2013 Los Angeles Dodgers Season Review: Relief Pitchers

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Kenley Jansen

Since debuting in 2010, Kenley Jansen has been one of the game’s truly elite relief aces, and 2013 was his best showing yet. Kenley began the year as the set-up man to Brandon League after League was gifted a ridiculous three-year deal, and though the cries were numerous and persistent to not give Brandon high-leverage situations over Kenley, it could have been an acceptable scenario. Using Kenley in important situations while allowing League to take care of your run-of-the-mill three-run lead would have been a solid use of resources had League not imploded, but he eventually did. From there, Kenley soon took over the closing duties and never looked back.

Jansen appeared in a career-high 75 games and 76.2 innings, and most importantly there were no issues related to his heart like there had been in the past. He yet again dominated hitters behind his incredible cutter, posting a 1.99 FIP, 55 FIP-, 1.62 SIERA, 13.03 K/9 IP, and a career-best 2.11 BB/9 IP. His walk rate has decreased significantly in each of his four seasons (5.00/4.36/3.05/2.11), and while he may never reach that whiff level of 2011, it has never dipped below 13 per nine. His improved control led to another career mark of over six strikeouts per free pass issued, and a second straight season with a sub-1.00 WHIP (0.86).

His cutter was far and away the most valuable cutter among all pitchers in 2013, and it was actually the most valuable of any type of fastball among all relievers as well. With a declining walk rate, declining home run rate, and an WAR that has steadily increased, the Dodgers are set in the pen for years to come.

Jansen is about to get expensive, but he’s more than worth it. I’d have no problem with a longer-term deal for a guy who is nothing like the relievers we see getting ridiculous contracts every year. If Ned Colletti feels comfortable signing guys like League and Matt Guerrier for three years, locking up your core bullpen guy might be an important step to take sooner than later.

We’re all witnessing one of the most dominant and talented relief aces we’ve seen in a long time. Come 2014, the Dodgers’ back-end of the pen will be one of their strengths yet again, led by Kenley Jansen and his otherworldly cutter.

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Paco Rodriguez

After being the first 2012 draftee to make it to the big leagues, Paco Rodriguez cemented himself as a valuable piece to the pen in 2013 who could get both righties and lefties out despite a rough finish to the regular and postseason.

Paco’s season can easily be broken into two pieces: pre-September and post-September. Prior to September, Paco posted a 1.88 ERA in 64 games comprised of 48 innings. Opponents hit just .140/.214/.185/.399 against him with two homers, and Paco whiffed 56 against 13 walks in that span. However, when the calender hit Sep. 1, Paco’s dominance crumbled, and a lot of that was likely due to fatigue. Batters hit .308/.438/.731/1.169 against him with three homers, and Paco walked six while fanning just seven in 6.1 IP stretched over 12 appearances.

Paco gave up a significant amount of hard-hit balls after September, as his line drive percentage jumped from 17% to 30%. Those struggles continued into October. In his first postseason game, Paco was brought in to intentionally walk Reed Johnson in order to face Jason Heyward with the bases juiced. Putting aside the sheer absurdity of that Don Mattingly decision, J-Hey proceeded to single back through the middle to drive in a pair. The two would square off three days later, as Paco was brought in for mop-up duty. Paco allowed a two-run bomb to Heyward and followed that with a walk and two singles before being pulled. It was the last postseason duty he would be given, as he was eventually left off of the NLCS roster against a Cardinals team that couldn’t hit lefties.

The end-of-year numbers don’t look overwhelming (3.08 FIP), but that last month really did Paco in. He still struck out almost 10.5 per nine; proved himself to be far, far more than a LOOGY; and gave Donnie another invaluable option for the late innings.

Heading into 2014, Paco will likely once again be trusted with high-leverage situations against lefties and righties, but there will be some question marks associated with him now. Regardless, he’s an excellent young lefty reliever on a cheap contract with years of team control left, and those guys — even at the most fungible position in baseball — are still quite valuable.

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Brian Wilson

Signed in August to a guaranteed major-league deal following a rehab from Tommy John surgery, Brian Wilson greatly impressed and surpassed all expectations in his short time with the Dodgers.

There was serious concern as to whether the former San Francisco Giants‘ relief ace could return to his former self following the procedure, and though he didn’t pitch a ton of innings after being signed (13.2 in the regular season, six scoreless in the postseason), he was on top of his game during those 24 total appearances.

The Beard whiffed about 8.5 per nine while issuing just over 2.5 free passes per nine. He allowed just one run, didn’t allow a home run, and induced over half of his outs via the ground ball while generating an insane amount of infield popups (37.5 IFFB%). While Brian wasn’t as dominant as his 0.66 ERA would suggest, the metrics back up his comeback as legit. A 2.02 FIP and producing almost half a win in a little over a month’s work will catch some eyes, as will the fact that Wilson was able to go in back-to-back games five times in the regular season and once more come October. While it would be great to add another stellar arm to the pen in 2014, Wilson will get offers to be the unquestioned closer on a number of teams, including playoff-bound ones.

The team recently announced that Wilson would be back with the club in 2013 on a short-term deal, and it was surprising that he didn’t get a prime-time closing role in Detroit or New York or Texas. Regardless, a huge plus for the Dodgers.

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Chris Withrow

Chris Withrow or Scott Van Slyke? It’s the age-old question and Twitter joke that shall define 2013 and Fu Manchus everywhere. After washing out as a starter in the minors due to injury and the inability to limit his walks, the flame-throwing Withrow found himself a home in the Dodgers’ pen.

The former first-round pick made his big league debut in June and threw 34.2 innings over 26 appearances. He displayed great swing-and-miss stuff (11.16 K/9) but also the bouts of wildness that doomed his career as a starter (3.38 BB/9, 1.30 HR/9). He held opponents to a .165/.246/.289/.535 slash line and was equally effective against righties and lefties (.248 and .239 wOBA, respectively).

Whatever your pitching metric of choice, Chris delivered in his relatively short regular season debut. He posted a 3.03 xFIP, 2.59 SIERA, 73 ERA-, 3.65 tERA, 3.57 FIP, 80 xFIP-, and 2.60 ERA. His WHIP was a miniscule 0.95 and he had 3.31 strikeouts for every walk issued.

Still just 24 years old, Withrow gives the Dodgers a fantastic troika of young, cost-controlled bullpen arms with phenomenal stuff, great swing-and-miss success, and the ability to pitch to any batter no matter the handedness. He’ll begin 2014 as the 6th or 7th inning guy for Mattingly.

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J.P. Howell

Signed for one year and under $3 million last offseason — which ended up at over $3.5 million once incentive bonuses were reached — J.P. Howell put together a very good debut season with the Dodgers, posting a 2.89 FIP. His age 30 season was an improvement across the board from his 2012 showing in Tampa, as his FIP (4.78/2.89); K/9 IP (7.51/7.84); BB/9 IP (3.93/3.34); HR/9 IP (1.25/0.29); GB% (48.9/57.2); and WAR all trended positively.

That dramatic drop in homers allowed is unsustainable going forward, even with a move to a historically pitcher-friendly park like Dodger Stadium. His career HR/FB mark sits at 12.6%, while 2013 clocked in at 4.3%. There will be regression in that area in 2014, and an extra homer here and there for a relief pitcher can mean a significant jump in FIP.

Howell is a free agent, and Dustin Nosler posed the question of whether I’d want him back if the contract had to be three years. Unless it’s a three-year deal for $1-2 million per, the answer is no. J.P. won’t come that cheaply, of course, as he’ll almost certainly be able to find himself $4-5 million per at worst. In a market that often overpays in dollars and years for the most fungible of positions, he could track down an even larger deal.

With Paco in tow, as well as Onelki Garcia and other southpaw arms in Triple-A and Double-A, there’s no need to commit long-term to Howell. If he can be had on a reasonable one- or two-year deal, you absolutely jump on it. But even putting aside Colletti’s poor track record with long-term reliever deals, handing out big three-year terms to pen guys who aren’t elite rarely works out.

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Ronald Belisario

After his best season in Dodger Blue in 2012, Ronald Belisario saw a drop-off across the board in 2013. His FIP (3.09/3.64), K/9 IP (8.75/6.49), BB/9 IP (3.68/3.71), HR/9 (0.38/0.40), GB% (64.5/61.4), WAR, and ERA (2.54/3.97) all worsened in his 77 appearances.

Those numbers are especially troubling considering he was used in primarily late-inning and high-leverage situations, pitching in the 7th and 8th innings 83.4% of the time (Via True Blue LA). Fatigue could potentially have been an issue for Ronald, who will head into his age-31 season in ’14.

Batters made more contact against Ronald in 2013 (76.7/80.8 Contact%), and swung and missed less often than last year (10.1/8.8 SwStr%). After avoiding arbitration prior to 2013, Belisario was arbitration eligible this year and was surprisingly non-tendered by the club. Beli then signed a one-year deal for less than $3 million with the White Sox.

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Brandon League

Brandon League entered 2013 as the closer after a mostly strong 27+ innings in Los Angeles to end 2012 (2.77 FIP, 8.89 K/9, 4.61 BB/9, mechanical changes down the stretch).

As ludicrous as it would be to insinuate that League is better than Jansen, it would not have been the worst decision if League were able to hold his own in high-leverage situations, as it would free up Kenley to be the fireman of the pen and pitch in those high-leverage spots that arise earlier in the game. Most competent relievers can lock down a three-run lead in the ninth, and Don Mattingly isn’t known as a guy who expands his bullpen philosophy beyond “my closer has to come in when there’s a save situation”. So in theory, it was a bold decision made for the wrong reasons, but one that could have worked out.

But that was only if Brandon League hadn’t reverted back to the Brandon League of old, as he actually set fire to every big spot he came into. His strikeout rate plummeted to under five per nine, he allowed over a homer per nine, and he posted a FIP near 5. His WAR ended up well into the negative range, and he lost his job early in the year.

League still has two years and $15 million remaining on the three-year deal he was gifted — plus a vesting option for 2016 centered around, thankfully, games finished — and if he remains with the club he’s likely to spend that time in mop-up duty and away from any postseason roster.

Odds and Ends

Carlos Marmol and Edinson Volquez were Dodgers. Yes, that really happened. Marmol struck guys out in the regular season, which is par for the course with him. What’s even more of a certainty with him is that he’ll walk guys like he’s putting on a charity walk, and he issued 19 free passes in 21.1 IP in his short time in Los Angeles. He made it into two postseason games and was generally effective despite the potential for disaster. Volquez whiffed 8.36 per nine and limited the walks with 2.57 per nine, but he allowed over a homer and a half per nine with a FIP well over 4. Both righties benefited from a lucky BABIP.

Matt Guerrier threw 30 innings before being DFA’d in July.

Javy Guerra, who was once upon a time also given the high-leverage situations over Jansen, threw just under 11 innings and spent most of the season in AAA. He maintains a 40-man roster spot over Shawn Tolleson (who was taken by the Rangers), because … baseball?

Peter Moylan bested Guerra by almost five innings, but his claim to Dodger fame will be getting DFA’d to make room on the 40-man for Alexander Guerrero.

Skip Schumaker made two relief appearances and threw a pair of scoreless innings while striking out one (!) and allowing six baserunners. Clearly, that’s why the Reds signed him, as super-secret insurance for Aroldis Chapman.

Onelki Garcia, who was fast-tracked through the minors, made just three September appearances. They did not go well. He allowed four walks and a homer in an inning and a third while fanning one. That being said, he’s a young lefty with the stuff to succeed in a major league pen if he can cut down on his walks. If the team doesn’t bring back Howell, Onelki has a great chance to make the Opening Day roster.

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Greg Zakwin is the founder of the site Plaschke Thy Sweater Is Argyle. Follow him on Twitter @ArgyledPlaschke and find him contributing at Yahoo! Sports.

About Greg Zakwin

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