The Los Angeles Dodgers' second game of 2014 season was marred by a late bullpen implosion. So was their third game of the season on Sunday night.
One of these bullpen implosions is more concerning than the other, and I'll give you a hint which one it is: The one we just saw.
It actually cost the Dodgers, for one. Whereas they were able survive their bullpen coughing up five runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks last Sunday, the Dodgers weren't able to survive the three runs their pen coughed up in the eighth inning against the San Diego Padres on Sunday night.
Those proved to be the difference, as the Padres won 3-1 to hand the Dodgers their first loss of 2014.
Now, I said "their pen," but it was just one guy responsible for the mayhem: Brian Wilson. The first batter he faced was Seth Smith, who hit a game-tying home run to open the eighth inning. Over the course of the next three batters, this happened:
- Yasmani Grandal walked.
- Wilson booted a sacrifice bunt by Everth Cabrera that put him on first and Grandal on second.
- Grandal stole third.
- Cabrera took second base on defensive indifference.
- Chris Denorfia hit a two-run single up the middle.
Wilson ultimately exited the game with an ugly-looking line: 0.0 innings, two hits (one home run), one walk, three runs (two earned).
Which leads us to the other concerning part of what went down on Sunday night. Whereas last week's bullpen implosion was perpetrated largely by the dregs of the Dodgers bullpen—notably Jamey Wright and Jose Dominguez—Wilson's $10 million salary says they're supposed to be in safe hands when he's in the game.
It's too early to say they won't be. I know that. You know that. Heck, I'll assume the indigenous beings of planet Frunobulax know that. He's only made two appearances, and the first of those was pretty good. Wilson logged a scoreless inning with two strikeouts against Arizona down in Australia.
However, it's never too early to at least entertain skeptical notions, and it is possible to do so with Wilson.
One reason to be skeptical about Wilson is the same reason that's been there ever since he signed his $10 million deal: that maybe the Dodgers were putting too much trust in his 2013 performance.
It was a good one, as Wilson allowed just one run while striking out 21 and walking six. But this was over just 24 appearances and 19.2 innings between the regular season and the postseason. On the sample-size spectrum, that's certainly more on the "small" end of things.
So there's that. While he was undoubtedly impressive late in 2013, that Wilson did it all over such a small sample size means he did enter 2014 with a built-in shred of doubt. After Sunday night, said shred of doubt is looming even larger.
What's even more concerning is how Wilson wasn't featuring unhittable stuff on Sunday night, as ESPN.com's Dan Szymborski kindly (read: sarcastically) pointed out:
Remember the 5th when everyone was connecting on Cashner but his stuff was still sharp? Wilson's stuff...was...not.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) March 31, 2014
According to Brooks Baseball, Wilson got only one whiff on the 13 cutters he threw. None of the four cutters that were put in play against him were converted into outs. One of those was the ball that Smith hit out of the yard to get things (un-)rolling.
Just as concerning is that Wilson only averaged 91.8 miles per hour with his sinker and 91.9 miles per hour with his four-seamer. That doesn't look so good next to the velocity he had in 2013:
In light of how Wilson ended 2013 throwing in the mid-90s like his old pre-Tommy John self, one wondered whether he would build on that by starting off in the mid-90s right out of the gate in 2014. Instead, well, so much for that.
My insistence that it's too early to hit the panic button still stands. But in the event that Wilson's implosion does end up being the first of too many poor performances, the Dodgers may find themselves dealing with a problem that will feel all too familiar.
You'll recall when Brandon League crashed and burned early in 2013. If so, you'll also recall how that forced Kenley Jansen into League's closer role, which opened up a void in the bullpen that the Dodgers had a hard time filling.
League wasn't the man for Jansen's vacant righty setup role, as his struggles never really ceased. Ronald Belisario's appearances tended to be high-wire acts. Carlos Marmol's control issues persisted upon his arrival from Chicago. And so on and so on until Wilson showed up.
Why bring it up? Simple: It's easy to imagine Don Mattingly having to deal with yet another revolving door of right-handed setup men this year if Wilson pulls a League and can't live up to his contract.
That's unless you trust Chris Perez, of course, which I wouldn't recommend after he lost over a mile per hour off his fastball and gave up 11 home runs in 54 innings last year. Chris Withrow doesn't have the best track record with his command. Wright doesn't have the kind of overpowering stuff you look for in a late-inning reliever.
And while not having a strong righty bridge to Jansen doesn't look like it would necessarily be a deal-breaker in light of how it wasn't last year, the fear should be that the Dodgers bullpen will be as vulnerable as it was in the first half. It posted a modest 4.03 ERA and was responsible for 17 losses. Though not the primary cause of the Dodgers' slow start, the bullpen was a contributing factor.
The cure for that slow start was a 42-8 run that made everything better. Since the Dodgers can't count on that type of run happening again, they shouldn't want to find themselves in a position to need one. And to avoid getting there, their bullpen is going to have to do its part.
And for the bullpen to do its part, Wilson's going to have to do his.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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