As much as Dodger fans would like to be reading about how Kenley Jansen returned this week and saved the bullpen, everyone knows by now that’s not what happened. Jansen lost two games when entering in the 9th inning, each in a tie game, and blew a lead over the weekend to the Padres. All in all, he surrendered five runs on four homeruns in his three appearances. His first appearance against the Cardinals caused some worry when his average velocity wasn’t there Monday night (91.8 mph), but slightly improved Wednesday night (92.6 mph).
However, Saturday night the velocity came all the way back to where it’s been most of the year (93.8 mph), and even had a little extra run on the cutter with an average horizontal break of 4.3”, when he’s usually living in the mid 3’s. That extra movement could have something to do with the control issues early in the count in this appearance, as well as the game-tying homerun allowed to Austin Hedges. Jansen was trying to bust him up and in with the cutter, however, with that extra break he was getting tonight, caught too much of the plate allowing Hedges to get the barrel on it. Kenley’s return wasn’t what he, or the Dodgers had hoped, but there shouldn’t be a need to worry, as results aside, all indications are pointing towards the real Kenley Jansen being ready to go for the last month of the season.
Now, to the games this week. There were two interesting spots that Dave Roberts could have chosen to go in different directions, one didn’t work, and one did (sort of). Let’s get to it…
Wednesday, August 22 vs St Louis
Dodgers 1 Cardinals 0 Top 8th
After Walker Buehler’s masterful 7 shutout innings on 104 pitches, there was no decision that it was now time to go the bullpen to find that bridge to Kenley Jansen for the ninth. The question is, who is Dave Roberts going to trust to get these 3 outs when everyone seems to have been letting him down? First, let’s examine who is due up for the Cardinals in the inning: Right-handed Yairo Munoz, the pitcher’s spot, and left-handed Matt Carpenter, with right-handed hitters Yadier Molina and Jose Martinez if anybody reaches. The pitcher’s spot was almost assuredly going to be right-handed Tyler O’Neill, which is who the Cardinals ended up using in that spot. Now we must determine who is available for the Dodgers out of the pen. Dylan Floro threw two innings the night before on 26 pitches, while Daniel Hudson threw 25 pitches, getting four outs, so we can assume those two are not available. Caleb Ferguson went one inning on 14 pitches, but has not been asked to pitch consecutive days since moving to the bullpen, so he shouldn’t be available. JT Chargois would have probably been considered to start this inning against two righties, was placed on the DL the night before. That leaves the Dodgers three choices, LHP Scott Alexander, RHP Kenta Maeda, RHP Pedro Baez:
The Case for Pedro Baez: Pedro Baez who has been very good since returning from the DL, not counting the outing at Coors Field, has posted a line of 11.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 13 K, and did not pitch the night prior. He has no history with Munoz or O’Neill, and Carpenter is 1-3. The next three batters, Molina, Martinez, and Gyorko are a combined 0-14 off Baez. It’s possible Roberts could save him for those three hitters if any of the first three should reach. The case against using Baez at all here, could be made due to the fact he went two innings on Monday, using 33 pitches. However, on multiple occasions this season he’s had successful outings just two days after an extended outing. May 21 vs Colorado, on just one day of rest after a 39-pitch outing, he was used for three batters to get two outs on 18 pitches. April 22 vs Washington, on one day of rest after a 29-pitch outing, he was used for three batters to get two outs on 13 pitches, and last season he was used in similar situations four different times.
The Case for Kenta Maeda: The Dodgers are hoping to find that same magic that Kenta Maeda provided them from the bullpen in the playoffs last year, where allowed just one run in 10.2 IP, while only allowing six baserunners over that span. He had arguably his best season as a major leaguer, posting a 3.80 ERA as a starter, increasing his K/9 from 9.83 last year to 10.83 this year, and perhaps has been a bit unlucky with a .318 BABIP, which is about 35 points higher than his previous two seasons. The move back to the bullpen seems to be a seamless one for him at this point, where he’s struck out five of his last nine batters he’s faced, and looks as dominant as he was in the postseason last year. He rates to be the guy that is most often used as the bridge to Kenley Jansen coming down the stretch, only when will he be consistently counted upon to do so? Maeda has no history with either of the first two hitters, Carpenter is 1-4, and the next two batters, Molina and Martinez, are a combined 4-7. Maeda was used two nights prior for two innings on 29 pitches, and hasn’t been asked to come back from an extended outing on one day rest in the regular season. However, he did make three such appearances in the World Series, indicating that he’s capable of coming back on short rest from time to time.
The Case for Scott Alexander: Alexander seems to be the freshest option here, throwing only two pitches the night prior, after having the previous two nights off. He had no history with Munoz or O’Neill, while Carpenter and Molina were previously 0-1 each off of Scott. The case against Alexander in this spot is that he’s been tougher against lefties than righties this year, and only Carpenter is a lefty.
Options: Dave Roberts has one of two routes to take for this inning. He could match up throughout the inning, and start Maeda against the two righties, Munoz and O’Neill, then use Alexander for the lefty Carpenter. At that point, the situation may dictate consideration on staying with the ground ball inducing Alexander against the slow footed Yadier Molina if a double play is needed, or going with Baez, who has historically been tough against this portion of the lineup. The risk is that if the Cardinals do force extra innings and the Dodgers use all three relievers in this inning, and Jansen in the ninth, with an already depleted bullpen, they could soon find themselves in an extended game situation where they quickly run out of available pitchers.
Roberts can use his freshest arm in the pen, and try to re-solidify Scott Alexander as one of his late inning high-leverage relievers and try to get the three outs from him, with Jansen available behind him, or even perhaps, Baez if there’s trouble in the 8th.
What Happened: Roberts opted to go with Alexander who gave up a game-tying home run to the pinch-hitter Tyler O’Neill. Dodgers lose 3-1.
Saturday, August 25 vs San Diego
Dodgers 4 Padres 3 Top 8th
Myers on 2nd, 2 Out
Clayton Kershaw nearing the end of another solid outing since returning from the DL, was leading the Padres 4-3 in the 8th after getting the left-handed hitting Eric Hosmer to ground out for the second out of the inning, Myers taking second base on the play. Right-handed Hunter Renfroe due up with the tying run in scoring position, and Kershaw at 105 pitches. A classic situation that all managers must face when running a ball club; leave your tiring ace in for one more batter with the game on the line, or bring in a lesser known, but fresh arm from the bullpen to try and save the game for your ace.
Who’s Available: Kenta Maeda, Dylan Floro, and Kenley Jansen, all right-handed, are the matchup options in this spot against Renfroe. Maeda hadn’t pitched since Monday, August 20, so he is fresh, but Renfroe is 4-12 off him as a starter. Additionally, Maeda isn’t necessarily the best single at-bat matchup option when fully rested. Converted starters, especially recently converted starters are traditionally more equipped for longer appearances when used. Floro is also fully rested, not having been used since August 21, and seems to be the most logical option out of the bullpen in this situation. He has no history against Renfroe, which can be an advantage for the pitcher. Kenley Jansen is also an option here, as he has been dominant against Renfroe (0-6 5K) lifetime. Under ordinary circumstances, Roberts is almost certain to extend Jansen here, for a 4-out save, however, he has struggled since returning earlier in the week, and extending him for an extra out may be asking too much of “Kenleyfornia” right now. Nonetheless, Roberts must consider Jansen due to his previous success against this hitter.
This situation certainly seems like a coin-flip, or “feel” scenario for Dave Roberts. Often this season, as well as last season, he has opted to remove Kershaw from similar spots, and has seen his bullpen relinquish his leads time and time again. Renfroe was 0-3 with 2 K’s earlier in the game against Clayton, and just 1-9 lifetime, and with almost everyone in the bullpen currently struggling, this probably seemed like as good of a time as any to let Kershaw try and finish the job.
What Happened: Roberts stayed with “Kersh” and Renfroe hit a line drive so hard (106 mph exit velocity) that it hit the runner Wil Myers to end the inning. The ball appeared to be headed for center field which may have tied the game if it had gotten through, so Renfroe was credited for a single, and the Dodgers escaped the inning. Dodgers won 5-4 in 12 innings.
Since taking over as Dodgers manager in 2016, Dave Roberts has largely had a reputation as a “Company Man” mostly deferring to matchups when it comes to making lineups, pitching changes, and critical decision making. Clearly, those types of decisions have not been working out for a large part of this season, and especially recently. This week, he showed the flexibility to change it up, and go against the matchups, and what has become the conventional logic in baseball. With 31 games remaining, the Dodgers trailing Arizona by 2 ½ games in the NL West, and a lot of the pieces in the bullpen not operating at full capacity, every game counts, every decision is really going to matter, and every decision might not come straight from the book this front office adheres to, but I think fans learned this week, the Dodgers might have a guy that has what it takes to “feel” the best decision when the situation calls for it, and not necessarily following a pre-determined script that might not always be the best call on the field.