LOS ANGELES — The 2017 World Series is a meeting of teams that match up well in a lot of ways. The Dodgers and Astros both have deep lineups, as well as excellent rotations that feature a couple of frontline starters.
There is one area where the teams differ, though. When it comes to relief pitching, the Dodgers seem to have the clear edge. This is true whether one looks at regular season or postseason stats.
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So far in the playoffs, the Dodgers’ bullpen is responsible for just three earned runs in 28 2/3 innings pitched. It has allowed 12 hits (one home run), issued two walks and struck out 32 batters. The Astros’ bullpen, conversely, has struggled a fair amount. In 34 innings pitched, it has allowed 19 earned runs and given up 31 hits (eight home runs) and 14 walks, while striking out 33 batters.
2017 season stats Dodgers Astros
ERA 3.38 (4th) 4.27 (17th)
WHIP 1.15 (2nd) 1.27 (10th)
Strikeout rate 27.7 percent (3rd) 28.6 percent (2nd)
Walk rate 8.0 percent (4th) 9.2 percent (17th)
Batting average against .220 (2nd) .232 (t-6th)
OPS against .660 (4th) .719 (12th)
Part of the Astros’ issue is that some pitchers who were expected to be great turned out to be mediocre. Luke Gregerson in particular stands out as an underperformer. Also, both Will Harris and Chris Devenski had good seasons, but didn’t live up to their performances from last year (though it should be noted that Harris missed time with inflammation in both shoulders this year). The closer, Ken Giles, has been Houston’s most reliable arm, but he’s faltered in the playoffs, allowing five runs in six innings of work so far.
While a number of things have gone wrong for the Houston bullpen, just about everything has gone right for its LA counterpart — guys with good stuff executing when asked, as well as nearly perfect deployment by manager Dave Roberts.
The Dodgers’ relief corps is an eclectic group composed of many types of pitchers. It includes trade deadline acquisitions, international and domestic free agents, and homegrown talent; it also includes both career long relievers and converted starters.
The Dodgers are taking eight relievers to the World Series, seven of whom were on the NLCS roster that provided 17 scoreless innings. That list includes two lefties (Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson), and six righties (Josh Fields, Kenley Jansen, Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy, Brandon Morrow and Ross Stripling). The much-maligned Pedro Báez made the NLDS roster, but never saw game action, and was cut prior to the NLCS.
The two Tonys were acquired at the trade deadline to fill the Dodgers’ need for solid lefty arms, with the 28-year-old Cingrani coming from Cincinnati, and the 32-year-old Watson from Pittsburgh.
Watson is responsible for two of the three earned runs the Dodgers’ bullpen has allowed this postseason. In Game 2 of the NLDS, he got two outs to finish off the sixth inning, but allowed two hits to start the seventh inning. Those runs came in to score on a Brandon Drury home run relinquished by Morrow. Since then, Watson hasn’t allowed a single baserunner (in 2 1/3 NLCS innings pitched), and the Dodgers’ bullpen hasn’t allowed another run.
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In the case of Cingrani, he has worked as both a starter and a reliever in his career, but now works entirely in relief. This postseason, the Dodgers have been using him for the sole purpose of getting lefties out. He has allowed one hit and also hit a batter, but not allowed a run in his two innings of work.
Cingrani described the model the Dodgers have established with their bullpen as “perfect, as long as guys execute.” He compared it with other recent playoff bullpens that have relied too heavily upon one pitcher.
“That should not be happening,” Cingrani said. “With this many games, you need to spread it. If you’re killing somebody, then by the time you get to Game 5, or Game 6, or Game 7, that guy is tired, period. We’re so late into the season that we need other guys that are reliable. And if you don’t have them, you’re not going to be a great team.”
Cingrani acknowledged that Jansen has gone multiple innings, but added, “He shouldn’t have to take the whole load. There should be multiple guys. Brandon’s doing a great job, Kenta’s doing a great job, Watty’s doing a great job.” He referred to himself and Fields as “matchup guys” — pitchers who specialize in facing same-handed batters.
Fields, 32, will be facing his former team this series. Originally drafted by the Mariners, he made his major league debut with the Astros in 2013. He was then traded from Houston to Los Angeles midseason in 2016. Fields’ 2017 was the best season of his career to date, and it earned him a spot on the Dodgers’ playoff roster. As Cingrani noted, Fields has been used primarily to pitch to right-handed batters this postseason. He’s been used sparingly, though, facing just four batters (and allowing one hit) across both series.
Another weapon the Dodgers have against right-handed hitters is Maeda. After eight seasons with the Japan Central League’s Hiroshima Carp, Maeda joined the Dodgers in 2016, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year race after a solid debut season. An overly full Dodger rotation this year led to Maeda being used in relief on a few occasions, something he hadn’t done since 2008. That’s where he finds himself this postseason.
Working in relief has been an adjustment for Maeda, but he has his teammates to look to for help.
“I look around the guys in the bullpen to see how they warm up,” Maeda said through a translator. “I really make sure that I get ahead in terms of warming up.”
It’s clearly worked, as Maeda has yet to allow a baserunner — he’s retired all 15 men he’s faced, seven by strikeout.
‘You gotta be ready from pitch one’
Stripling’s situation bears some similarities to Maeda’s, in that he’s made the postseason roster as a recent starter-turned-reliever. A 2012 Dodgers draft pick out of Texas A&M, Stripling seemed to be nearing a big league debut in 2014 when Tommy John surgery derailed those plans.
Instead, Stripling made his Dodger debut in 2016. Now 27, he’s worked as both a starter and a reliever for both the Dodgers and their Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City. While he’s more than willing to fill whatever role is needed, he said different roles bring different mindsets.
“As a starter, you think you’re gonna have five, six, seven innings to kind of get into a groove,” Stripling said. “And out of the bullpen, you gotta be ready from pitch one.”
Stripling cited Joe Blanton as being helpful for him in making that transition, as Blanton had also made the transition from starter to reliever.
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Joining them is McCarthy. The 34-year-old righty, now with the sixth team of his MLB career, has a World Series ring from his rookie season with the White Sox in 2005. However, this is McCarthy’s first time on a postseason roster.
A healthy McCarthy can be dominant. Unfortunately for him, he’s had trouble staying healthy for long stretches of his career. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 and spent 85 days on the disabled list this season with an assortment of ailments.
Stripling and McCarthy both provide the option of right-handed long relief, should the Dodgers have need multiple innings.
As it turns out, the reliever the Dodgers have turned to most this postseason is Morrow. The 33-year-old journeyman played for three teams before joining the Dodgers, and this year’s NLDS was the first time he’d made a postseason roster. He’s handled the pressures ably, though. Of the 28 batters he’s faced (in 8 1/3 innings pitched), he’s retired 24, allowing three hits and a walk while striking out eight.
“Our usage has been the same as it was during the regular season,” Morrow said of what’s enabled the Dodgers’ bullpen to succeed. “We don’t go strictly seventh, eighth inning. … It’s more about where you are in the lineup.”
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All these guys make up the bridge to Jansen, one of the game’s most dominant closers, whose stifling cutter has earned him comparisons to the great Mariano Rivera. A native of Curaçao, Jansen was signed by the Dodgers as an amateur free agent catcher in 2004. The team saw his potential as a pitcher, though, and the conversion process began in 2009. He debuted for the Dodgers in 2010 and has been nothing short of excellent, earning All-Star Game selections each of the past two years. In eight postseason innings, he’s allowed just two hits and a hit batter, while striking out 12.
‘Such a luxury’
The effects of a good bullpen extend beyond their performance on any given night, too. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said it helps both his and the entire team’s confidence knowing they’re there if needed.
“It’s huge,” Kershaw said of having reliable relievers. “I think everybody knows on our team when they come in the game it’s a really good feeling. That’s awesome to have. It’s such a luxury.”
Both bullpens figure to factor into the World Series significantly. Based on track record, this is something considerably more reassuring for the Dodgers.