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Previewing the World Series: Meeting the Dodgers bullpen

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It’s a group very similar to that of the Red Sox.

League Championship Series - Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

After looking at the Dodgers lineup on Monday and then their rotation earlier this morning, we end our look at L.A.’s roster with a dive into their bullpen. The Dodgers, in my view, actually have a very similar bullpen to Boston’s at least in terms of narrative if not in practice. Both clubs have all-time great closers leading the charge, and then a hodge-podge of middle relief arms thrown together and hoping for the best. There are a couple of key differences, with the Dodgers having more of a presence from the left side as well as more converted starters pitching from their bullpen. Let’s take a deeper look at the group, starting with their closer and working our way back.

Kenley Jansen, RHP

It is not very often when you can say that, if everyone is pitching to their full potential, that Craig Kimbrel is not the best reliever on either roster. That is very possibly the case here, as Jansen came into this season as the clear (in my opinion) reliever in baseball. He’s certainly still in that conversation, though some early-season struggles have put a damper on his star. The righty turned things around pretty quickly, though, and he ended up with a solid season in the end. In terms of strengths, the biggest for Jansen is certainly his ability to prevent baserunners. Even in this so-called down year, he kept his WHIP below 1.00, making it the fourth consecutive year in which he’s done so and the sixth time in seven seasons. Obviously, the biggest factor here is that he limits his walks, and his still-good 2.1 walks per nine innings was actually his worst rates since 2014.

While Jansen did take a bit of a step back with that walk rate, the more noticeable issues for him in 2018 were with his strikeout and home run rates. Over the course of the regular season, he struck out just over ten batters per nine innings, which in today’s game is a merely good rate for relievers. Generally, he’s sat around 13-14 K’s per nine over his career. Meanwhile, he allowed 13 homers on the year, which is more than double his previous career high. The strikeouts came mostly back to Earth as the year went on, and he struck out over 12 batters per nine innings in the second half. However, the home runs did get worse after the All-Star break.

All of that being said, Jansen is still a reliever to be feared and he could be among the biggest factors in this series if the Dodgers end up winning. He is going to pitch the majority of innings out of this bullpen, as Dave Roberts has leaned heavily on him in each of the last two years. He’s been nails in this postseason, too, tossing 6 23 scoreless innings with ten strikeouts while allowing just two singles and two walks. The Red Sox are going to want to get a lead in the first seven innings, because coming back against Jansen is not going to be easy.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Two Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Pedro Baez, RHP

The Dodgers’ order of operations after Jansen isn’t super clear, and Baez probably isn’t at this point at the depth chart, but in my view he is the second-best reliever in the Dodgers bullpen. Despite good numbers throughout his career he is not exactly a fan favorite among Dodgers fans, making him a good counterpart for Matt Barnes. That being said, I do see where the righty can be frustrating at times. You can see where he gets into trouble, as he doesn’t have gaudy strikeout numbers (he’s consistently between nine and ten strikeouts per nine innings over his career) and he gets into real trouble with walks, particularly in the last two years.

However, Baez as still managed to post sub-3.00 ERA’s over each of the last two seasons, and in 2018 he posted good peripherals to match. The reason, again, is very Barnes-esque. Baez is a flyball-heavy pitcher, which is particularly appealing out in the NL West with their big ballparks. As we know, fly balls can lead to plenty of damage with home runs, but if they stay in the yard they lead to hits less often than any other ball in play. As a result, as long as Baez isn’t allowing home runs, he really doesn’t allow any hits. As long as you don’t string together a lot of walks — and Baez only allowed multiple walks in an outing twice over the course of the regular season — a high walk rate is fine as long as you limit home runs and hits. For the Red Sox to have success against Baez, they’ll need to launch those fly balls over the fence. Of course, they are plenty capable. It’s also worth mentioning that Baez actually posted reverse splits this year, so don’t look for Mitch Moreland/Brock Holt/Rafael Devers pinch-hitting appearances against him.

Kenta Maeda, RHP

Maeda spent most of this year and the majority of his career as a starter in the Dodgers rotation, but for the second year in a row he converted to relief down the stretch and is serving as a higher-leverage arm in the postseason. In a lot of ways, Maeda the reliever is a very similar pitcher to Baez, although with more strikeouts. The veteran righty strikes out a lot of batters — over 13 per nine innings this year after converting to relief — but also gets into trouble with walks and is a flyball-heavy pitcher. One area in which he has not succeeded on the same level as Baez, however, is limiting home runs. Maeda hasn’t been beaten to a pulp in this regard or anything, but he is much more liable to get hurt by his flyball tendencies than Baez.

This year in the posteason, Maeda has made five appearances and four of them have been scoreless, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. He hasn’t been terrible, but he also has allowed six baserunners over 3 23 innings while striking out four. The key for Boston will simply be not letting him get in a rhythm in this series. This will also be the spot for them to use their left-handed pinch hitters, as lefties posted an OPS 212 points higher than righties against Maeda this year.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Six Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ryan Madson, RHP

Madson has moved up to a set-up role as the year has gone on, but he’s really had something of a wild 2018. The righty spent most of the year on a dumpster-fire of a Nationals roster, and he was awful for most of that run. His strikeout rate was way down in Washington and he was getting rocked left and right, leading to a 5.28 ERA with peripherals to match. After being traded to Los Angeles at the end of August, he posted an ugly 6.48 ERA, but he looked a lot better than that. It was only a nine-appearance sample, but he was back to striking out batters at a high rate while limiting his walks. He’s carried that success into the postseason, allowing just one run in 6 13 innings and seven appearances. Madson is liable to leave a few pitches in the middle of the zone, and it’s all about jumping on those mistakes and making the righty pay.

Dylan Floro, RHP

Floro was somewhat quietly one of the better relievers in the Dodgers bullpen this year, and he is a different kind of reliever than the other guys listed above him. Whereas his teammates generally rely on strikeouts and weak contact in the air, Floro only boasts a modest strikeout ability (8.2 K/9 in 2018), but he used a high ground ball rate to keep the ball in the park and pitch to a 2.25 ERA and a 3.04 FIP. It is worth mentioning he also pitched to a 4.34 DRA, who apparently doesn’t like that Floro did have some control issues over the season. Ultimately, look for Floro to be the guy to come in if the Red Sox get a rally with runners on base and the Dodgers need a fireman to get a double play. The righty certainly has the skillset to succeed in that role, and he’s made six scoreless appearances in this postseason thus far. It’ll be tough to do big damage off this kind of pitcher, so the Red Sox should try to be patience, get ahead in counts and either look for meatballs or draw some walks.

Julio Urias, LHP

Urias may be the most interesting pitcher in this bullpen. The young lefty has long been one of the best pitching prospects in the game, but injuries have knocked him down for the last couple of years. The southpaw didn’t really pitch in the regular season this year, making just three relief appearances down the stretch. However, he was added to the roster in the NLCS and ended up throwing some important innings in a surprising turn of events. It’s really hard to know what to expect from him given his extreme lack of experience, and the best hope is probably that the moment gets to him on the biggest stage. That may be wishful thinking, though, as he looked poise for his four appearances in the last round.

League Championship Series - Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Caleb Ferguson, LHP

Ferguson is another young lefty who is just getting used to the majors, and as a former 38th round pick he is a really interesting story to get to this point. Watching him pitch, however, you won’t think he could have possibly fallen that far in a draft. The southpaw has big time stuff and a huge fastball from the left side, which led to his strikeout rate right under 11 per nine innings. To go with that he also shows off impressive control for someone his age. He does, however, get into trouble with home runs and that could be exacerbated in enemy territory at Fenway in the World Series. That said, he has yet to allow a hit in six postseason appearances (three innings) with three strikeouts and a walk.

Alex Wood, LHP

Here we have another converted starter in the Dodgers bullpen, and while he hasn’t been the most trusted arm he certainly has the talent to make an impact in this series. There’s not a ton that stands out about Wood’s game on the mound, as he’s simply solid across the board. He gets ground balls, he misses some bats but not a ton, and he’s solidly above-average with his control. Wood has flirted with disaster this postseason, allowing eight baserunners in six appearances and 4 13 innings, but the only damage he’s allowed has been on a pair of solo homers. Hopefully the Red Sox can break that trend and open the floodgates.