A conversation in the nation’s capital this summer changed the course of Caleb Ferguson’s season.
When Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt sat the left-handed reliever down during a trip to Washington, the calendar hadn’t even turned to August. Yet, Ferguson’s second big league season was already spiraling out of control.
His encouraging 2018 rookie campaign had given way to a 6.12 ERA and 1.84 WHIP in his first 25 innings this year. He spent a week on the injured list in late April, then was sent down to triple-A Oklahoma City twice.
After another shaky outing against the Nationals, Honeycutt made a recommendation: Use a new grip on his signature curveball, one that would place more of the ball on the outside of his hand.
“Ever since we did that, I stuck with it,” said Ferguson, who was optioned once more but has been back with the MLB roster since Aug. 6. “It’s gotten a lot better.”
Indeed, entering the regular season’s final three weeks, the 23-year-old Ferguson is one of the Dodgers’ hottest pitchers with a 1.93 ERA and .111 batting average against in his past 14 innings.
“He’s striking [the curveball] more often and the delivery has helped his fastball,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s a lot more consistent.”
In a year when the back end of the team’s pitching staff has been shaky, Ferguson’s rebound represents the type of promise Roberts still sees in the bullpen.
When it comes to Los Angeles’ relievers, Kenley Jansen’s sputtering season sucks up most of the conversation. Roberts has stuck with his veteran closer, maintaining hope that Jansen will settle down even as he tracks toward career highs in ERA and blown saves.
Roberts holds similar optimism in the rest of the bullpen, a group he believes has the depth valuable in the postseason. Before the team’s 5-0 win over the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, he outlined their strengths.
“We have a lot of guys who can get both left and right [handed hitters] outs,” Roberts said. “You never know how one particular game is going to play out, let alone a series. So to have those options, that can also go multiple [innings], is huge.”
Joe Kelly is perhaps the best example. Even while battling a recent leg ailment, the right-hander has turned around his once-tumultuous debut season with the Dodgers thanks to a 2.10 ERA since the start of June.
Converted starter Kenta Maeda is trying to script a similar story. In the rotation, Maeda struggled with an 8-8 record, 4.14 ERA and 1.109 WHIP. But on Sunday, in his second relief appearance since moving to the bullpen, he mowed down the Giants during four nearly perfect innings.
“We’re not expecting 90 to 100 pitches, and he can let the tank out,” Roberts said, explaining what makes Maeda suited for a bullpen role. “His stuff, with the fastball and the slider, when he’s going to go two or three innings, or [only one] inning or something like that, everything really plays up.”
The versatility extends to most relievers. Aside from left-handed sidearm specialist Adam Kolarek and right-hander Dylan Floro, who has battled several minor injuries, most of the Dodgers’ relievers have strong splits against both left- and right-handers.
Hard-throwing, strikeout-collecting right-handers Yimi Garcia and Pedro Baez are holding hitters on both sides of the plate to less than a .200 batting average. Left-handed Julio Urias, who Roberts said Sunday is heading back to the bullpen, is holding both lefties and righties to under .210.
Even the right-handed Jansen, who is trying to reconfigure his arsenal to accommodate a diminished cutter, fits that description with his slight reverse splits (he is limiting lefties to a lower average and slugging percentage than righties).
“We know that it’s something [general manager Andrew] Friedman looks for in his relief arms,” said Ross Stripling, who could be another such bullpen option in the playoffs. “We all know and understand it’s a big part of how we build our bullpen.”
Ferguson, who has also recorded more strikeouts (17) than hits (five) and walks (six) combined since changing his curveball grip, has joined that mix. Roberts believes Ferguson’s new breaking ball profiles better against left-handers. Coupled with a mid-90s mph fastball, he might give the Dodgers one more name to rely on in the playoffs.
“I’m just trying to pitch my way onto the roster right now,” Ferguson said.
After back-to-back World Series defeats, Roberts is already considering how he’ll handle a bullpen that has MLB’s sixth-best ERA but also its seventh-most blown saves.
When October rolls around, he’d like to have as much depth as possible. He thinks there are signs he might.
“We knew we had that in our ‘pen,” Roberts said. “Now it’s putting that together, ultimately.”