Caleb Ferguson’s first challenge as a reliever last season did not surface in a game.
“I didn’t know,” Ferguson said, “whether to play catch before the game or to not.”
Pitching out of the bullpen was foreign to Ferguson last June when the Dodgers moved him there. He broke into the majors with three starts before his 22nd birthday and had never been a reliever at any level. The transition took some adjusting to and he found willing helpers. Coaches and teammates gave him tips. Eventually, with repetitions, he found a routine and stuck with it. Success followed.
The left-hander posted a 2.35 earned-run average in 26 relief appearances, emerging as an important piece in the Dodgers’ often shaky bullpen. He was on the roster for the National League division series and championship series and didn’t allow a run in three innings over six outings. He wasn’t, however, put on the World Series roster — a move, he said, that wasn’t related to his health.
This spring, Ferguson projects to return to the bullpen. He has been stretched out, but only to three innings and isn’t slated to build beyond that. On Monday, he allowed one run on three hits in two innings.
Afterward, Ferguson said he hasn’t discussed his role with Dodgers brass since the beginning of camp. He was direct in his conversations.
“I’ve been telling everybody that I’m willing to do whatever it is to help the team get in the best position to win games,” Ferguson said. “Whether that’s starting, it’s relieving, long guy, lefty specialist, I don’t care.”
A 38th-round pick in 2014, Ferguson rapidly rose through the farm system armed with a fastball, curveball and changeup. As a major leaguer, however, he essentially ditched the changeup and became a two-pitch pitcher out of the bullpen. He has relied heavily on his fastball, throwing it 71.9% of the time, according to FanGraphs.
“He made some adjustments during the season and just the head, the compete [was there],” manager Dave Roberts said. “He doesn’t scare off. The fastball plays. The curveball was, at times, really good. And I think developing and working on that changeup, which is in there, I think that’s going to be something that we need to focus on a little bit this spring. He’s in good shape, but developing that third pitch I think is going to be good for him.”
The third pitch will be essential as a starter. But, barring injuries, the Dodgers won’t rely on Ferguson for many starts. Ross Stripling and Julio Urias sit above him in the depth chart. They’re next in line should Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler begin the season on the injured list. Instead, Ferguson likely will begin the season in the bullpen, in a role he now finds familiar.