With the Dodgers off to a hot start in August, spirits remain high amongst the Los Angeles faithful. Yet the continued excitement of perhaps the best team in franchise history is understandably muted for some by the relative inactivity at the non-waiver deadline. Refusing to meet Pittsburgh’s absurd asking price for Felipe Vasquez, they chose to hold on to their farm system, chiefly top prospect Gavin Lux. They will instead try to put together a playoff pen internally, to the derision of many fans.
However, as evidenced by the last two World Series winners (against Los Angeles no less), the Dodgers may indeed have their purported internal solution for the pen: use surplus starting pitching as much as possible, especially if you don’t trust certain relievers. As my colleague Daniel Preciado emphasized recently, the team has plenty of starting pitchers with the versatility to work in relief.
To be clear, this article is not a defense of Friedman’s minimalist deadline approach this year. I believe the deadline was indeed a failure, if only because it was created by his negligent approach to building the relief corps since the 2017 off-season. I’m also not saying bullpens no longer matter in October; anyone who thinks they can sneak through all three rounds with a mediocre-to-bad one is kidding themselves. Last year’s “fingers crossed” approach almost worked for Los Angeles, granted, until it came undone in the disastrous fourth game of the WS.
Well, I am officially done defending Friedman. While I agree parting with Lux for Vazquez would have been a bad idea, keep in mind we were only here because Friedman has been awful with the pen since the 2017 offseason. Could have avoided it if he got it right since then.
— Marshall Garvey (@MarshallGarvey) July 31, 2019
If anything, recent postseason history seems to indicate an elite bullpen is part of a complete championship picture. The 2016 playoffs were shaped from beginning to end by utilizing relief aces as much as possible. Buck Showalter’s inexplicable refusal to use Zach Britton cost the Orioles the AL Wild Card game, while the Dodgers improvised with Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw to survive game five of the NLDS. Most importantly, the Cubs and Indians rode Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller respectively nonstop to the World Series.
Nonetheless, things have changed since that super relief October three years ago. When 2017 Astros closer Ken Giles melted down to an ERA over 11.00 in the playoffs, they might as well have given him a bus ticket out of town, leaning on starters like Charlie Morton to bring home the trophy instead. Last year, when the Red Sox found themselves in a neverending 18-inning game at Dodger Stadium, they trusted Nathan Eovaldi to gobble up those excess innings. And when it came time to shut the door for good in the clinching game five, Chris Sale was summoned rather than a shaky Craig Kimbrel for a ruthless final three outs.
Moreover, a statistically elite bullpen doesn’t guarantee a title. Last year, the Brewers, Astros and Athletics had nonpareil pens, and none of them made it to the Fall Classic. Or go back to the 2014 World Series, when the Royals’ seemingly unbeatable Herrera/Davis/Holland bullpen troika was one-upped by Madison Bumgarner in game seven.
And even in that 2016 postseason, the limits of riding relievers nonstop became evident in game seven of the World Series. Despite shutdown pitching from Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester that seemed to assure victory, Cubs manager Joe Maddon opted to push the clearly gassed Aroldis Chapman for another long save. It led to Rajai Davis’ game-tying home run, and had it not been for the extra-innings heroics of Ben Zobrist, it likely would have been a move that consigned Maddon to Grady Little-esque infamy.
With these comparisons in mind, the Dodgers likely wouldn’t win a championship on the strength of their bullpen this year even if they had acquired elite pieces. They are, and have always been, about starting pitching. And in 2019, their rotation is the best in the game, chiefly on the strength of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw and their ability to go deep into games. This allows veterans Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling, as well as rookies Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, to be used fluidly between rotation and relief as needed.
Compared to the last two WS winners and their extra starting pitching, the Dodgers clearly have the pieces to do the same this October. In my view, the key to this strategy working is how ready Rich Hill is by October. His stated timeline for return puts that in doubt. As I’ve touched on often recently, the biggest problem is the almost total lack of good lefties in relief, the only viable one being Julio Urias. If Hill is healthy enough to work out of the pen, they’ll be much better off.
These remaining months should be a stringent audition for starters new and old to make their bullpen case for October. No more committees, no more six-out saves for Kenley Jansen, no more dogmatically playing match-ups like Alex Wood in game two of the 2018 World Series. If the Dodgers are to win the World Series, and save Andrew Friedman’s hide in the process, they should use only their best starting pitching options in relief when the moment demands it.