The grand question that Dodgers fans and the baseball community want to know, is Mike Bolsinger a bullshooter? Yes, that’s what I meant the article headline as. Bolsinger was raised in McKinney, Texas, so it is reasonable to assume that he has encountered some bulls in his life, and I want to know if he shot any. Sounds like a valid wonder to me!
Every now and again there comes along a pitcher who has never been thought of as a high prospect but finally gets his chance in the Majors when he is passed his mid-20’s, and he ends up dazzling to become a mainstay in his team’s rotation. Last year, Matt Shoemaker of the Angels, at age 27, was one to accomplish it as he made the opening day roster as a relief pitcher but worked his way into some spot starts due to injuries in the Angels rotation and was able to parlay it into a full-time gig. Shoemaker finished the season going 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 124 K/24 BB in 136 IP on his way to finishing 2nd in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
There is a pitcher from Shoemaker’s crosstown rival who is making a bid to have the same sort of breakout at the age of 27, and that is the previously mentioned Bolsinger of the Dodgers. Bolsinger originally came up with the Diamondbacks and spent the 2010-14 seasons in their Minor League system where he compiled a 3.48 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 8.25 K/9, and 3.19 BB/9 over 465 IP. Those are not overly impressive, but certainly serviceable. Bolsinger also spent some time on the Diamondbacks Major League roster in 2014, making 9 starts and 1 relief appearance. But after he posted a 5.50 ERA and 1.59 WHIP, they apparently had seen enough and shipped him to Los Angeles in the off-season for cash considerations.
Bolsinger began this season at AAA with his new ball club and was pitching very well at the level before being called up on April 23 to make a spot start versus the Giants as the Dodgers were forced to seek other options as they dealt with injuries to Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Bolsinger held the Giants in check allowing only 1 run in 5.2 IP while striking out 5, but he was sent back to AAA afterward where he had a couple more successful outings. Overall on the year in AAA, Bolsinger has a 1.42 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and 28 K/6 BB in 19 IP.
Bolsinger was recalled again on May 12 and has made 3 starts since then, with the most impressive one coming in his most recent start on May 23. In that start at home versus the Padres, Bolsinger got through 8 innings of shutout, 1-hit, no walk baseball with 8 strikeouts in what amounted to a truly mesmerizing outing. He was only at 92 pitches after the 8th inning, so he appeared to be in great position to try and complete the shutout, but nearly inexplicably, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly brought in his closer Kenley Jansen to preserve the 2-run lead. It was an odd move for Mattingly not to give his starter the chance to finish what he started, but it at least it didn’t backfire on him and Bolsinger still logged the win.
So now through 4 starts on the season with the Dodgers, Bolsinger is 3-0 with a 0.71 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and 22 K/6 BB in 25.1 IP. Bolsinger is by no means a power pitcher as he tops out in the upper 80’s on the radar gun, but he has been able to miss some bats and generate ground balls at a great rate (58.3%), which fits right in with the approach that the new Dodgers brass seems to be infusing the team with. In the off-season they went out and improved their middle infield defense by trading for Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick and also bolstered their pitching staff with ground ball pitchers Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy. So when they acquired Bolsinger, I am sure they were well aware of his ground ball inducing tendencies as well and saw him as a great fit as organizational depth in the new direction that they were heading.
It doesn’t take a baseball expert to know that Bolsinger isn’t going to finish the season with an ERA under 1.00, but what is the likelihood of him continuing to be a decent contributor? The first thing for any player to have a good chance to be productive is opportunity. As mentioned, the Dodgers have had to endure some hardship in their starting rotation, which was supposed to be a staff that could match up to any other in baseball. Both McCarthy and Ryu have been lost for the season, opening the door for Bolsinger and Carlos Frias to display what they can do. After getting torched on Sunday by the same Padres team that Bolsinger dominated, Frias could be flaming out, which will improve Bolsinger’s chances of becoming a mainstay in the rotation as the Dodgers also expect Brandon Beachy, another off-season signing, back around the All-Star break.
So the opportunity looks like it will be there for Bolsinger, at least for the foreseeable future. But his sterling stat line so far is being driven by some great fortune thanks to a .210 BABIP and 96.9% strand rate. For a ground ball pitcher, it would be reasonable to expect a BABIP around .300, and the league average in strand rate is near 72-73%. So regression is a foregone conclusion in his near future, but what may be his downfall is the fact that he is nothing but a two-pitch pitcher with a cutter and curveball, although PITCHf/x data does have him throwing a changeup a mere 2.3% of the time this year.
The cutter is a pitch that induces a lot of ground balls for him while the curveball is his swing and miss strikeout pitch. That limited arsenal may be suitable for a relief pitcher, but for a starting pitcher it’s really beneficial to have at least a 3rd pitch (if not more) to give the opposing hitters different looks in their 2nd and 3rd plate appearances of a game. And it was those 2nd and 3rd times through the lineup last year for Bolsinger that did him in. Last year as a starter in his first time through the lineup, Bolsinger allowed just a .219 AVG to hitters. However, that number increased to a .338 AVG in the 2nd time through and a .365 AVG the 3rd time through. That trend has not continued in his starts this season so far, but I think that it will soon begin to affect him as teams gather more information and scouting reports on him.
With all this being said, he is a bit of a different pitcher than last year as he has all but ditched a four-seam fastball to increase his cutter and curveball usage. So that change in his pitch usage is proving to yield better results, so he is still definitely worth a look in fantasy baseball leagues while he is running hot, and maybe he does keep the good times rolling. However, expectations need to be held in check, and unless he suddenly develops that changeup and begins to use it a lot more, then the Dodgers definitely may have a guy who shoots bulls on their hands and will be scouring the trade market soon to solidify their rotation for their post-season run.