Bullpen of the Year: Dodgers' unit finishes fast

Bullpen of the Year: Dodgers' unit finishes fast

The Major League season is long and winding, and our first perceptions of teams often turn out to be radically different by season's end.

Take the 2016 National League West champion Dodgers.

At the end of April, Los Angeles' record stood at a pedestrian 12-13 and its bullpen appeared to be just as average -- posting a 3.84 ERA and 0.5 WAR total that ranked in the middle of the 30 big league clubs.

BULLPEN OF THE WEEK WINNERS
Week Team
April 3-10 A's
April 11-17 Twins
April 18-24 Nationals
April 25-May 1 Phillies
May 2-8 Angels
May 9-15 Yankees
May 16-22 Cubs
May 23-29 Astros
May 30-June 5 Dodgers
June 6-12 Yankees
June 13-19 Marlins
June 20-26 Tigers
June 27-July 3 Pirates
July 4-10 Dodgers
July 18-24 Yankees
July 25-31 Brewers
Aug. 1-7 Blue Jays
Aug. 8-14 Mariners
Aug. 15-21 Royals
Aug. 22-28 Pirates
Aug. 29-Sept. 4 Cubs
Sept. 5-11 Astros
Sept. 12-18 Pirates
Sept. 19-25 Dodgers
Sept. 28-Oct. 2 Mariners

But as the season progressed and the Dodgers' starting rotation -- seen as one of the team's biggest strengths entering the season -- became filled with more questions than answers, a perceived weak link in the bullpen rose to become one of the club's biggest strengths.

By season's end, L.A. relievers had rallied back to finish with an MLB-best 3.35 ERA and a 6.3 WAR total that ranked as fourth-best in the game.

The Dodgers' bullpen not only topped the statistical charts; they also rose above the pack in the race for Bullpen of the Year presented by The Hartford.

As part of the MLB Prevailing Moments program, each Monday throughout the 2016 season, MLB.com has honored the "Bullpen of the Week presented by The Hartford." An industry-wide panel of MLB experts, including legendary stats guru Bill James, constructed a metric based on James' widely renowned game-score formula, to provide a weekly measurement of team-bullpen performance.

Here's how the Bullpen Rating System has been compiled for each week:

• Add 1.5 points for each out recorded
• Add 1.5 points for each strikeout
• Add 5 points for a save
• Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed
• Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed
• Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed
• Subtract 1 point for each walk
• Subtract 5 points for a blown save

Los Angeles' bullpen was clearly the class of the BRS standings. The Dodgers finished with a total of 1,662.5 points -- besting second-place Houston by more than 100 points -- as they allowed 220 earned runs over 590 2/3 innings and saved 47 of Los Angeles' 91 total victories. The Dodgers claimed three Bullpen of the Week Awards, tying them with the Pirates and Yankees for the most Bullpen awards won by a team this season.

The Dodgers' bullpen was arguably one of the most valuable units -- offensive or defensive -- for any team in baseball this season. Here's how Los Angeles's relievers withstood adversity and succeeded despite unexpected circumstances:

The unexpected: On Opening Day of the 2016 season, the Dodgers starting rotation consisted of ace Clayton Kershaw and a mix of relatively unproven veterans and rookies whose roles were not entirely established. The uncertainty only snowballed from there. Los Angeles placed a Major League record 28 different players on the disabled list this year, a list that included starting pitchers Brett Anderson, Rich Hill, Scott Kazmir, Kershaw, Brandon McCarthy, Bud Norris and Alex Wood. Also included on the injury list were important relievers like Louis Coleman, Casey Fien, Chris Hatcher and Adam Liberatore.

A total of 15 different pitchers started a game for Los Angeles this season, and the Dodgers are the only the third team in baseball history, joining the 1989 San Francisco Giants and last year's Dodger club, to qualify for the postseason when using at least that many different starting pitchers over the course of the year.

With so much instability, it's little wonder that Dodger starters finished with a total of 862 1/2 innings pitched that ranked second-to-last in the Major Leagues. Conversely, the L.A. bullpen -- which, again also suffered a number of injuries to its regular cast -- led the Majors in innings pitched.

How they prevailed: The Dodgers won a staggering 39 games this season in which their starters lasted five innings or less, setting a new Major League record.

"Yes, you look at the numbers, our 'pen has been used a lot -- we all know that," manager Dave Roberts said in early September. "There were some nights when we had maybe nine guys in the 'pen."

A perfect example of the bullpen's resiliency was right-hander Joe Blanton, a pitcher who had retired from baseball in 2014 only to come back and emerge as the Dodgers' unlikely setup man this season. At the age of 35 and with more than 1,600 innings on his odometer entering the season, Blanton led the Dodgers with 75 appearances this year while posting an impressive 2.48 ERA and 1.01 WHIP.

"He's done some long relief early, he's pitched in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth," Roberts said of Blanton. "He's a guy that has really solidified our bullpen."

Blanton gets out of the 10th

Liberatore and rookie Grant Dayton, like Blanton, seemingly came out of nowhere to add stability to the Dodgers' pen. Liberatore, in his second season, and the rookie Dayton combined for a 2.91 ERA throwing from the left side.

Amid all the instability and redefinition of roles has been the Dodgers' one constant -- closer Kenley Jansen. A first-time All-Star in 2016, Jansen recorded 47 saves to finish second to the Mets' Jeurys Familia (51) in the Major Leagues. Jansen paired a stellar 13.6 strikeout per nine inning ratio with a career-low 0.67 WHIP that made him one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball once again.

"You don't see closers turn over year after year in the same division without the rest of the division catching up," former Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said of Jansen in July. "He's been able to do it, which speaks to how unique he is."

After the Dodgers, the Astros finished second in the year-long standings for Bullpen of the Year with a total of 1,522 points, followed by the Yankees with 1,428.5.

The Mariners wrapped up 2016's final Bullpen of the Week award, as Seattle relievers tallied 96 points while allowing eight runs (seven earned) over 30 1/3 innings of work. The Seattle bullpen paired 29 strikeouts with only five walks and allowed less than one hit per inning.

Closer Edwin Diaz recorded a 15.33 strikeout per nine inning ratio in 2016, which ranks as the eighth-highest rate by a reliever since 1913 and the second-highest ever by a rookie reliever (behind Jansen's 16.10 K/9 rate in 2011).

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.