2012 Dodgers in Review #42: RP Brandon League

December 24, 2012 at 10:00 am | Posted in 2012 in Review, Brandon League | Leave a comment

(w/ LA) 2.30 ERA 2.77 FIP 8.89 K/9 4.61 BB/9 0.5 fWAR B+

2012 in brief: Overcame atrocious start after deadline trade to become nearly unhittable fill-in closer when Kenley Jansen was lost.

2013 status: Like it or not, the 3/$22.5m contract he signed in the offseason makes him the closer, at least to start.

******

I almost feel like bullpen coach Ken Howell deserves a grade of his own here, because the mechanical adjustments he (along with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt) made to Brandon League turned what was quickly becoming a disaster into one of Ned Colletti’s better moves of the season.

Ah, but that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves here, isn’t it? League was acquired just before the deadline on July 31, largely as a replacement for Josh Lindblom, who had been sent to Philadelphia for Shane Victorino. As I noted at the time, I was moments from boarding a plane so my thoughts had to be brief:

Let it be said, quickly, that while I liked both Leon Landry & Logan Bawcom, neither were irreplaceable parts. I dug Bawcom’s ability to miss bats, but the level of failure from minor league relievers is huge, and Landry hasn’t shown he can hit outside of high-offense environments; neither were even among the top-30 Dodger prospects per Baseball America entering the season, though that may have changed now since each were doing well. Each clearly had others at their position ahead of them on the depth chart, so to give them up, while disappointing because I liked both, is hardly fatal.

League, however, is… well, he’s a guy. He’s still got a great fastball, but his strikeout rate is disappointingly down to a 5.44/9, the worst it’s been since 2007, while his walks have increased (highest since 2008) and his usual ability to induce groundballs is down to 46%. He’s not bad, he’s not great, he’s just a guy – I assume I don’t have to tell you not to get too pumped over his 37 saves last year, especially when he lost that job to Tom Wilhelmsen already this year – and while I don’t mind having him for two months, I also don’t see him as a huge improvement.

For League’s first two-plus weeks as a Dodger, not only was he not “a huge improvement,” he was an enormous catastrophe. Over his first seven games, he pitched only five innings, allowing 12 baserunners and six earned runs. League didn’t pitch for four days after the August 17 outing which ended that streak, instead working with Howell, and finished August on a nice run of six scoreless & nearly perfect innings, including a 9/2 K/BB. The timing couldn’t have been better; Jansen was lost for weeks after August 29 with a recurrence of his heart ailment, and if League hadn’t been available to step into the role I’m not entirely sure what Don Mattingly might have done.

League picked up his first save as a Dodger on September 1 and collected five more over the month, pitching 16.1 September innings and allowing only a single earned run; the 60 batters he faced hit a collective .137/.267/.157 against him. The turnaround was so stunning that when Mattingly failed to use him in a crucial situation against the Giants on September 7, we were practically apoplectic:

Josh Beckett was more than effective through six two-run innings, but ran into some trouble in the seventh. After a single, a walk, and a sacrifice bunt, Beckett was faced with men on second and third with one out. Mattingly ordered the intentional walk to red-hot Angel Pagan to load the bases, and with Brandon League ready to go, the manager walked out to remove Beckett.

Except, no. He didn’t. Or as I recapped it in real time:

Remember, this is September, the time of expanded rosters. You have something like 39 pitchers down in the bullpen, so you never have to worry about pulling a pitcher too early because it might exhaust your bullpen. You especially never need to worry about pushing your luck with a veteran pitcher who had given you more than you probably had a right to expect.

Beckett stayed in, of course, and in what may have been the most predictable outcome ever, Marco Scutaro popped a single to right field, scoring two and basically putting the game away. It’d be sad if it weren’t so clearly apparent that this was going to happen. Scratch that: it was still sad.

While that’s obviously more of a Mattingly concern, it really does go to show how much confidence we had in League by that point, and he was really outstanding, even staying in the ninth inning when Jansen returned, which only served to strengthen the rest of the bullpen.

Now he’s back for three years, and while I’m trying not to focus too much on his controversial contract in what is supposed to be a review of his 2012, it’s difficult to ignore entirely. I’ll say this about it — I’ll never like three-year deals for non-elite relievers, but the way the market has gone since he’s signed it has made the dollar figure look a little less absurd, and there’s the non-zero chance that the mechanical change has allowed him to bring out his true talent level.

If not? This is going to get ugly, quickly.

******

Next up! Scott Elbert!

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