Arguably, their offense is among the very best in baseball. Their starting pitching is decent but, more importantly, deep. But, if there’s one, single downfall to the 2019 Dodgers, it’s been the performance of their bullpen.
Effectiveness of relief pitching is extremely difficult to measure. So much so that standard metrics like ERA do not reflect in the least how a reliever is performing. We all saw the Evan Longoria bases-loaded double off of Dylan Floro on Monday night to propel the Giants to victory—a perfect example of how a reliever’s ERA can be misleading.
After the dust settled on Monday night’s game, Floro’s ERA is still a perfect 0.00 after 12 appearances this season. All three runs were credited to Ross Stripling—justifiably or justifiably not.
So, when you hear a television announcer continuously emphasizing a reliever’s stellar ERA, more times than not you can view it with a grain of salt.
Looking past ERA, the next stat worth discussing is the number of inherited runners who score. Continuing along with Floro, the righty has inherited 11 runners when entering games this year, and four of those 11 have crossed the plate on his watch. Despite the “perfect” 0.00 ERA, there’s plenty of factors to consider when evaluating a bullpen arm (even though in Floro’s case, three inherited runners scored on a single pitch).
I’m certainly not here to pick on Floro, as there are many intricacies involved in putting together a decent evaluation of a reliever. In actuality, Floro has been the best of the entire relief crew.
Floro was absolutely outstanding when pitching to Buster Posey before facing Longoria, using the corners effectively and setting up the catcher to chase a slider low and away out of the zone to secure the punchout. However, one mistake pitch can often prove doom for a reliever, as we all saw with Longoria.
Unlike a starting pitcher, relievers don’t have multiple innings to compensate for that one mistake pitch and balance out their standard stats. That being said, WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched, for the unenlightened few) is a decent tool to use when evaluating relievers over an extended period of time, because it takes anything inherited completely off the board.
The Dodgers have four pitchers so far with a WHIP under 1.00—Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Baez, Floro and Kenley Jansen. At .813 and .857, respectively, Baez and Floro’s WHIPs are outstanding. Yet, when evaluating a reliever purely on observation, an average fan often remembers the most damaging pitches while forgetting each time a reliever works his way out of a jam.
Case in point is Jansen, who still has a .886 and an 11.7 K/9, yet almost every time he appears, it seems like hitters are having success against the closer.
Personally, although I really like WHIP, my favorite category to rate relievers (as well as starters) is FIP—Fielding Independent Pitching.
Fangraphs says it best—”FIP is a measurement of a pitcher’s performance that strips out the role of defense, luck, and sequencing, making it a more stable indicator of how a pitcher actually performs over a given period of time than a runs allowed based statistic that would be highly dependent on the quality of defense played behind him.”
FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for pitchers is based on FIP rather than on ERA and even analysts who prefer a different method of determining WAR find FIP to be extremely useful and informative.
Furthermore, FIP gives a good idea which direction a pitcher is trending.
As far as the Dodgers go, Floro is leading the club with a 2.44 FIP followed by Baez with a mark of 2.87. Kershaw is third on the club at 2.92.
Conversely, Caleb Ferguson has the worst FIP on the team at 6.28, followed by Yimi Garcia at 5.81 and Joe Kelly at 4.82. Kelly’s mark does provide a decent indicator of where he’s trending, though, compared to his 8.31 ERA—the number to which many fans’ eyes are glued.
I would consider anything under a FIP of 3.00 to be very solid. Coincidentally, Kershaw’s career FIP of 2.65 leads all active starting pitchers in baseball, which gives you a good indication of how well Floro and Baez are throwing this season, despite the few pumpkins which opposing batters have crushed.
Obviously, one can throw all of these stats out the window as the playoffs approach, as health and freshness are the key to a big league club’s success during the postseason run. Some pitchers simply don’t have the endurance or stamina—see Stripling—to throw effectively from March through October. This is one of the main reasons that boss Andrew Friedman loves to use the injured list to limit innings as much as he does.
Of course, the one-run losses always sting—as was the case with Monday night—but those defeats are extremely valuable in evaluating the bullpen as a whole. There’s 162 games to put together the best possible relief corps for the playoffs, so there will probably be numerous one-run defeats in store for fans as the season progresses.
In the meantime, before looking at an ERA of a reliever, keep an eye out for FIP and WHIP before drawing any conclusions. And, try to keep your blood pressure in check during those one-run losses, because sometimes they can be blessings in disguise in the greater scope of building a successful relief corps.