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Caleb Ferguson epitomizes the strides made by Dodgers’ deep and effective bullpen

Caleb Ferguson pitches against the San Francisco Giants on Thursday at Oracle Park.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

There is a physical explanation to Caleb Ferguson’s emergence this season.

Second among frequently-used Dodgers relievers with a 0.66 ERA, the left-hander has added velocity to a mid-90s mph fastball he’s able to locate at the top of the strike zone. He’s changed his secondary offering too, replacing a slow looping curveball with a firm sliding cutter that has generated six strikeouts and only one hit.

“It’s just a harder pitch,” Ferguson said. “I can remember talking to AJ Pollock, who told me that whenever I would throw a good curveball, it was slow enough where they would still have enough time to react and foul it off or even put it in play. So having a harder breaking ball like that, keeps the hitters guessing a little bit more.”

But there is a mental progression Ferguson credits too, a simplicity of purpose that has allowed him to flourish in his third big league season.

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“I’m just sticking to all my strengths now,” he said. “I’m not trying to do something that’s not me out there. I think I’ve finally realized the kind of pitcher I am and what I do best. ... I know my stuff is way better that day than the hitter. That’s the attitude I roll with.”

After combining for eight scoreless innings in a doubleheader sweep of the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, the Dodgers bullpen ranks top three in MLB in ERA (1.90), batting average against (.181), slugging percentage against (.269), walks per nine innings (2.9) and left-on-base percentage (80.4%). Ferguson typifies the improvement.

The 24-year-old, who opened the second of Thursday’s games with his 13th scoreless appearance in 14 outings this year, boasts the mix of execution and poise evident across a bullpen that was solid yet at times inconsistent last season.

Mindset has maybe been Ferguson’s biggest change. The former 38th-round draft pick was a starter in the minors and maintained rotation aspirations even after moving to the bullpen as a Dodgers rookie in 2018, reaffirming the goal as recently as this spring.

Asked again earlier this month, however, Ferguson’s thinking had suddenly changed.

Walker Buehler was placed on the 10-day injured list hours before he was scheduled to start the second game of a doubleheader against the Giants.

“I think starting is fun, but I also think throwing leverage innings in the back end of a bullpen is a lot of fun too,” he said. “Those guys are talked about just as much. So I don’t know. It’s a good question.

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“I was very outspoken about wanting to be a starter for the two years I’ve been with the team now. Never would have thought I would be questioning that.”

That clarity of role has helped him embrace a two-pitch fastball-cutter mix — the latter of which he says he throws like a slider with extra velocity — specialized for the bullpen. According to MLB’s Statcast system, Ferguson is setting a career-low in zone contact and career-high in chase and whiff percentages, and is inducing ground balls more than half the time. Batters rarely hit the ball hard against him.

“I think with Fergie, he’s really found a routine every day that’s really kept him consistent in his delivery,” manager Dave Roberts said. “That slider-cutter thing he’s got now and has confidence in is a real weapon.

“And also, this is his third season. He’s really found his confidence and who he is. I still think there’s more in there.”

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Other Dodgers relievers are undergoing similar transformations.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred spoke to The Times about topics including the 2020 season, eliminating minor league teams, blackout rules and his reputation.

Closer Kenley Jansen (1.42 ERA, NL-leading eight saves) is effectively evolving in his 11th season, overcoming a decline in velocity with improved command of his cutter and continued incorporation of his fastball and slider.

Free agent signing Blake Treinen (1.32 ERA, team-high six holds) is getting ground balls on his signature sinker. Dylan Floro has been even more effective than Ferguson, allowing one run in 14 innings. And left-hander Jake McGee, signed to a one-year deal in July after being released by Colorado, has surpassed expectations by relying almost exclusively on a mid-90s fastball that has induced a .108 batting average against.

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Even though veteran relievers Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly are on the injured list, Roberts has plenty of viable options, as evidenced by the six relievers that followed Ferguson in the second game of Thursday’s doubleheader.

“There’s some really good arms,” Roberts said. “Just really doing a great job of preparing and getting outs when they’re called upon.”


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