The Dodgers are finally playing like the best team money can buy. That's not a dig at the way the team was put together, with the club spending north of $215 million in player salaries this season, but rather an acknowledgment that instead of trotting out the tired old narratives about a foolhardy but wealthy ownership having bought another white elephant of a ballclub, we have to say something new: Sometimes money can buy you happiness. This must be a relief to the Dodgers considering that for the first three months of the season the organization kept sending out checks without seeing results.
Things are so good right now that it's almost hard to recall that there were darker times, as if they'd happened years ago rather than months. Just eight weeks ago it seemed that manager Don Mattingly would lose his job, and not just because his team was seven games out of first place. The discontented skipper was lashing out at the ownership and his players, criticizing them publicly for overspending and underperforming. While Bobbly Valentine he wasn't, his days seemed numbered when he benched Andre Ethier for lack of hustle and chastised Dee Gordon and Kenley Jansen on the record.
But all of that -- the losing, the anger, and even the brawl-busted collarbones -- are far behind the Dodgers (for now). Instead, whatever happens from here on, the 2013 team will serve as a perennial reminder that the unexpected can happen in this game. On June 22nd, the Dodgers were 9.5 games out of first place, but following a 32-8 run, including 15 consecutive road wins, the Dodgers now have an five-game lead in the NL West. July was their best month of the season (19-6), and their .760 win percentage was the organization's best month of baseball since April 1977, a season in which they made the World Series.
Everything's coming up Mattingly.
In July, the Dodgers saw improvements in all facets of their game. Their offense was stronger, aided by a healthy Hanley Ramirez hitting .365/.421/.644 with five home runs. Yasiel Puig, though slightly regressed from his .400 first month in the bigs , continued to hit like a young Joe DiMaggio, and Andre Ethier had his best month of the season (.312/.389/.462). Their starting pitchers were better, too, their collective 2.80 ERA was the lowest of the season. The starters averaged three strikeouts for every walk, and gave up just 50 earned runs in 161 innings, a big improvement over the 66 and 63 earned runs they allowed in May and June, respectively. But perhaps the most interesting (and underappreciated) aspect of their improvement has been the changes in the bullpen.
Brandon League (USA TODAY sports)
There's no way to talk about the Dodgers' bullpen without addressing the appalling decision to sign Brandon League to a three-year, $21 million contract this offseason. Witnessing teams sign closers to long-term contracts is the baseball equivalent of watching a car crash in slow motion: We all know what's going to happen, but there's absolutely no way to prevent the ugliness ahead. League's mediocre 96-mph sinker, league-average strikeout rate, and 3.1 walks-per-nine were never good enough to suggest that he would ever earn such a massive payday. Contracts like League's leave people who understand the variability and vulnerability of late-inning relievers with the desire to scream, "WE TOLD YOU SO!" in the face of Ned Colletti, and while it would be warranted in this particular instance, it would also ignore what the Dodgers have managed to accomplish once they were able to let go of the idea of League as a key part of the pen.
The Dodgers are treating their relievers the way place kickers are in football: if a pitcher isn't successful, even in a small sample, he's replaced by someone else. Because of this approach, the Dodgers have essentially turned over their bullpen twice in less than a calendar year by using pitchers that are effective now.
Start back in September of last season; in the final 29 games, Dodgers relievers held their opponents to a .197/.305/.280 slash line and gave up just three home runs. At the time, their three best pitchers were Jamey Wright, Randy Choate, and Brandon League, but instead of giving all three of them contracts, Wright and Choate were allowed to defect to the Rays and Cardinals, respectively. They had already traded Josh Lindblom to the Phillies in the Shane Victorino trade and sent Javy Guerra back to the minors, while Scott Elbert had Tommy John surgery in the offseason. These moves cleared spots in the bullpen to make changes for this season.
This season's Opening Day bullpen boasted Brandon League as the closer, Kenley Jansen as the set-up man, long-reliever J.P. Howell, LOOGY Paco Rodriguez, Ronaldo Belisario, and Matt Guerrier, as well as Aaron Harang, who was the odd-man out of the rotation when spring training ended (and was traded just five games into the season). Since Opening Day, the Dodgers have tried numerous other pitchers in relief -- Guerra, Josh Wall, Peter Moylan, and Jose Dominguez -- but none of them lasted long due to inconsistency or injury.
In July, the Dodgers made even more changes to the bullpen and it seems that they've found the ideal formula, at least for now. Despite his hefty salary, League's innings have been limited -- from April until June 22nd, he pitched 28 innings in 28 games; since, he's pitched just 12.1 innings in 13 appearances. Keeping him out of late-inning situations really does qualify as addition by subtraction, even if he's still with the team. Jansen has reassumed the closer's role he held in 2012, and has the team's best strikeout percentage (37.6 percent) and their lowest walk rate (4.1 percent).
Belisario has seen an increase in innings pitched, and leads the majors in relief appearances with 57, and he's managed to lower his walk rate (8.9 percent) and extra base hit percentage (24 percent) in the process. In his sophomore season, Rodriguez has been the quintessential set-up man, striking out 30.3 percent of batters he's faced and rarely giving up home runs. Howell, who signed with the Dodgers as a free agent this offseason, was originally viewed as long reliever, but is now the lefty specialist and has reduced his home run percentage to just 0.5 percent this season.
Paco Rodriguez (USA TODAY sports)
Collectively, this version of the bullpen with its redefined roles has been one of the difference-makers for the Dodgers. They are second in holds in the majors, and despite inheriting 180 base runners (third-most in the majors) and their Fair RA (a measure of bullpen effectiveness) is 3.94, 13th in the majors. Though overall the relievers rank in the middle of the pack, during the aforementioned 40-game stretch the bullpen has gone 10-1 with a 2.90 RA in 111.2 innings. Prior, they had gone 12-17 with a 4.67 RA.
The Dodgers have been nimble in their decision-making. Instead of sticking with guys like Guerra, Guerrier, and Moylan because they had done it before, they've made changes to adapt. This speaks well of Mattingly, and perhaps a little bit about the motivational powers of almost being fired. Given the mercurial nature of bullpens, here's a good chance that this current cast of bullpen characters will falter before season's end. When they do, the Dodgers have demonstrated they will know what to do. Chris Withrow has pitched well as a replacement for Pete Moylan; Jose Dominguez could be back in action as soon as he recovers from a left quad strain. Javy Guerra is pitching well in Triple-A and could be ready for another shot at the the majors, and they've also added veterans Carlos Marmol and Brian Wilson (the latter currently working his way back into shape in the minors after Tommy John surgery), both of whom hope to recapture some of the dominance they've had in past seasons.
Should the Dodgers make the postseason, you'll hear a lot of talk about turning points. Undoubtedly, some will think that promoting Puig was the turning point, or maybe it was Hanley getting healthy, or that brawl against the Padres, or maybe even Mattingly calling Ethier out, because those are the narratives that look best on highlight reels. But the intelligent and mundane decision to reshape the bullpen has played at least as great a part. It's definitely not sexy, but it's working.