Following Sunday’s conclusion of the World Series, there began the relatively brief Quiet Period — a period of time during which teams have exclusive negotiation rights with pending free agents. After the Quiet Period, anybody can reach out to anybody. Any player can sign with any team that he wants. The Los Angeles Dodgers had a pending free agent in Brandon League, and they didn’t want to risk exposing him to the open market, so Tuesday night, word got out that the Dodgers had signed League to a three-year contract.
With a fourth-year vesting option, based on games finished. As is, the three guaranteed years are worth $22.5 million. That is, the Dodgers signed League to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. The contract could end up being bigger than that, when it’s all said and done. We can all agree that paying this sort of money for a non-elite setup man would be ridiculous. And that isn’t what the Dodgers have done, as Ned Colletti says that League will be the team’s closer going forward. Closers make more money. It’s in the very definition of “closing”.
Said Colletti, among other things:
“We think that, after what he did the last two or three weeks in the season, that closing is the role,” Colletti said.
In September and October, League threw 16.1 innings, striking out 13 while walking eight and hitting one. Boom! That easy, right? Ned Colletti, so easily mockable.
But of course it isn’t that simple, because nothing is ever that simple. First of all, before we move on, we have to acknowledge that we don’t know what the free-agent market is going to look like yet. This could conceivably end up looking reasonable, and this could more conceivably end up looking like an overpay. Additionally, we have to acknowledge that, even if this is an overpay, it’s only a bit of an overpay, given the Dodgers’ budget. Say you’re down on Brandon League. The next three years, League will earn $22.5 million. Say you think he’ll instead be worth something like $10 – 12 million. We’d be talking about something like $4 million of wasted money a year. The Dodgers can deal with that possibility, and it would hardly set them back. This Brandon League contract can be neither genius nor crippling, and it just seems like a minor inefficiency.
Okay, so now we can actually talk about Brandon League, the player, again. Brandon League pitched in 74 games last season. His overall numbers were underwhelming, especially relative to his track record. The Dodgers, presumably, like League for what he did in a Dodgers uniform, as opposed to what he did in a Mariners uniform before. We know that you shouldn’t just look at a partial season, when you have an entire season. What League did with Seattle matters too, and with Seattle League wasn’t very good, at least in 2012. But there’s reason for Colletti to place extra emphasis on League’s limited Dodger time. As a Mariner last year, League struck out 14 percent of the batters he faced. As a Dodger last year, League struck out a quarter of the batters he faced. That’s much better!
And the Dodgers think they have an explanation. After the trade, League’s strikeout rate went way up. His contact rate, accordingly, went way down. His groundball rate went way up. From Don Mattingly in early September:
“[The coaches] felt like he was just kind of going sideways a little bit and not having a direct line. Rick and Kenny both have worked with him to get his lines better, get his direction better. He’s worked hard. He works every day. And it’s paid off. He’s been consistent for us now.”
So, mechanics, basically. The Dodgers made a mechanical tweak and Brandon League’s numbers improved. They say he re-discovered the feel for his splitter, which is absolutely lethal when it’s working. I don’t know if I can isolate the mechanical tweak, but here’s one idea. League as a Mariner, and League as a Dodger, from 2012:
As a Dodger, League seems more up-and-down, with a slightly lower arm slot. His glove is out in front of him. As a Mariner, League seems to be leaning more to first base, and his glove is a little off to the side. I don’t know if this is in any way meaningful — I might be seeing things, or these might not be representative images. But courtesy of Texas Leaguers, it sure seems like League did a better job of staying down in or out of the zone after getting dealt. Below you’re going to see fourth pitch-location charts. The first pair shows League against righties before the trade (left) and after the trade (right). The second pair shows League against lefties before the trade (left) and after the trade (right).
I wouldn’t say the differences are dramatic, but they seem like they’re there. We see fewer pitches up, implying better command. League is a guy who wants to pitch in the lower half, if not the lower third, and the meaningful numbers as a Dodger are sufficiently different to suggest a meaningful change.
So the Dodgers are confident that the Brandon League they saw is better than the Brandon League the Mariners saw in 2012, and therefore they don’t care too much about Brandon League’s 2012 Mariners performance. Let’s say that they’re right. The Dodgers version of Brandon League is more worth this contract, but is he fully worth this contract? As a Dodger, League actually threw more first-pitch balls than first-pitch strikes. His overall strike rate was below 60 percent. Against left-handed batters, he had more walks than strikeouts. His xFIP- was still very good, on account of the strikeouts and grounders. You’re usually going to be good if you can get those two things.
The contract seems like less of a stretch if you believe in Dodgers League, but it’s still kind of a stretch. Incidentally, very often with free agents, teams end up paying for what players have already done. The Dodgers are paying for what they think League could do, based on the way that he finished in 2012. Obviously, Brandon League has tons of potential, based on his raw stuff. The Dodgers are paying him to pitch closer to his ceiling.
Yet I might just be skipping around the major point. Brandon League has closer-type stuff, and the Dodgers want League to close, but the Dodgers already had an effective closer in Kenley Jansen. Granted, Jansen just underwent heart surgery, but his outlook is very good and he intends to be at full strength come spring training. Last year Jansen had 99 strikeouts in 65 appearances. He’s dominant when he’s pitching, and on top of that, he’s cheap. So the Dodgers aren’t paying League to fill a gaping void. That makes this move seem more unnecessary.
And League has supposedly figured it out before, only to lose it again within weeks or months. The fact that he had to re-discover the feel for his splitter says that, previously, he has lost the feel for his splitter after having had it. League, at his absolute best, is a very good reliever worth millions of dollars, but he’s seldom at his absolute best and he’s hardly been the model of consistency. The Dodgers didn’t just make a godawful move. They made a move that’s easier to criticize than defend. Individual inefficiencies aren’t a big deal, but individual inefficiencies do add up, and the Dodgers seem to be adding them up.