LOS ANGELES — A deep, reliable bullpen is a ‘must-have’ in October for teams with championship aspirations.
But a closer to hand the ball to in the ninth inning, game after game? Not so much.
Of the past eight pitchers to throw the final pitch of a World Series, only two – Atlanta’s Will Smith last year and Kansas City’s Wade Davis in 2015 – had recorded more than eight saves during the regular season. Five didn’t have a single save. Four of those pitchers didn’t have a save during the regular season because they spent it starting games – Julio Urias (Dodgers 2020), Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox 2018), Charlie Morton (Houston Astros 2017) and Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants 2014).
Nineteen active pitchers have more than 100 career saves – a list topped by Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen. Only one has thrown the final pitch of a World Series – Sergio Romo (137 career saves) for the Giants in 2012.
For nine consecutive years, from 2013 through last fall, the Dodgers built their postseason bullpens with Jansen the man at the end – though he was displaced by Urias in 2020. This time, though, they will go into the postseason without a designated closer, Kimbrel having been demoted from the ninth-inning role in September after five months of inconsistency and angst.
“I think it’s arguably our deepest staff, 1 through 13, and I think we’re going to have a lot of different ways to prevent runs,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said of winning in the postseason without a closer. “My sense is that we’re going to do anything and everything we can to prevent runs and one of the remaining guys who hasn’t been called on yet will pitch the ninth. We trust a pretty big number of guys to get those outs.”
It was a pretty big number who got those outs during the regular season. Kimbrel led the team with 22 saves before being demoted. But 11 other pitchers had at least one save. The last nine saves recorded during the regular season were recorded by nine pitchers.
Evan Phillips wasn’t one of those nine, though he did collect two saves earlier in the season.
If the Dodgers decided to make their best reliever the new closer, the decision would be easy – it would be Phillips. Released by the Baltimore Orioles and waived by the Tampa Bay Rays in a two-week period last August, the 28-year-old Phillips has blossomed into a shut-down reliever with the Dodgers this season.
He led the team with 64 appearances while posting a 1.14 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. Throwing his slider 44% of the time since joining the Dodgers, Phillips held hitters to a .155 batting average with 77 strikeouts in 63 innings this year.
But Phillips has emerged as the heir to the Blake Treinen role – the “firemen” reliever sent out to face the toughest part of an opposing lineup in the highest-leverage moments before the ninth inning, a key component of the Dodgers’ bullpen construction in the Friedman era. Of Phillips’ 64 regular-season appearances, only nine finished the game.
“I really don’t think it bothers anybody,” Phillips said of entering the postseason without a closer identified. “I think we saw it (Friday) with the (St. Louis) Cardinals. They have two guys they rely on late in games. It didn’t work out in their favor today (the Phillies scored six runs in the ninth inning to win Game 1 of their wild-card series on Friday). But I just think that’s the new age of the bullpen – understanding what guys have advantages where. Then it’s up to the manager and coaches to deploy us properly.
“Hopefully we have three, four weeks of baseball ahead of us. So maybe somebody emerges as ‘The’ ninth-inning guy. But that doesn’t even sound appropriate for what we’ve been doing the last month or so. I think you’ll continue to see a mix of guys. I’m not sure if we’ve had the same guy finish the game since we made that transition. I think we’ve shown we have a lot of guys that are capable.”
Deploying the clutch of high-leverage relievers – Phillips, Brusdar Graterol, Tommy Kahnle, Chris Martin, Yency Almonte and Alex Vesia, primarily – “properly” is the challenge of what the Dodgers will try this postseason, which will begin when they open a best-of-five National League Division Series against either the New York Mets or the San Diego Padres on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. Call it a ‘closer-by-committee,’ if you will. But it will be more a closer-by-analytics – and process of elimination – on a nightly basis.
“Mark (Prior), Doc (Dave Roberts), Connor (McGuiness), Danny Lehman, Josh Bard – their ability to create margin for error by matchups and getting guys in their best lanes just increases the chances of us being able to execute on it,” Friedman said. “Would we like to have a shut-down, no-doubt-about-it, ninth-inning guy? Yeah – everybody in baseball would. We have a lot of really talented guys and we feel like we’ll be in a really good position to get 27 outs and give our offense every chance to win games and win series.”
Even though he is just the trigger man on the complicated decision-making process, this approach will put an even greater onus on Roberts if the ninth-inning decisions do not bring the desired result – and Roberts is already very familiar with having his October pitching decisions second-guessed.
“It’s kind of the whole mindset of just because you’ve always done something one way doesn’t make it right,” Roberts said of this year’s approach. “So it might not be traditional.”
Choosing the right pitcher for each matchup until you run out of outs is easier than working backward from a dedicated closer, he maintains.
Do the Dodgers overthink things when October arrives?
Dodgers have chosen Game 1 starter – but they’re not ready to announce it
How Dodgers’ Justin Turner became sold on the future of NFTs
Dodgers are about to find out if too much rest is a bad thing
Hoornstra: Closing arguments in Shohei Ohtani vs. Aaron Judge, and other MLB awards races
“I think it’s easier in the sense that you have your best potential option for that point in the game and you feel confident to deploy him and take down an inning or two,” Roberts said. “How the back end falls out, you can make a decision at that point in time. But having roles and being put in a corner is tougher to navigate.
“There’s guys that we feel good about with guys on base, versus right-, left(-handed batters), feel good with certain guys in a clean inning, certain guys to do an up-down. I just think to have as many options as we have with neutral arms – which we do have – makes life a little bit easier.”
This is not the first time Roberts has said it is the best postseason bullpen he has had as a manager. He said it in 2019 – and the Dodgers lost in the NLDS to the Washington Nationals. He said it last year – then stretched a thin group of starting pitchers to cover innings out of the bullpen and lost in the NL Championship Series to the Atlanta Braves.
“I guess I’ll say this is the deepest bullpen that we’ve had again,” Roberts said when reminded of that. “And I say deepest because it’s the most neutral bullpen we’ve had (against left- and right-handed hitters). So I think it just allows for us to not go to the well too many times which we’ve been guilty of before, to go with your best arm. Lineups, the way they’re constructed now, there’s a lot of flipping out the left and right, staggering (same-handed hitters). So to have the neutrality is important.
“The roster we have in the ’pen, this is as good a group of guys like that as we’ve had.”