Dodgers GM Ned Colletti is having a rough month. He spent the off-season handing out other people's money to build a team that he, and many experts, thought would contend for a World Series. Instead, the Dodgers are mired in last place in the NL West and Colletti is spending much of his time trying to undo the mess he made.
First, he began the likely fruitless effort to trade Andre Ethier, who is now an albatross because of the wildly overpriced contract extension Colletti gave him one year ago. Now though, Ned is busy trying to clean the egg off his face after another one of his highly debatable signings worked even more poorly than anyone could have ever imagined.
The latest misstep would be the situation with closer Brandon League who is now former closer Brandon League. It is a situation that only arose because Colletti made the classic mistake of overpaying a reliever because he is a Proven CloserTM.
Even by foolish GM standards, the contract Colletti gave to Brandon League this off-season really stands out. Colletti completely ignored the wildly erratic nature of relievers in general in addition to the fact that League himself had struggled so mightily with inconsistency that he lost the closer gig in Seattle the season before, which is the only reason he was available for Colletti to trade for at the deadline last year in the first place. Colletti also ignored the fact that League lacks the profile of relievers that are able to show some capability of maintaining high levels of performance.
Brandon League does throw hard, but it does not translate to missed bats. For his career, League has only generated 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings, which is rather unimpressive for any reliever, but is comically low for a right-hander who is expected to pitch almost exclusively in high leverage situations. Perhaps Colletti overlooked this history because in the small sample of 26 games that League threw for the Dodgers last season, League fanned just shy of one batter per inning. Guys just switch uniforms and magically become strikeout machines all the time, right?
Not missing bats isn't the end of the world for a high leverage reliever if maybe he is a control specialist. That would definitely work. Unfortunately, League is not a control specialist as he walks 3.1 batters per nine innings for his career and issued just over four free passes per nine innings in 2012. What League does do well is generate a lot of groundballs and make life difficult on right-handed batters.
That is not the profile of a closer. At best, that is the profile of a good middle reliever that specializes in facing right-handed batters or pitching in situations where the team desperately needs a double play ball. A real closer is a guy who throws very hard, racks up a ton of strikeouts, doesn't give up too many hits or walks. A guy like, oh say, Kenley Jansen, a guy the Dodgers have had for years but pigeon-holed into the setup role in front of League because Jansen isn't a Proven CloserTM.
Sure, Jansen touches triple digits on the radar gun and fans 12.7 batters per nine innings, but he had less closing experience. League though saved 37 games in 2011. 37 saves! That's a lot of saves! Sure, Jansen is clearly the better pitcher, but… 37 saves! Jansen "only" had 25 saves in 2012. What has that guy ever done, amirite?
That was pretty much the logic Colletti used when he handed League $22.5 million guaranteed over three years and the closer's role over the far more talented Jansen.
As you might imagine, that move backfired badly for the Dodgers. League rewarded the Dodgers' financial faith by posting a 5.76 ERA to date, blowing four saves, getting tagged with three losses and generally being terrible with an even worse strikeout, walk and groundball rates than usual. Only just this week did LA finally cop to the mistake they made and replaced League at closer with Jansen. They still have to pay League all that money, but at least he will no longer be in a position to cost the Dodgers even more games.
The shame though is that the Dodgers had to learn this lesson the hard way even though there are countless examples in recent years of other teams making the exact same mistake. Just chalk it up to one of the many, many reasons that the Dodgers are such a wild disappointment this season.