A key adjustment helped Blake Treinen become a major part of Dodgers' bullpen

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Los Angeles, CA, Monday, August 30, 2021 - Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Blake Treinen (49) and Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith (16) celebrate after completing a 5-3 win over the Atlanta Braves at Dodger Stadium. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
Blake Treinen (49) celebrates with catcher Will Smith after earning the save in the Dodgers' 5-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 30. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Blake Treinen’s return to dominance this season can be traced to a trend he couldn’t ignore during the Dodgers’ World Series run last October.

He noticed hitters were laying off even his best sliders, making it difficult to generate whiffs and, as a result, strikeouts. Looking back, he says he might have been tipping his pitches. But he was determined to make a change.

“I said I couldn't go back into the season expecting to be the same role, same results, or being even better, with the same slider,” Treinen said. “I wanted to learn a new slider.”

So, he did. After signing a two-year contract to remain with the Dodgers, Treinen debuted the variation during the third week of spring training in Arizona. The pitch’s velocity dropped slightly from his previous slider — from 87-90 mph to 85-88 mph — but the break was sharper. He realized it was the put-away pitch he needed when he posted consecutive three-strikeout one-inning outings in April.

“I don't strike out the side, hardly ever in my career,” Treinen, 33, said. “So, I was like, 'OK, well, this obviously plays.' "

The trend continued through the summer. He has 76 strikeouts across 66 games this season. He has recorded 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 66 1/3 innings — a significant increase from 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 25 2/3 innings last season. He has recorded multiple strikeouts in 21 appearances. Last year, Treinen compiled more than one strikeout in only three of his 27 outings. He is 5-5 with a 2.04 ERA and five saves.

Treinen still features the heavy sinker he has relied on during his seven-year career, but he has altered his pitch mix by throwing his cutter 30.2% of the time — compared to 8.8% last year — and the slider is putting hitters away.

In 2020, his slider generated a 35.8% whiff rate and 21.8% put-away rate, according to BaseballSavant.com. This season, his slider’s whiff rate is 46.6%. The put-away rate has increased to 29.1%.

The adjustment has crafted a different, more reliable choice out of the Dodgers’ bullpen. Last season, Treinen said, he sought weak contact. This season, he’s better at keeping the ball out of play and minimizing the potential for trouble.

“Last year we saw a pretty dang good Blake,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But this year, the consistency, how he's feeling, how he's throwing the baseball, his three-pitch mix. I mean, those three pitches, they're all elite and how he's using them is another layer that's leading to his success.”

Blake Treinen recorded the save in Game 5 of the 2020 World Series when he shut down the Tampa Bay Rays in a 4-2 victory.
Blake Treinen recorded the save in Game 5 of the 2020 World Series when he shut down the Tampa Bay Rays in a 4-2 victory. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

This weekend, Treinen returns to Cincinnati for the first time since his career reached a turning point there four years ago. He was in Cincinnati when the Washington Nationals traded him to the Oakland Athletics in July 2017. Treinen had begun the season as the team’s closer, but he lost the job by the end of April as Washington’s relief corps became the worst in the majors.

The bullpen’s struggles prompted the Nationals to send Treinen and two prospects, including Dodgers minor leaguer Sheldon Neuse, to Oakland for relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.

A year later, Treinen was the best closer in the majors, posting a 0.78 ERA with 38 saves for a 97-win club, but injuries sabotaged his 2019 season. That winter, he was designated for assignment and the Dodgers swooped in to sign him to a one-year deal.

Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer was on that Nationals team that discarded Treinen. He recalled a pitcher reluctant to attack hitters. It’s different now.

“Somehow his stuff is even better and he's even more aggressive with it,” Scherzer said. “Watching the way he's going out there and the way he's pitching, the sky's the limit any time he touches the mound.”

Treinen has encountered a rocky September — he has put baserunners on via hit or walk in five of his seven appearances — that could be the result of heavy usage. But he remains the bedrock for the best bullpen, by most statistical measures, in the majors this season. He’s the Dodgers’ ninth-inning insurance when closer Kenley Jansen needs a night off or falters, and their fireman for the biggest spots with a new weapon at his disposal.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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