, and the expansion of rosters in September will give them a good chance to break the franchise record of 22, set during 1944.
Roberts has been a master of utilizing this mass of relievers. His starting pitchers have not given him six innings in eight straight games, and yet Los Angeles is 5–3 in those games. The Dodgers haven’t made it through seven innings in 17 straight games—and yet the team is 10–7 in that stretch.
How does Roberts do it? He has to live with a four-man bench and he has to limit the length of relief outings.
Take a look at how the rookie manager has increased the number of short outings for Dodgers relievers—those appearances of three batters or less. Here are the most such outings in franchise history:
1. 2016: 287*
2. 2015: 254
3. 2012: 248
The last world championship Dodgers team, from 1988, had only 79 relief outings of three batters or less. That’s a 263% increase of specialty relief outings.
The lesson here, as it was last year with the Royals, is that we have to stop applying our traditional notions of what makes a championship team. It sounds blasphemous in the name of Koufax, Drysdale, Valenzuela and Hersisher, but yes, you can win without great starting pitching.
In a perfect world, sure, who wouldn’t want four lights-out starters? But starters have never carried a lesser load in the history of the game than they do this year, and the expanded rosters of September and the extra off days in the postseason schedule place an even greater premium on more relievers getting more outs.
Kershaw last won a game on June 20. Since then, the Dodgers are 24–16, have cut 4 1/2 games off San Francisco's NL West lead and opened up a four-game cushion in the wild card race. Kershaw played catch Sunday for the first time since he was shut down with a herniated disc in his back. In an absolute best-case scenario, he could come back in the middle of September—and that’s if everything unfolds perfectly. It’s probably a 50–50 chance that he pitches at all again this season, though that’s a simple estimate at this early stage of his recovery.
The point is that not that many years ago you would have said that Los Angeles would have no chance of winning the World Series without Kershaw, and you would have been right. But baseball is played differently now: You can win with mediocre starting pitching and a deep bullpen packed with specialty arms in limited exposure. It’s the direction baseball is headed, and the Dodgers are ahead of the curve.