A Reminder That Brandon League Exists

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When J.P. Howell signed the other day, I briefly outlined the current state of the bullpen:

CL — Kenley Jansen
RHP — Brian WilsonChris Withrow
LHP — Howell, Paco Rodriguez

You’ll notice that I forgot to include Brandon League there. I did the same thing in a conversation in the comments the other day, too. This echoes the exact same thing from last year, when Matt Guerrier was such an afterthought that I continued to forget his existence. In League’s case, I suppose that’s my subconscious taking pity on me. “No, you don’t want to think about that. Let’s think about bat flips instead!”

But we really can’t forget about him, can we? After making $4.5m in 2013, he’s due $7.5m in each of the next two seasons, and even this team isn’t going to up and just eat $15m by cutting him loose. (Fortunately, his 2016 player option, which requires at least 55 games finished in 2015, seems like it’s safely out of reach.) I’d like to grasp to that small bit of hope that says that he’s been so up and down over the last few years that he could “find it” as quickly as he lost it last year, but that’s based on nothing more than a desperate hope for any sort of value. (He, ah, kinda sorta missed more bats as the year went on? Ah, forget it.)

Really, the only chance that League goes somewhere is if the Dodgers end up making an Andre Ethier trade and agree to eat a ton of his money, but then force the acquiring team to take on League as well. That doesn’t seem super likely, unfortunately.

So assuming League sticks around, that makes the bullpen depth chart look more like…

CL — Kenley Jansen
RHP — Brian WilsonChris Withrow, League
LHP — Howell, Paco Rodriguez

That’s six spots, with one remaining for the collection of Javy Guerra, Jose Dominguez, Seth Rosin, any other free agents they sign, and the usual collection of NRIs. It’s a good bullpen, with a potential to be very good. But we’ll have to remember that League exists. Clearly, it’s all too easy to forget him.

The True Cost of Brandon League

league_sad_2013-05-31I have other pictures of League I could use. But this one is just so perfect all the time.

Brandon League, once again, was atrocious last night, nearly costing the Dodgers the game. While I’ll give Don Mattingly some small amount of understanding simply due to the fact that Kenley Jansen had pitched three days in a row and wasn’t available, League never should have been in the game in that situation. Fortunately, Paco Rodriguez was able to step in and avoid what would have been a gut-punch loss, and I hope we’ll see more of that to come.

Now, we’ve been over League and his problems so many times that I don’t really care to do so again here, though I will note that there has to be something seriously wrong, simply because I can’t accept that he’s suddenly this bad. (Not that I expected him to be good, mind you. But this is something else.)

No, what concerns me today is what this is going to mean for this roster. With League completely off the rails, Ronald Belisario reliably unreliable, and Jansen, Rodriguez, & J.P. Howell really the only three relievers who give you any sense of comfort, Ned Colletti is going to feel the need to do something. And it’s that something that terrifies me, especially in the relief market.

Maybe that will be going after one of the two recently-deposed veteran closers in Carlos Marmol & Jose Valverde, each DFA’d for severe cases of “awful,” or being the team to give Brian Wilson a shot. Or overpaying for Jonathan Papelbon if the Phillies decide to sell — and let’s be honest, we all know Michael Young is coming in that deal too. Or trading for yet another overrated Seattle closer in Tom Wilhelmsen, or going after Jose Veras, who I’m sure most of you haven’t heard of despite being in his eighth season (for six teams!), simply because he’s the closer by default in Houston and now has “saves”.

Or, most hilariously, trading for Kevin Gregg. That’s an irony so delicious — trading talent for a guy three months after you cut him in spring training — that it almost seems like there’s no way it doesn’t happen. I wish I knew how to figure out if that’s ever happened before, but I think it’s safe to say it’s not a regular occurrence.

Since we’re talking about Gregg, by the way, let’s be absolutely, unmistakably clear here: I had absolutely no problem with the Dodgers cutting him at the end of spring. None at all, and I bring that up because as Gregg has a 1.11 ERA and 11 saves with the Cubs as the Dodger bullpen continues to struggle, we’re hearing an increasing chorus of second-guessers who insist that a huge mistake was made.

To that I say: no. Hell, at the time I said “this is no loss at all, and… I’ll consider it a win.” Remember, this was a soon-to-be 35-year-old guy coming off years of mediocrity who had been flat-out let go by Baltimore last season and hadn’t caught on anywhere else. After a decade in the bigs, you’re not going to convince me that a nice run of 24.1 innings is suddenly a massive change in who he is, and a .246 BABIP indicates nice luck that isn’t going to last. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t have been useful to have around, but remember that if he had made the roster, Rodriguez almost certainly wouldn’t have. That’s not a net win.

But enough of Gregg and the inevitable trade of Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling for he and Luis Valbuena, because Colletti is all but certain to do something in the bullpen, and that’s what’s scary. Every once in a while that works — Josh Bell for George Sherrill ended up nicely, though I think I was one of the few who didn’t hate it at at the time — but more often than not, due to the volatility and low usage of relievers, it ends poorly. Have we all forgotten James McDonald & Andrew Lambo for three weeks of Octavio Dotel already?

This is what you’ve wrought, Brandon League.

Brandon League Strikes Again. Now What?

league_sad_2013-05-31Brandon League is an absolute mess. I know this. You know this. Don Mattingly, despite his refusal to publicly throw his closer under the bus, assuredly knows this as well.

We still don’t know why — and trust me, there is a “why” somewhere, because even those most opposed to League’s free-agent deal did not predict this — but at this point, it barely matters. When the game is on the line, League can no longer be absolutely anywhere near it.

Now, I’ve worded that very specifically to say “when the game is on the line” and not “in the ninth inning”, because I think I’ve been very clear in the past that the closer role is highly overrated and that games are just as often won or lost before the ninth. To remove Kenley Jansen from the often more-important eighth inning just to let League or someone else blow the game before it ever gets to Jansen in the ninth does feel like a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Interestingly enough, although I awoke to a barrage of anti-Mattingly complaints, the Dodger manager was showing some advanced thinking along those lines:

“Tonight the numbers said to go with Brandon,” he said. “Does that mean keep the guy? I don’t know. It’s hard to make that decision 12 minutes after the game.”

But he defended his decision to use Kenley Jansen in the eighth inning against Bloomquist, Goldschmidt and Cody Ross (Jansen retired all three) and use League for the bottom of the order. He pointed to the statistical matchups and said if the batting orders had come up the other way, he would have used League in the eighth and Jansen in the ninth.

“If you want to play sabermetrics, those were the best matchups,” he said. “The guys Kenley got are the guys he gets out better than Brandon. The matchups should have been exactly the way it was. But if it doesn’t work, it’s a bad decision. We talked before the game, the eighth and ninth [innings] were up in the air depending who comes up.

The emphasis there is mine, and that’s actually phenomenal. While it clearly didn’t work out, the process was sound. Jansen should be facing the 2-3-4 hitters, regardless of what number inning it is. All too often we see horrible process that ends in a successful result for a completely unrelated reason, but the process is hailed anyway; here, even though it didn’t work out, I love the thinking behind it.

Well, most of the thinking, that is. Just because Jansen is facing the better hitters in the eighth doesn’t automatically mean that it absolutely has to then be League in the ninth, and it really shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, the options are limited there. Ronald Belisario was unavailable last night and has been nearly as erratic as League this year. No one wants Matt Guerrier in a more important role. Peter Moylan is a non-roster ROOGY. J.P. Howell, maybe, but part of his value comes from being able to go multiple innings. There’s not much help in the minors, either, not with Javy Guerra & Shawn Tolleson injured and Steve Ames, Jose Dominguez, Josh Wall, & Chris Withrow all prospects of varying interest who aren’t suddenly big league closers.

So you’re left with Paco Rodriguez, and I honestly wouldn’t have minded if Mattingly had lifted League to bring in the southpaw against lefties Gerardo Parra, Jason Kubel, & Didi Gregorius. We’ve heard rumblings previously this season about potentially putting Rodriguez in higher-leverage situations, and I imagine we might hear them again soon. I’m fine with that if so; that said, Rodriguez had already thrown in four of the last seven days, and so we don’t know what his status was for last night. But he’s shown he isn’t clearly a LOOGY, and he needs to be treated as more of a valuable weapon for now.

Really, that’s the problem. The bullpen was supposed to be a strength, and it’s not, and there’s only so much you can do about that. (Just wait for “Joc Pederson & Zach Lee for Mike Adams & Michael Young,” coming soon to a stadium near you.) So for now, all Mattingly can do is make do with what he has. He’s not going to throw League under the bus, ever, nor should he; but Mattingly can restrict him to the middle innings until such time as he manages to sort out whatever is wrong here. That day may not come, and it may lead to a lot of heartburn when Guerrier is suddenly in important situations. But even if we don’t know what the right answer is, we do know this: it isn’t Brandon League.

Dodgers 7, Rockies 5: No Really, Brandon League Gets the Win

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Reason #10,292,982 why pitcher wins are mind-blowingly stupid: Clayton Kershaw pitched into the eighth inning, left with a lead that Brandon League all-too-inevitably blew… and then League gets the win thanks to some heroics that he had absolutely nothing to do with in the tenth inning. Heart you, pitcher wins!

Thanks to League extending the game, tonight’s heroes are, as always: Ronald Belisario, Juan Uribe, and offense from pitchers. I know. Baseball is just the best sometimes.

You might argue that it was actually Luis Cruz who knocked in the go-ahead run in the tenth on a fielder’s choice, but he also failed to get a hit or a walk tonight. (He did get hit by a pitch and come around to score.) Instead, we point to Uribe, who singled, doubled, and walked, driving in two, including the final run of the game. He is now hitting .287/.394/.414 with solid defense. He unquestionably deserves to be the starting third baseman right now. I’m not sure I want to live on this planet either, yet here we are.

For all the hand-wringing about League — who is, of course, terrible right now, though I will always reply to the “Kenley Jansen should close!!” business with “there would be nothing for Jansen to save if League had just blown the lead in the eighth” — it’s worth noting that Belisario had a very simple 1-2-3 inning in the tenth on seven pitches. Earlier today, Eric Stephen at TrueBlueLA had a good look at some of Belisario’s troubles this season, and it wouldn’t at all have been surprising to see him struggle through the tenth. If he had, after the Dodgers had managed to overcome League’s trouble so quickly, it arguably might have been more damaging than blowing the lead in the first place, so credit is due him for nailing that down.

Finally, there’s Kershaw, who was effective if less than dominating over seven-plus innings. He drove in two runs on his own with two hits, including a double, and he’s now hitting .241/.290/.414. For a pitcher, that’s phenomenal. Hell, on this team, it’s better than half the bench.

Don’t look now, but the Dodgers are only six games out in the loss column behind the first place Diamondbacks, who lost to the Cubs today. This is still a club with a lot of problems — a lot — but to say on the last day of May that the season is over… well, that’s just not true. At 23-30, tomorrow’s game represents the one-third mark of the season. There remains an enormous amount of baseball to be played.

Now, who will be seen should the Dodgers have a lead in the ninth inning of Game 54? I do not know, but I can’t imagine it will be League.

 

Why Is Brandon League Awful Now?

league_newyork_2013-04-24While it’s all a whole lot of fun to try and figure out if Don Mattingly has truly gone off the deep end on us or if he’ll even be managing this team tomorrow — Dylan Hernandez says yes, but we’ll see, and I am terrified about publishing on another topic right now — it only masks the fact that is a team with some serious, actual problems. There’s about eight different directions I could go with after a lead like that, but today we’ll start with “so… just what is Brandon League‘s deal?”

Let’s be clear: few, if any, thought the extravagant three-year deal bestowed upon him by Ned Colletti last winter would actually be worth it. We all know that Colletti’s multiyear deals for non-elite relievers never work out, and so far this one looks worse than any other.

But to be completely fair, I don’t think anyone really expected this, either. League’s 5.19 ERA is close to what a 5.40 FIP says he ought to have; whether you’re using standard stats or advanced metrics, he’s been garbage. That’s surprising, because we all remember his outright dominance last August & September after a mechanical change implemented by Ken Howell & Rick Honeycutt. If not enough to make the contract worthwhile, it did seem to be a viable reason to expect some return on that investment, and gave us all ammunition to strike back at those who just looked at his 2012 as a whole.

Through nearly two months of the season, League has been a complete mess, striking out an atrocious 4.15 per nine. This isn’t due to bad luck that should even out — a .279 BABIP isn’t that far off average — it’s quite simply that he’s not missing bats. Well, that, and that he’s giving up homers at a pace like he’s never done before.

At first I thought, well, okay, perhaps he’s just failing to stick with the mechanical changes and is going back to the old way that cost him his job in Seattle. But in looking through the video, nothing stands out as being obviously different, and as we can see from Brooks Baseball, the change that happened near the end of last year in his vertical release point looks to have stuck so far in 2013:

league_verticalrelease_2013-05-12

If charts aren’t your thing, take a look for yourself at two pitches chosen at random over the two seasons. At left, a pitch that struck out Joaquin Arias last October against San Francisco; at right, giving up a double to Miami’s Adeiny Hechavarria on Mother’s Day. Other than the high socks and pink Mother’s Day shoes, do you see much of a difference in his mechanics? I can’t say I do, nor does it seem that he’s moved his position on the rubber.

So he’s throwing it the same way, from the same position. That doesn’t seem to be the problem.

How about his pitches. Are they flat? Are they simply not not moving? While he’s lost some horizontal movement on his pitches, he’s increased the vertical movement at the same time:

league_horizontal-vertical

Here’s where we get into the weeds where I fully and completely admit that I am not a pitching coach, because if you were to ask me, “well, is one movement better than the other,” I’d say “sure, why not”; the truth is, I don’t have a good answer to that.

But you don’t need to be a pitching coach to know that this next part is a problem. While League has slowly been throwing his sinker less over the years — he used to get grounder rates in the 60-73% range, down to 56.1% this year — his splitter seems less effective because his velocity has been on a steady downturn as well.

league_velocity_pitchpercentages

That seems damning, but I’m hesitant to put this all on reduced velocity, because it’s not like he was throwing 99 last September and he was doing just fine. But it’s a bad trend, isn’t it? Last September, League got swings on half of his splitters, half of which were missed, resulting in a 27.1% swing-and-miss rate. This year that’s down to 20% misses; his sliders are down from 27% to 13% misses.

Across the board, he’s just not generating missed bats, and it’s difficult to know exactly why. Though I can’t really quantify this in an effective way, it surely seems that while he’s not become suddenly wild — his walk rate is down from last year — he’s not hitting his spots. That is, when he’s getting the strike zone, he’s getting all of the strike zone, and that leads to a lot of solid contact

To be honest, the smartest thinking on the subject might have come in less than 140 characters…

Lowered velocity, lousy command, and fewer swing-and-misses? Something has to be behind all this, and nothing seems clear from a mechanical point of view. An injury would make as much sense as anything else, but until we hear anything on that front, we’ll continue to be grasping at straws — expensive, long-term straws.