Los Angeles Dodgers: Can the Bullpen Hold Up?

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Los Angeles Dodgers: Can the Bullpen Hold Up?
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Dodgers are quietly showing two of the best young arms in any Major League bullpen in the first half of the 2009 season.

Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso have been outstanding in relief thus far. Entering Saturday, the two combined have allowed just 21 earned runs in 98.2 innings pitched (1.92 ERA).

ERA+ is a comparative tool that was developed in order to take account for the player’s ballpark. 100 is an average mark; that means for every point over 100 you are that many percentage better than average, and vice versa for below 100.

Belisario boasts a ridiculous 222 ERA+ and Troncoso has an equally impressive 216 ERA+.

The mounting problem is becoming that they are so dominant that it has become hard for Joe Torre not to rely on them every night. The Dodgers are one of six teams with more than 250 innings pitched by relievers (Orioles, A's, Indians, Marlins, Padres). The Dodgers bullpen ranks second behind only the Orioles in innings pitched.

According to the Baseball Prospectus WXRL, which focuses on the increase or decrease in likelihood to win the game once a reliever enters, the Boston Red Sox bullpen ranks first with an 8.026 and the Dodgers bullpen second with a 7.005. 

The temptation of using Belisario in the seventh, Troncoso in the eighth, and Jonathan Broxton in the ninth can be downright unfair.

Take a look at their usage this season and their previous career highs (in the minor leagues) in innings pitched.

Troncoso: 2009: 36 G, 51 IP/68 G, 97 IP (Projected) 2007: 51 G, 78 IP

Belisario: 2009:  41 G, 47.2 IP/67 G, 79 IP (Projected) 2002: 23 G, 140.1 IP

Belisario used to be a starting pitcher, and that is what accounts for his much higher career ceiling for innings pitched.

He changed to a full-time reliever in 2007. He appeared in 36 games and threw 59 innings that season (Single-A Lynchburg/Double-A Altoona).

One encouraging statistic is that each has thrown 30 or more pitches in only eight appearances. They are able to make quick work of the opponent and generally avoid long innings.

Through no fault of their own, Belisario and Troncoso have raised concerns for me because it is hard to project the amount of usage young arms can withstand over a 162-game season.

I’ve spoke before about the interesting workings of the Dodgers bullpen and considering last night's bullpen meltdown (Thanks to Dodgers Featured Columnist J.C. Ayvazi for the great recap), the Dodgers need some help in the bullpen.

In order to get the most regular season production, while still preserving the young arms of Belisario and Troncoso for the playoffs, the Dodgers need to seek help first and foremost from within their organization. 

 

1. Is Hong Chi-Kuo Able to Heal?

The solution to the possibly overworking of the bullpen can be alleviated upon the rehabilitation of Hong Chi-Kuo and the return of Corey Wade.

Kuo has seen a career filled with arm injuries but managed to post a 2.14 ERA in 42 games last season.

He was the team’s best setup man, but the 80 IP may have pushed the delicate arm a little too far, as he started ‘09 with far worse results. His previous season high in innings was 59.2 in ‘06.

In seven appearances this season, he has had mixed results. He recorded scoreless appearances in five outings but allowed four earned runs in just one inning pitched in his other two outings (he failed to record an out on April 15 against the Giants).

He issued four walks in 5.1 innings this season and his uncontrollable arm got out of control during an attempt to warm up on May 1.

Torre called on Kuo during to get ready to come into the game, but out of 15 bullpen tosses Brad Ausmus was only able to catch four. Kuo even launched two balls over the bullpen gate and onto the field.

The next day the Dodgers placed him on the DL and recalled Brent Leach. Kuo’s soreness in Spring Training also caused the Dodgers to sign Will Ohman, who has been less than stellar.

Already the victim of four procedures (including Tommy John surgery twice) on the left elbow, Kuo is hesitant to push the arm too much during rehab for fears of doing irreparable damage.

When asked if he would undergo another procedure to repair any damage in the elbow, “I'm not having another operation," said Kuo in early June, implying that retirement would be his choice if surgery were needed.

If Kuo can rehabilitate completely and return to the quality pitching he displayed last season, he can be a big part in taking the pressure off of Belisario and Troncoso.

That’s a big if, however, because the Dodgers have been extremely quiet about Kuo’s status and still have not released a timetable for his return.

Honestly, I would not expect Kuo to return and be effective in ’09, but as Kevin Garnett once said, Anything’s Possible.

 

2. Can Cory Wade Mature and Make an Impact?

So if Kuo can’t return to the Dodgers, Cory Wade will have to step up his game and become an effective reliever for the team. You could say that last season Wade was actually the equivalent of this season’s Belisario/Troncoso rookie-duo.

Wade’s numbers were slightly lower but impressive nonetheless in ‘08: 55 G, 71.1 IP, 2.27 ERA, 51 K, 16 BB, 187 ERA+, 0.925 WHIP.

Wade ranked second amongst rookie relievers in ERA in ‘08—and didn’t even make the club out of Spring Training last season.

Facing similar problems as Kuo but not as severe, Wade battled a tired arm throughout the Spring and was not able to find the groove he settled into last year.

Dodgers’ bullpen coach Ken Howell contributes the approach of Wade as the main difference between last season and his not-so-great first half of ’09.

"The biggest thing I've seen is that Cory established the inside of the plate last year and this year he's stayed on the outer third and teams just sit on it," Howell said. "We talked recently, and I told him he has to get back to challenging hitters inside."

Perhaps one of the reasons Wade is not challenging hitters as much is because he has lost a few mph on his fastball. That makes it more difficult to lock up a hitter with a pitch on the hands and allows the hitter to bring his hands inside the ball more easily.

My solution for Wade?

He needs to utilize his changeup more often. Wade currently throws his changeup 13 percent of the time (55 percent fastballs and 30 percent curveballs), but I think he would greatly benefit by using it to set up his fastball, rather than using his fastball to set up the changeup and curveball.

Some would refer to this approach as “pitching backwards,” and I think if Wade went this way it could propel him back to his 2008 form.

 

Can Belisario and Troncoso Persevere?

Belisario and Troncoso, both 26 years old, are valuable assets and have been huge contributors to the Dodgers Major League-leading 50 wins this season.

The worst thing that can happen to the Dodgers is burning out the arms of Belisario and Troncoso before the postseason.

Kuo was shutdown in mid-September last season and was forced to miss the NLDS. He clearly has not bounced back from the career-high innings in ’08 and Joe Torre needs to be careful not to repeat that mistake.

Wade had one stint on the DL late in ’08 for a tired arm and has experienced issues with a dead arm on-and-off this season after throwing 82 innings total between the minors and with the Dodgers.

While the Dodgers bullpen has certainly been an important factor contributing to the success of the team, the young arms of Belisario and Troncoso need to be carefully used as the season progresses.

The Dodgers need either Kuo or Wade to become consistent contributors or else perhaps their biggest strength will change into their biggest weakness.

Considering the mysterious status of Kuo, it seems more logical that Wade will be the one in position to step up for the Boys in Blue. 

 

PJ Ross is a Featured Columnist for the Los Angeles Dodgers

*Be sure to check out the first installment of a new series by my fellow Dodgers Featured Columnist, Leroy Watson*

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