Will the Dodgers replicate closer model the Red Sox and Astros used to beat them?
You might remember famous video of Craig Kimbrel at Dodger Stadium, standing in the visiting bullpen, his arms crossed, wondering just what in the world his manager was thinking.
This was six years ago, when he was the closer for the Atlanta Braves and his team was six outs from forcing the Dodgers into a fifth and deciding game of the National League division series. His manager opted not to use him to start the eighth inning, a lesser reliever gave up a two-run home run to Juan Uribe, and the Braves lost an elimination game by one run without deploying their best reliever.
There is a more recent scene of Kimbrel at Dodger Stadium, and a more relevant one for the Dodgers.
Kimbrel was the closer for the Boston Red Sox last year. The Red Sox were three outs from the World Series championship. The gate to the visiting bullpen at Dodger Stadium swung open, and it was déjà vu all over again: His manager called for another pitcher.
Chris Sale, who had made more than 200 consecutive regular-season starts, jogged onto the field. He struck out the side, and the Red Sox spilled onto the field in celebration.
For the second consecutive year, the Dodgers lost the final game of the World Series at home. And, for the second consecutive year, the visiting team deployed a starting pitcher to secure the final outs in place of an inconsistent closer — Sale for Kimbrel last year, Charlie Morton in place of Ken Giles for the Houston Astros two years ago.
The Dodgers’ Rich Hill thinks he may be able to adjust his mechanics to minimize his knee pain, but manager Dave Roberts wants to see what an MRI shows.
The 2019 Dodgers have an inconsistent closer in Kenley Jansen. They have the depth to render his use in the ninth inning as optional. Would they dare make that change this October?
“We certainly don’t know how we would configure a staff right now,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations, “but at least we know the questions we want to try to wrap our arms around, and we’ll take [the rest of the regular season] to do that.”
The Dodgers cannot consider how to use starters in a postseason bullpen until they know how many starters they can count on. Clayton Kershaw is one, and Walker Buehler is two, but after that, Hyun-Jin Ryu could be tiring (9.95 ERA over his past four starts), and Rich Hill left Thursday’s start because of a strained knee.
If the Dodgers had completed a trade for closer Felipe Vazquez of the Pittsburgh Pirates, this September could have been rather compelling. The Dodgers could have kept Jansen and Vazquez on something of a regular schedule, afforded them both save opportunities under the guise of keeping Jansen fresh, and then evaluated them at the end of September.
Jansen has 39 career postseason appearances, Vazquez none. But Jansen also has a 3.72 earned-run average this season, and seven blown saves. Vazquez has a 1.65 ERA and three blown saves, fewer home runs allowed than Jansen, fewer walks and more strikeouts. Vazquez ranks as the fourth-most valuable reliever in the majors, according to Fangraphs, with Jansen ranked 37th.
Dodgers setup man Pedro Baez ranks 16th. That brings us back to our question: What alternatives might the Dodgers consider?
“I totally get the question,” Friedman said. “A lot of people are asking it. I think, with Kenley, we have this month, and we’re optimistic we’re going to get him into a really good spot. I fully anticipate that being the ninth inning. But, even if it wasn’t, it’s about getting him right.
“That’s all we’re focused on: getting him right. Once we get there, it will be about him getting really important outs and being a huge part of us winning the World Series.”
Baez pitched impressively last October. So did Joe Kelly, for the Red Sox. Kenta Maeda’s postseason ERA as a reliever is 2.08.
Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Ross Stripling could be swingmen, or wild cards. So could Hill, if his body only allows him to give an inning or two.
And, perhaps most critically, so could Julio Urias, with closer stuff and a 1.74 ERA since June 1.
“If he can piece together some very good outings, I feel confident that people will feel very differently about him going into October than they do at this moment.”
Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, on Kenley Jansen
The Dodgers, as they constantly remind you in word and in deed, prioritize depth above all else. In any case, but in particularly in this case of Jansen and a curiously unsettled back end of the bullpen, depth is a good thing.
“A really good thing would be a really good pitcher that has proven he’s capable of getting really big outs in October,” Friedman said. “That has a lot of value. We are optimistic. I don’t feel like it’s that far off.
“I understand why people are skeptical of that. But we’re just going to focus on what we’re doing. If he can piece together some very good outings, I feel confident that people will feel very differently about him going into October than they do at this moment.”
The Dodgers do not believe Jansen is physically compromised or competing without good stuff. His cut fastball is not what it used to be, but it is effective. If he can get a more confident handle on mixing his pitches and keep his mechanics tuned, the Dodgers believe he can work the ninth inning with distinction.
That does not mean he is guaranteed the ninth inning through October.
For all the innovation for which the Dodgers are rightfully applauded, their postseason opponents have taken the more unorthodox approaches to the postseason. The Astros and Red Sox liberally sprinkled starting pitchers throughout their World Series bullpens. The Milwaukee Brewers intentionally pulled starter Wade Miley after one batter in Game 5 of last year’s NL Championship Series, then started Miley in Game 6.
In the 2017 playoffs, Giles gave up runs in both of his appearances in the first round, and in two of his three appearances in the league championship series. In the 2018 playoffs, Kimbrel did the same. For each, the leash already was short heading into the World Series.
By the end of the World Series, neither was his team’s closer. Friedman would not say how much margin for error Jansen might have this October, but it won’t be infinite.
“Our focus right now is on doing everything we can to get all of our pitchers in the best position to have success in October,” Friedman said. “Once we get to October, it’s all about doing whatever we can to win the game that night, whatever that may be.”
Kimbrel passed through Southern California this week, as his new team — the Chicago Cubs — played in San Diego. He declined to discuss how his Red Sox tenure played out last October.
“All I’m focused on is getting healthy,” he said.
He is on the injured list because of elbow inflammation, but he got an emphatic ninth-inning vote of confidence about this October, assuming he and the Cubs can get there.
“He’d be the guy,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “As long as he’s healthy, he’s the guy. Absolutely. He’s the guy.
“I think we would be fortunate to get him well by that time. I don’t know where this is trending yet. With good health, we are committed to him, yes.”
The Dodgers want to be committed to Jansen. They don’t have to be.
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