Dodgers Remove Craig Kimbrel From Closer Role

The Dodgers are going to take a closer-by-comittee approach for the remainder of the regular season, manager Dave Roberts informed reporters (including Fabian Ardaya of the Athletic). Craig Kimbrel will pitch in different roles while the club takes a variable approach to the ninth inning based on matchups.

Roberts didn’t guarantee he’d stick with the committee approach through the playoffs, although it’s hard to envision the Dodgers removing Kimbrel from the closing role for the final 12 regular season games before reinstalling him in the ninth at the start of the postseason. The decision comes in the wake of a dip in production for the eight-time All-Star, who has surrendered runs in three of his last four outings. That includes a game-tying homer to Christian Walker to blow a save opportunity yesterday against the Diamondbacks. The Dodgers walked off in the bottom of the ninth inning anyhow, but the blown lead finalized the team’s decision to take a more flexible approach with the playoffs on the horizon.

Kimbrel is in his first season as a Dodger. Acquired from the White Sox in a surprising one-for-one swap with AJ Pollock just before Opening Day, he’s made 57 appearances. Kimbrel certainly hasn’t been disastrous. He owns a 4.14 ERA across 54 1/3 innings, striking out an above-average 27.2% of opponents. His 9.6% walk rate is a bit higher than the league mark but not an untenable figure. He has successfully closed out 22 of his 27 save attempts. The right-hander’s overall production has been fine if unspectacular.

Nevertheless, Kimbrel clearly hasn’t performed at the level at which the Dodgers were hoping. The 34-year-old was arguably the best reliever in the game through last season’s first half with the Cubs. While he disappointed following a deadline trade to the White Sox — largely due to home run troubles — he still generated whiffs on an excellent 17.2% of his offerings with the South Siders. That led to some hope Kimbrel could continue pitching at an elite level in a new environment, but this season’s 12.1% swinging strike rate is only a bit better than average.

Taking Kimbrel out of the ninth inning should allow Roberts to be more judicious with his usage once the postseason arrives. Maximizing his work against right-handed hitters figures to be a priority. Kimbrel has held same-handed batters to a .208/.296/.307 line across 115 plate appearances this season; lefties, on the other hand, have managed a much more robust .266/.355/.431 showing in 124 trips.

The White Sox picked up a $16MM option on Kimbrel for this season before trading him to L.A. He’s in the final few weeks of that deal and will hit free agency for the second time in his career this offseason. In the interim, he’ll remain part of one of the game’s top relief corps.

That the Dodgers feel equipped to take the career-long closer out of the ninth inning is a testament to the strength of the remainder of their bullpen. Los Angeles enters play Friday with the majors’ second-lowest bullpen ERA (2.94) and fourth-best strikeout percentage (26.5%). Evan Phillips, a waiver claim from the Rays last August, almost immediately emerged as one of the best relievers in the game. The slider specialist has a 1.24 ERA with a 31.8% strikeout rate over 58 innings during his breakout campaign. Flamethrowing sinkerballer Brusdar Graterol has ridden a massive 63.5% ground-ball percentage to a 2.96 ERA. Deadline acqusition Chris Martin has a 1.71 mark with a laughable 26:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio since landing in Los Angeles. Southpaw Alex Vesia has the bullpen’s best strikeout rate (34.6%) and a 2.24 ERA in 51 2/3 frames.

That quartet looks likeliest to assume the highest-leverage work in the playoffs. Roberts can also call upon Kimbrel, Phil Bickford and Tommy Kahnle from the right side, while Caleb Ferguson and the rehabbing David Price are left-handed options. Yency Almonte has had a nice season of his own and is on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Oklahoma City, and there’s still a possibility of Blake Treinen making a playoff return (although Treinen is currently on the injured list and continues to battle shoulder discomfort).

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