Dead Arms

After completing the first month of the season, the Dodgers are 17-12 and only .5 game out of first place in the National League West. A big reason for the strong start has been the team’s pitching. While the Dodgers’ offense ranks in the bottom half of the Majors in runs and team batting average (17th and 18th respectively), its pitching staff has the 5th best ERA in the Majors. However, as great as the pitching has been, there is one statistic that should give the team and its fans a cause for concern. The number is 5.77. That number is the average innings pitched per game by Dodgers’ starters.

While much has been made about Zack Greinke‘s 5-0 start and his 18 game streak of having pitched at least five innings and giving up two or fewer runs, he has not been doing his bullpen any favors. Greinke has pitched more than six innings just once in his first six starts. In their first 29 games, Dodgers pitchers have pitched more than 6 innings on only 9 occasions, and it wasn’t until  Josh Beckett’s start last Friday against the Rockies that they had a starter complete 8 innings.

So what’s the point of this you ask? The Dodgers had a winning month, they are only .5 a game out of first place, and just finished a sweep of the Twins where the offense showed signs of life. Well my friends, the Dodgers are second in Major League Baseball in  innings pitched by relievers, and after looking at some statistics from the past 10 years, that is not a good thing.

Since 2004, only 15 teams  have finished the season ranked in the top 10 in innings pitched by relievers and made the post season. Out of the 15 teams to have reached the post season, only 5 were able to advance past the Divisional Series, and one of those teams, the 2006 Mets, reached the NLCS by defeating the Dodgers, another team in the top 10. Of the five teams that advanced to the Championship Series, only two made it to the World Series. And guess what? Neither of those teams, the 2010 Rangers or 2007 Rockies, won it all. Those statistics do not bode well for a Dodgers bullpen that has been overworked in its first month.

Another cause for concern falls on the manager, Don Mattingly. Mattingly cut his teeth working for Joe Torre, a manager infamous for wearing out his bullpen. Torre in fact managed one of those top 10 teams when he was with the Dodgers, in 2009, making it all the way to the NLCS. The Dodgers lost that series when Matt Stairs eviscerated Jonathon Broxton for the second consecutive post season. When taking a closer look, the trouble is not only the toll all those innings had on the reliever’s arm at the end of the year, but the impact those innings had on the reliever for the rest of his career.

The 2009 Dodgers were led by three relievers who pitched in 69 or more games; Jonathon Broxton, Ramon Troncoso, and Ronald Belisario. Troncoso led the way in innings pitched with 82.2, while Broxton threw 76.0 and Belisario finished the year throwing 70.2 innings. These three were Joe Torre’s security blanket and he used them often…too often.

After 2009, Troncoso appeared in 52 games and saw his ERA rise nearly two runs higher than the previous year. In 2011 he appeared in only 18 games, as he was unable to pitch effectively enough to keep his spot in the Dodgers bullpen. He did not appear in a Major League game in 2012, and last year pitched ineffectively for the White Sox in 29 games.

Broxton appeared in 73 games in 2009 and sported in 2.61 ERA. In 2010, he pitched in 64 games, but saw his ERA spike to 4.04. 2011 saw Broxton pitch in only 14 games, as he had elbow and shoulder issues. While he bounced back in ’12 to appear in 60 games, Broxton was only able to pitch in 35 games last year, finding himself on the DL twice.

Belisario has had better luck health wise, pitching in 59 or more games each year since 2009, except 2011 when he served a suspension for violating the League’s drug policy and was not invited to join the team. However in 2010, Belisario’s strikeouts/9 innings dropped by nearly two and hitters had an OPS .120 higher than 2009 (.580 vs. .702). Missing 2011 may have helped Belisario, as he performed near his 2009 numbers, but he again regressed in 2013.

Now, looking at 2014, Mattingly has been using his guys at a more astonishing rate. Kenley Jansen is on pace to pitch in 96 games. The effects are already showing as his 1.53 WHIP is almost twice what it was over the past two seasons. He is striking out batters at a higher rate than ever before (a ridiculous 16.9/9 innings), but he is allowing more home runs/9 innings than ever before. Jansen is not the only one being thrown in the fire nearly every night as J.P. Howell is on pace to appear in 84 games and Chris Perez 73.

Mattingly has shown a quick trigger when it comes to using his bullpen, something that may ultimately cost his team not only this year (remember those playoff stats?) but in the future. He learned from one of the best in the business that running a bullpen in to the ground is okay, as long as if you win this year.

Of course none of this may matter soon. Clayton Kershaw is set to come off the DL this upcoming week and everyone knows that he loves going deep in to a game. And if Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, and/or Dan Haren become the inning eaters they have been in the past, then maybe the Dodgers’ relievers won’t lead the league in innings pitched. If that happens, the Dodgers might give themselves a better chance of reaching the promised land this year…and maybe even next.

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