From a pitching standpoint, much of the spotlight from the opener against the Pirates on Monday evening was placed on lefty starter Alex Wood‘s performance and potential shoulder dilemma; however, the general perception of the Dodgers‘ bullpen as of late has been causing many fans to be a bit concerned, especially when looking ahead to the postseason.
Having had the privilege of viewing the game just a few rows behind home plate, it wasn’t difficult to see that Wood’s sinker wasn’t exactly moving the way he intended. His two-seam appeared to have very little action, and quite often he left his heater up in the zone. Often known to be a ground ball machine, the Pirates frequently barreled the ball up nicely against a mediocre Wood, and scored their first three runs of the game on very hard hit balls into the stands.
While it was later reported that Wood may be experiencing inflammation in his sternoclavicular joint in the front of his pitching shoulder, skipper Dave Roberts was hesitant to provide any type of immediate prognosis involving a prospective stint on the disabled list.
“We’ll make a decision once the medical staff puts an eye on him,” Roberts said. “It’s a little concerning considering his history. We really have got to be cautious.”
Regardless of the examination, there’s absolutely no reason at all not to proceed very carefully with the southpaw, as there is plenty of cover available on the fringes of the farm. In an ideal world, a 100% healthy Wood will seemingly be among the top four choices for a spot in a playoff rotation.
But as far as the bullpen goes, much of the blame for the ineffectiveness on Monday evening was pointed at righty Pedro Baez. Taking over for Tony Watson in the eighth frame, Baez would walk three batters and surrender a huge double to Pirates’ utility man Josh Harrison, only to retire one batter before giving way to Brandon Morrow.
Needless to say, the problem with Baez was his control. The velocity was certainly there, but his biggest quandary was locating his slider. When he fell behind in the count, he depended mostly on his heater, chiefly because his breaking pitches weren’t even coming close. Instead, he tried to locate his four-seam on the edges of the zone, and ultimately played it safe with the walks instead of allowing all the main damage to be done with one swing of the bat.
If anyone deserves a late-season mulligan, though, it’s most certainly Baez. One game with some minor command issues does not a season make. Over an even 52 innings this season, he’s tallied a 1.89 ERA, and opponents are only hitting .212 against him. According to MLB statcast, his four-seam has averaged 97.42 MPH this year, which is no question among the higher levels in the bigs. Perhaps a lingering uncertainty is whether or not Baez has become victim to overuse and how much gas he has remaining in his tank.
Potentially, the largest question surrounding the bullpen as a whole lies in attempting to pinpoint the best arm to bridge the gap to All-World closer Kenley Jansen. Roberts has given a fair share of opportunities to the newcomer Watson, who has yet to establish any sort of trust. Tony Cingrani has actually been a bit worse than Watson, and has since been relegated to cleanup-types of scenarios. Josh Fields has been decent, but his FIP appears to be trending upward at 4.23, and has already given up eight long balls in only 45-2/3 innings of work.
With a 2.32 ERA, a 1.55 FIP, and a 0.871 WHIP, Brandon Morrow is one of the few recent bright spots of the bullpen who could effectively compliment Jansen, and may be called upon more down the road in the much tighter eighth innings spots.
But while there is a bit of concern of the overall functionality of the relief corps, the general numbers are still very strong. The Dodgers’ 3.02 bullpen ERA is far and away the best in the National League, and is second only to the Indians in all of baseball. The Los Angeles OBPA of .273 and WHIP of 1.09 are both best in the bigs, which speaks volumes about the staff’s ability to maximize the club’s efficiency when it comes to specific types of matchups in the latter innings of games.
There’s no question that the relief crew is slowly but steadily improving as far as personnel is concerned. Gone are the likes of Sergio Romo and Chris Hatcher, who both may conceivably be towards the ends of their respective careers. And while an acquisition of someone like Zach Britton would have been a very welcomed mega-boost to the relief morale down the stretch, there may be just enough firepower for postseason success if managed correctly. Plus, 39 regular season games still remain on the regular season for Roberts and Company to experiment and fine tune the crew just a little more.
In the end, for the sake of the entire relief corps, perhaps the biggest key of all is health and the need for plenty of rest when there’s the opportunity. Roster expansion on September 1 will definitely provide a bit of aid, and subsequently, there’s always the possibility of yet another surprising waiver trade when everyone is least expecting it.
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