Dodgers hopeful their bullpen has turned a corner

The Dodgers have cobbled together a bullpen to help them get games to closer Kenley Jansen. Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- With October rapidly approaching, there may be panic in the streets of Los Angeles about the Dodgers' bullpen, but there is calm in the team’s front office.

“With a bullpen, it’s about trajectory and where they’re heading as much as where they have been, so we’re kind of looking forward with this group and think the guys are sort of figuring it out,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said.

Of the five National League teams lined up for the post-season, three -- the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets -- have bullpen ERAs that rank in the top four in the league. The Chicago Cubs are eighth.

And the Dodgers? Their bullpen, a hodge-podge of mostly young pitchers cobbled together via trades and promotions, has built a sometimes-shaky bridge to a very good closer, Kenley Jansen. Overall, the Dodgers bullpen ranks 12th in the NL in ERA, ahead of only the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies and Atlanta Braves, three teams headed nowhere this post-season.

For Dodgers fans who watched the team’s relievers allow home runs in each of the first three games against the St. Louis Cardinals in last year’s NLDS and post a 6.48 post-season ERA, the bullpen stands out as a potentially frightening weakness for an otherwise balanced team.

Bullpens tend to draw fans’ ire anyway, because few take note when they succeed, but everyone groans when they melt down. Dodger fans have reserved a special sort of derision for this group. At one point, the negative scrutiny on social media and elsewhere prompted Jansen to complain after a game, “People just, I'm sorry, talk s--- about us. They just don't understand this game sometimes.”

The streakiness of the Dodgers’ bullpen has fueled some of the mistrust. For a month-and-a-half, even without Jansen, who was recovering from foot surgery, the Dodgers bullpen was among the most effective in the majors. For the next two-and-a-half months, it seemed as if no lead was safe, forcing Zaidi and the rest of the front office to burn up the transaction wire trying to find more effective solutions.

Since Aug. 1, the bullpen has been far more effective and two pitchers in particular, Chris Hatcher and Yimi Garcia, have emerged as reliable options for the bridge innings, the seventh and eighth. Since Aug. 1, Hatcher has a 1.26 ERA, 18 strikeouts and four walks. Garcia has a 0.66 ERA, eight strikeouts and no walks. Manager Don Mattingly has begun using Hatcher, who struggled in a closing role in April, as his primary setup man.

A deeper dive into the cumulative statistics suggest the Dodgers’ bullpen is far more stout than the group that went into the playoffs a year ago that was put together by former general manager Ned Colletti. That group was anchored by former closers Brian Wilson, Brandon League and Chris Perez, none of whom are still in the major leagues.

This group also has far superior raw stuff. Hatcher’s average fastball is 96 mph. Pedro Baez’s is 96.9 mph. Garcia gets excellent lateral movement on his fastball due to one of the highest spin rates in baseball. Jansen’s fastball has a natural cutting action that reminds many people of Mariano Rivera’s famous cutter.

Dodgers relievers might have an unflattering ERA, but they rank third in strikeouts and have walked fewer batters than any NL bullpen other than the San Francisco Giants’ and Washington Nationals’.

“You know what? I always say you can’t judge a reliever just by ERA,” said Dodgers lefty Luis Avilan.

One Avilan pitch in Cincinnati epitomizes the optimism the Dodgers’ front office has for this young core of pitchers heading into October. After coming to the Dodgers in a three-team, 13-player trade near the deadline, Avilan had been hesitant to throw his curveball. He had used it a career-low 6.9 percent of the time this season.

But the front office, through the coaching staff, had urged all of the Dodgers’ young relievers to use their secondary pitches more frequently. In Avilan’s case, the front office thought his hesitancy to use his curveball accounted for his struggles against left-handed batters. Typically, left-handed relievers enjoy a major platoon advantage, but lefties have hit .270 off Avilan this season and righties, generally flummoxed by his sinker and changeup, have hit .210.

On Aug. 25 at Great American Ballpark, Avilan came in to face Jay Bruce with the bases loaded and the Dodgers leading the Reds by four runs. The at-bat turned into a good cat and mouse game, with a couple of foul balls to keep it alive. Avilan used his fastball to pound the inside corner of the strike zone, but on a 2-and-2 pitch, he threw a curveball away. Bruce swung and missed.

That moment, as much as any other, has stood out as a turning point of this Dodgers season. Before that game, the Dodgers were 11 games over .500 and leading the division by 1½ games. Since then, they have gone 17-5 and they lead the San Francisco Giants by 7½ games.

For Zaidi and the front office, Avilan’s strikeout was a “Eureka!” moment. Their analysis suggested that what plagued the Dodgers’ young relievers was an overreliance on their fastballs. To allow them to get more comfortable with their secondary pitches, they had to buy them time. Garcia was optioned to Oklahoma City for much of July and August. Hatcher and Baez worked on their off-speed pitches while on the 15-day disabled list recovering from strained muscles.

Now, Garcia and Baez are throwing more breaking balls and Hatcher is mixing in his slider and split-finger fastball.

“We have a pretty young group and guys that were pretty fastball-centric in terms of their mixes,” Zaidi said. “Early on, I think, they had the ability to just throw the ball by people. When the league caught on to it, they had to make the adjustments.”

With success comes confidence and the Dodgers are hopeful that the past few weeks has been more predictive of the bullpen’s upcoming performance than the previous few months were. It certainly sounds as if these guys are getting more and more comfortable.

“Whenever we have to show up and do our job, I’m sure we’re going to do it,” Avilan said.

And yet once the late innings of playoff games roll around, you can bet Dodgers fans will be holding their breath.