Dodgers tell Phil Bickford to ‘be yourself,’ and he becomes an effective reliever
The Dodgers routinely take flyers on pitchers who failed miserably at their previous station. Witness the acquisitions of three arms Tuesday.
There’s a name for what the front office hopes one or more of them can become: a Bickford.
Maybe Jake Jewell, Ryan Meisinger or Andrew Vasquez, who posted ERAs of 9.90, 12.27 and 10.80, respectively, with their previous teams, can replicate the success of Phil Bickford, who found an essential role in the Dodgers bullpen despite slinking into L.A. on May 3 with an ERA of 27.00 in two appearances with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Bickford, tall and lanky with long, dirty blonde hair flopping onto his shoulders, has become a lockdown reliever trusted in leverage situations, posting a 2.36 ERA in 42 innings across 45 appearances for the Dodgers. He’s given up only 28 hits while striking out 51 and opponents are batting .190 against him.
He’s finally tapping into the potential that made him a first-round draft pick in 2013 out of Westlake Village Oaks Christian High and again in 2015 out of Southern Nevada College.
“There are a lot of great people on this team and it’s contagious, you just buy in to the positivity,” Bickford said.
Mookie Betts led the charge as the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves 3-2 on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium to pull within a half-game of the NL West lead.
Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior’s face lights up when talking about Bickford.
“We challenged him to go be yourself, dominate what you do best,” Prior said. “We’ll take care of you and put you in a position to succeed. And then I think as he started trusting himself, trusting us, we challenged him to take the next step and he’s kicked the door down.”
Bickford, 26, combines a mid-90s sinking fastball with a plus slider, his wiry build enabling both to be thrown with a crossfire delivery. He’s yet to master a third pitch, whether it be a changeup, slow curve or split-fingered fastball. Doing so could transform him into a starter.
For now, he’s happy where he is — emerging from the bullpen in the sixth or seventh inning to push games forward and the ball into the hands of former All-Star closers Corey Knebel, Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen.
In a comeback over the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday that vaulted the Dodgers into first place for the first time since April, that meant coming in to get Austin Riley to ground out for the third out of the eighth inning. Bickford got the win to improve to 3-1 when the Dodgers scored two in the bottom of the inning to take a 4-3 lead.
“I just love the opportunity to have the ball in my hand and being on the mound,” he said. “It’s where I want to be. That’s kind of where I’m at, just taking it day by day and doing everything I can to get better and not be complacent.”
Bickford’s reputation coming in was of a laid-back underachiever, but get him one on one and he quickly becomes an inquisitive extrovert.
At 6 feet 4 and throwing as hard as 97 mph, he was all but unhittable at Oaks Christian, going 12-1 with an 0.83 ERA and striking out 146 in 85 innings his senior year. He developed a reputation as a nonconformist, and he kept his teammates loose on their way to a Southern Section championship by flopping around at practice in bright red Ronald McDonald clown shoes.
He was unfailingly polite to the numerous MLB and college scouts at his games, but sometimes would duck out rather than engage with them after games.
“He’s a unique individual, a light-hearted individual,” said Tim Penprase, Bickford’s high school coach. “Going through the recruiting process, sometimes he didn’t want to be part of it.”
Eight years later, Bickford is the one initiating conversations, and underachieving appears to be behind him.
“There are a lot of people to learn from in this bullpen,” he said. “So, I’m picking their brains and being a sponge. What’s really cool too is it’s nice to come into an organization with players and people who create a winning atmosphere.”
Bickford was the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft, going to the Toronto Blue Jays, but he didn’t sign and went to Cal State Fullerton. He transferred after a year to junior college powerhouse Southern Nevada to become eligible for the 2015 draft.
The San Francisco Giants took him in the first round and he signed for $2.33 million despite testing positive for marijuana as part of MLB’s predraft medical program, which included a random drug test for the top 200 prospects in the 30 days before the draft.
Bickford was excellent as a starter in the low minors but was shipped to the Brewers at the 2016 trading deadline along with catching prospect Andrew Susac for left-handed reliever Will Smith.
The following winter he again tested positive for marijuana and was suspended for the first 50 games of the 2017 season. Bickford shifted to the bullpen and required surgery on his right hand after being hit by a batted ball. He spent 2020 at the Brewers’ alternate site, emerging only once to make his major league debut Sept. 1.
The Pittsburgh Pirates were the first MLB team to field an all-Black lineup. In doing so, the players made a statement — and later won the World Series.
It didn’t go well. He hit the first two batters, then after striking out the next two, gave up four hits and finished the inning having given up four earned runs.
Another one-inning audition this April also was a disaster. Bickford was touched for a home run and two earned runs, prompting the Brewers to designate him for assignment. The Dodgers picked him up on waivers May 3, and he immediately pitched effectively.
“We had an initial conversation and asked him, ‘What do you do well?’ ” Prior said. “We really hammer that home, lay that foundation, then we can build from there. We try to convey that we are in this together, part of a partnership or a collaboration.”
So far, the alliance has resulted in a reliable bullpen piece for the Dodgers. And if even one of the more recent acquisitions can become a Bickford, they undoubtedly would be thrilled.
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