Major League Baseball’s decision to implement a rule requiring every pitcher to face at least three batters starting this season is expected to affect left-handed relievers more than anyone else. Many have resided on rosters as specialists for years, used to face a left-handed batter or two before handing the ball back to the manager. They are now an endangered species. It’s adapt or find another line of work.
Adam Kolarek did not panic when he initially saw that the rule was on the table last year. Yes, his career splits — a 410-batter sample size — are drastic. Yes, the Dodgers acquired him in a deadline deal last July to use him almost exclusively against left-handed hitters. Yes, a role would have been more easily carved without the rule. But he maintains the left-handed specialist label doesn’t fit.
“I never considered myself a lefty specialist until I came to the Dodgers,” Kolarek said.
The Tampa Bay Rays had Kolarek regularly pitch against right-handed batters — he’s faced more righties than lefties in his three major league seasons — but the Dodgers didn’t acquire him for that. The numbers illustrate why.
Right-handed batters have hit .299 with an .849 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 229 plate appearances against Kolarek in his career. Left-handed hitters have batted .199 with a .524 OPS in 181 plate appearances. The difference in effectiveness is ample.
“Adam has been a lefty killer throughout his entire career,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Now with the rule change, the challenge for him is to be able to feel confident in getting out a right-handed hitter. Now it’s kind of, ‘How do I attack right-handed hitters?’”
Kolarek, 31, enjoyed his two months in the limited role last season. He savored the chance to pitch every night when he arrived in Los Angeles. He relished the opportunity to encounter the opponent’s best left-handed hitter in big spots.
None were bigger than the three times he faced Washington Nationals star Juan Soto in the National League Division Series in October. He retired Soto each time, twice with strikeouts, on 18 pitches. Those were the only pitches he threw in the five-game series.
“I think it’s an exciting role,” Kolarek said. “I really enjoyed it just as a competitor.”
This spring, he must prove to the Dodgers they can depend on him in an expanded capacity to win a different job in the bullpen.
“We’re going to give him every opportunity to face right-hand hitters to kind of see how that plays out,” Roberts said. “But I have every confidence that Adam will figure some things out and be effective against the right-handed hitter.”
Zaidi feels the pain too
Farhan Zaidi was dealing with his infant child when he wasn’t working on rebuilding the rival San Francisco Giants during the offseason, so he didn’t have much time to dwell on the 2017 World Series as the Houston Astros’ illicit sign-stealing scheme was made public. But it still irked the former Dodgers general manager.
“Nothing that happens now can take you back there,” Zaidi said this week. “But it’s a what-if that I think everybody that was in the organization at the time is going to have to deal with. Because it’s a really painful, difficult loss. It altered careers. It altered lives.”
Zaidi, 43, is entering his second season with the Giants. He left Los Angeles after the Dodgers fell in five games in the 2018 World Series to the Boston Red Sox, who have also been investigated for illegally stealing signs. While the results of the investigation have not been released, the Red Sox aren’t expected to have broken the rules to the extent the Astros did.
“The longer it’s a topic of conversation in the public, I think it’s bringing out probably even more feelings in people,” Zaidi said. “And I think you’ve seen that in some of the comments by players around the game and players in that game specifically.”
Roberts confirmed that right fielder Mookie Betts, acquired from the Red Sox at the beginning of the month, will bat primarily leadoff this season. … The Dodgers are scheduled to open Cactus League play against the Giants on Saturday, but rain is in the forecast for most of the day. … Right-hander Tony Gonsolin is slated to start for the Dodgers opposite Giants right-hander Dereck Rodriguez.