Speed and spin: As bullpens change, Roberts has Dodgers set up for success
- Los Angeles made more pitching changes this year than any team in history, but that formula paid off again in its NLDS Game 1 win over the Nationals.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—A year ago, at the age of 43, Dave Roberts willingly walked away from a good job in major league baseball. The San Diego Padres asked him to return as a bench coach, but they didn’t bother interviewing him for the managerial opening, a vacancy created when the team fired Bud Black at midseason and designated Pat Murphy as the interim manager. Roberts said thanks, but no thanks.
“I had no job,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t like I had anything lined up. Nothing. It’s just that I felt like I was at a point where I needed a new challenge.”
The Seattle Mariners called to interview him for the manager’s job. He finished second to Scott Servais, who had a long friendship with the man doing the hiring, GM Jerry DiPoto. The Dodgers interviewed him. They didn’t let him get away.
Eleven months later, Roberts reconfirmed the confidence Los Angeles saw in a man who had managed all of one game in his life—the one between the tenures of Black and Murphy, which he lost. After winning the NL West this year despite of—or because of—making more pitching changes than any manager in history, Roberts managed his first postseason game with unconventional, aggressive moves. Roberts and his bullpen usage was the story of how Los Angeles opened the NLDS with a 4-3 win over Max Scherzer and the Nationals.
Roberts thrust his closer, Kenley Jansen, into a 4-3 game with one out in the eighth inning, despite the fact that Washington had nobody on base and hard-throwing Pedro Baez appeared to be in control. Jansen had retired five batters in a game only once all year. The message from Roberts was obvious: We’ll deal with tomorrow when it gets here, but tonight we’re going for the jugular.
"I’ve talked to Kenley all year long, and we've prepared for this moment, and so mentally, physically, he's prepared," Roberts said. "And so if the situation calls for it tomorrow, then I don’t think I’ll hesitate."
It turns out that Roberts—young, optimistic and a blank slate as a manager who is not beholden to orthodoxy or formula—was the perfect man for a team that is beholden to nothing. Los Angeles is winning with state of the art baseball that should force you to re-think your outdated view of "winning baseball."
At one time—and that would be the last century of baseball—making so many pitching changes would be anathema to winning baseball. Until Roberts and the Dodgers came along with their 606 pitching changes this year, the teams that made the most pitching changes were bad baseball teams without exception, as the table below shows:
|Team, Year||Pitching changes||record|
This was not, however, exactly how Los Angeles drew it up when the season began. But the team's starting pitchers kept breaking down and Roberts learned about six weeks into the job that trying to run a conventional bullpen—you know the formula: a designated seventh-inning guy, an eighth-inning guy and a ninth-inning guy—wasn’t working.
"I had to be unconventional," he said.
Meanwhile, Andrew Friedman, the club's president of baseball operations, and his scouts and analytical wonks were diving into building a new paradigm when it comes to finding relievers. The rest of baseball has been fixated on velocity. Everybody wants to build a bullpen with cross-fire delivery pitchers who throw in the upper 90s and own a hard breaking ball—and they are easy to find.
But what if spin could be as much of a marker for success as velocity? The Dodgers were guided less by pure velocity and more by finding pitchers with an outlier skill, especially when it came to spin. Hitters are creatures of habit. Their brains process the path of so many pitches that they develop an expectation of where a ball will be in the strike zone based on speed and trajectory—thousands and thousands of pitches synthesized into not guesswork, but expectation. But what if the organization could find pitchers whose stuff acts out of the standard range of pathways? Spin—which includes revolutions per minute and spin axis—provides clues about those outliers.
On the eve of Game 1 of the NLDS, I asked Friedman about his club being guided by spin.
"It’s not so much just spin as much as it is guys who miss bats," Friedman said. "We like guys who miss bats. That’s not just spin. Just like you, we’re all still trying to figure out where the answers are with spin. It’s early, and we’re still learning."
In July of last year, in a trade that received almost no notice, Freidman acquired a 27-year-old lefthander who was so buried in the Marlins’ farm system that Miami had actually designated him for assignment just three months earlier. Grant Dayton (pictured) promptly pitched so poorly in Triple A for the Dodgers (9.26 ERA) that they demoted him to Double A.
But there was something to like about Dayton. His four-seam fastball had about average velocity—93 mph—but it had above-average spin. When he kept his front shoulder closed long enough in his delivery, he could hide the ball from hitters. Combined with that four-seam spin, Dayton had an outlier pitch that, if he could improve his command, would be hard to hit.
What above-average four-seam spin does best is to trick a hitter’s brain, or at least what the brain calculates as the expected pathway of a pitch. Because it spins faster with underspin, the high-spinning four-seamer fights gravity more than a pitch with average spin, so it doesn’t drop as much as a hitter expects. Fooled by such an outlier pitch, the hitter swings below the pitch and misses it.
Dayton’s fastball this year became practically invisible. Though Dayton throws it 77% of the time—interrupted only by the occasional curve and slider—hitters don’t react well to it. And because they never see Dayton a second time in a game, they don’t get an opportunity to adjust.
Major league hitters hit fastballs. It’s a bedrock truth in the game. But they don’t hit Dayton’s fastball. They batted .138 this year against his four-seamer. Dayton’s four-seam fastball is twice as likely to get a swing and miss (20%) as the four-seam fastball of Clayton Kershaw (10%).
Roberts brought Dayton into Game 1 to face Nationals slugger Bryce Harper with the tying run on first base in the sixth inning. Dayton kept pouring in one high four-seamer after another. Harper never solved it. He flied out to rightfield.
Dayton ran the second leg of a four-man relay that picked up the last 12 outs in defense of a stout, but struggling Kershaw: Joe Blanton to Dayton to Baez to Jansen.
Blanton was a fringe free agent ($4 million) who has tremendous spin on sliders and curves, so he throws them more often than he does his fastball. Also in the Los Angeles bullpen are: Josh Fields, another minor trade acquisition who doesn’t throw a straight fastball but relies heavily on a cutter; lefty Luis Avilan, who has such a freakish changeup that he uses it heavily against lefties; Baez, a converted third baseman who has above-average velocity and above-average spin on his four-seam fastball; and Jansen, the closer with the natural cutting action on his fastball.
There’s nothing conventional about the Dodgers’ relievers or the way Roberts uses them—not yet anyway.
Only five teams in baseball history ever used their bullpen for more innings than the Dodgers this year, and all five of them were terrible teams: the 2012 Rockies (64-98), 2003 Rangers (71-91), 1977 Mariners (64-98), 1977 Padres (69-93) and 2007 Rangers (75-87). But Los Angeles has been able to use a busy bullpen to produce winning baseball.
"You know, those situations, we've done it all year long," Roberts said about using four pitchers to pick up the final four innings. "And obviously not the days that Kershaw has started but the roles of guys bridging the gap to get to Kenley for a possible three-out or four or five-out save, we’ve done that all year long. Just happens it was a playoff game."
When Roberts was a bench coach for Black, he had to change his way of thinking, and it was Black who did so to send him on that path toward managing. Roberts came from "old school baseball"—and any baseball from even 10 years ago is "old school baseball," given how fast information and analytics have changed the game. A former outfielder, Roberts considered pitchers something of a necessary evil. Managers such as Earl Weaver, Lou Piniella and Billy Martin had perpetuated this thinking. Former position players made up the majority of managers, and they didn’t think like pitchers at all, didn’t understand their sensibilities and needs.
One day Black, a rare pitcher-turned-manager, told Roberts, "If you’re going to manage someday, you have to learn pitching."
A light turned on for Roberts. He began watching bullpen sessions, talking to pitchers and absorbing everything he could from a new perspective—a pitcher’s perspective.
"If not for Buddy Black," Roberts said, "I wouldn’t be here."
The NLDS is a long way from over. The Dodgers maneuvered their way to one victory. But the point is that this is how L.A. wins. This game was not a fluke. These are not the Dodgers of Koufax and Drysdale or Valenzuela and Hershiser. They are comfortable with short outings from their starting pitchers. What used to be a recipe for disaster is a recipe for winning, especially in a series with two off days wedged between five games. And as Roberts, upon his first chance at running a postseason game, immediately proved, he will be unconventional and aggressive when victory is within his grasp.