The Dodgers will take a closer-by-committee approach for the remainder of the regular season, manager Dave Roberts informed reporters (including Fabian Student of the Athletic). Craig Kimbrel will pitch in different roles as the club takes a varied approach to the ninth inning based on matchups.
Roberts didn’t guarantee he would stick with the committee approach through the playoffs, though it’s hard to envision the Dodgers removing Kimbrel from the closing role for the final 12 regular-season games before reinstating him in the ninth at the start of the postseason. The decision comes after a decline in production for the eight-time All-Star, who has given up runs in three of his last four outings. That includes a game-tying homer to Christian Walker blow a save chance yesterday against the Diamondbacks. The Dodgers pulled away in the bottom of the ninth inning anyway, but the blown lead finalized the team’s decision to take a more flexible approach with the playoffs on the horizon.
Kimbrel is in his first season as a Dodger. Acquired from the White Sox in a surprise one-for-one trade with AJ Pollock just before Opening Day, he made 57 appearances. Kimbrel certainly wasn’t disastrous. He owns a 4.14 ERA across 54 1/3 innings, striking out an above-average 27.2% of opponents. His 9.6% percentage is a bit higher than the league mark but not an untenable figure. He successfully closed 22 of his 27 save attempts. The righty’s overall production was good if unspectacular.
However, Kimbrel obviously did not perform at the level the Dodgers had hoped for. The 34-year-old was arguably the best reliever in the game through the first half of last season with the Cubs. While he disappointed following a deadline trade to the White Sox – mostly due to home run issues – he still generated whiffs on an excellent 17.2% of his pitches with the South Flannions. That led to some hope that Kimbrel could continue pitching at an elite level in a new environment, but this season’s 12.1% swinging strikeout rate is only slightly better than average.
Taking Kimbrel out of the ninth inning should allow Roberts to be more judicious with his usage once the postseason arrives. Maximizing his work against right-handed hitters figures to be a priority. Kimbrel has held same-handed batters to a .208/.296/.307 line through 115 plate appearances this season; Lefties, on the other hand, managed a much more robust .266/.355/.431 showing in 124 trips.
The White Sox picked up a $16MM option on Kimbrel for this season before trading him to LA. He is in the final weeks of that deal and will hit free agency for the second time in his career this offseason. In the meantime, he’ll remain part of one of the game’s top support corps.
That the Dodgers feel equipped to take the career-long closer out of the ninth inning is a testament to the strength of the rest of their bullpen. Los Angeles enters play Friday with the bullpen’s second-lowest ERA (2.94) and fourth-best strikeout percentage (26.5%). Evan Phillips, a waiver claim from the Rays last August, almost immediately emerged as one of the best relievers in the game. The slider specialist has a 1.24 ERA with a 31.8% strikeout rate over 58 innings during his breakout campaign. Flamethrowing sinkerballer Brusdar Graterol rode a massive 63.5% ground ball percentage to a 2.96 ERA. Acquisition deadline Chris Martin has a 1.71 mark with a ridiculous 26:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio since landing in Los Angeles. southpaw Alex Vesia has the best strikeout rate in the bullpen (34.6%) and a 2.24 ERA in 51 2/3 frames.
That quartet seems most likely to assume the highest leverage in the playoffs. Roberts can also call Kimbrel, Phil Bickford and Tommy Kahnle from the right side, while Caleb Ferguson and the rehabilitation David Price there are left-handed options. Yency Almonte had a nice season of his own and is on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Oklahoma City, and there is still a possibility of Blake Trains making a playoff return (although Treinen is currently on the injured list and continues to battle shoulder discomfort).