Brusdar Graterol has the “best stuff in the world”. Why isn’t he closer yet?

Dodgers reliever Brusdar Graterol celebrates after beating Padres third baseman Manny Machado to end the seventh inning lead July 2. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The combination of nitro-powered fastball and nickname doesn’t just suggest Dodgers are a helper Brusdar Graterol has what it takes to be a big league closer. it screams it

The burly right-hander has a mean-sinking, double-seam fastball that averaged 99.8 mph last season with a 20-inch drop and 15-inch left-to-right break, and a four-seamer that averaged 99, Reached 4 mph and touched 102.5 mph.

“He has the best things in the world” dodgers helper Alex Vesia called.

And a fitting nickname. Graterol’s Minnesota Twins teammates dubbed him “Bazooka” when he broke into the majors in 2019 because the ball seemed to explode out of his hand like it was shot from a rocket launcher.

“I think it’s the perfect nickname for me,” Graterol said.

But until Graterol can bring out lefties with more consistency, develop a more effective slider to keep hitters off his fastball, and avoid the nagging injuries that have derailed him for the past two seasons, he won’t be called “closer.”

Graterol has held righties with a .202 average, .512 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and two homers in 292 plate appearances over four big league seasons, but lefties have .294 with an .847 OPS and hit five homers in 183 plate appearances against him.

The 24-year-old Venezuelan threw a cut fastball — primarily left-handed — averaging 95.6 mph and dropping 22 inches last season, but with virtually no horizontal stop, giving batters a .302 (13 for 43) met the tailors they bring into play.

“He certainly has the mindset and closing stuff, but there’s a neutrality to being a committed closer,” manager Dave Roberts said, alluding to the need for ninth-inning specialists to be effective against both left-handers and right-handers have to be. “We’re continuing to work on making him a more neutral pitcher.”

The Dodgers will open the season without a designated closer. right-handed EvanPhillipsyour most effective and long-lasting helper in the past season, will score in the most important situations. DanielHudson will also be an important part of the group but he is unlikely to be ready for the start of the season due to ongoing knee and ankle injuries.

Graterol and left-handers Vesia and Caleb Ferguson will serve in high-leverage situations, but Graterol could also have a role in the ninth inning.

“Yeah, it’s right there in front of him, so go ahead and take it,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said. “His ceiling is as high as he wants. He is a very hard worker. He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen. He’s playing so well he could win a gold glove. For him, it’s all about going out and performing.”

Graterol made the first four saves of his career last season. Roberts wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Graterol closing, but the manager often prefers to use him against a string of tough right-handers regardless of the inning.

“The bottom line is I trust Brusdar in every situation,” Roberts said. “You could argue that some of the points I used him at have more leverage than a three run situation in the ninth. People get caught up in a role a lot and feel that this is their worth. That’s something I need to navigate and understand as a coach.”

Brusdar Graterol plays for the Dodgers.

Brusdar Graterol plays the San Diego Padres in Game 2 of the National League Division Series in October. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The 6-foot-1, 262-pound Graterol was looking good this spring, giving up five hits, striking out four and walking in one of five innings in five games, including Saturday’s scoreless inning against the Chicago White Sox, where his slider was better in depth.

The Slider averaged 90.6 mph last season with a 30-inch drop and a 7-inch right-to-left break, and Graterol held opponents at an average of .158 (six for 38) in Bats that ended up with the playing field. But Roberts believes a better slider will improve Graterol’s modest strikeout rate of 7.2 puffs per nine innings.

“He was trying to find the right shape of that breaking ball,” Roberts said. “Hopefully he finds something he likes and can be consistent with because Fastball Commando is elite. Hopefully he finds something he can trust in a big spot that will give him the speed difference we’re looking for.

“When he’s on the hill everything is tough. If you have something to slow the batsmen down a bit to get them off the fastball and cutter, there’s more upside potential.

Despite all the tinkering and fine-tuning this spring, Graterol has one goal for the start of the season: “Stay healthy all year round,” he says. He didn’t do it in 2021 and 2022.

Graterol, acquired from Minnesota to start with Kenta Mada in February 2020, avoided injury in his debut season in Los Angeles, went 1-2 with a 3.09 ERA in 23 games of the pandemic-shortened 2020 year and had three earned runs in 7⅔ innings of nine playoff games to defeat the Dodgers help win the World Series.

He went 3-0 in 34 games in 2021 with a 4.59 ERA, losing three weeks in April to COVID-19, all of May to right forearm tightness and all of June to a demotion to Triple A for, what Roberts then called “finish school.”

Graterol found his way in October, playing in eight of 12 postseason games in 2021, allowing one run and four hits, scoring seven and not getting a foot in nine innings.

He went 2-4 in 2022 with a 3.26 ERA and four saves in 46 games, hitting 43 and going 10 in 49 ⅔ innings but missed two months with shoulder and elbow injuries.

There has been some speculation that Graterol puts more stress on his shoulder and elbow because he has a shorter stride and generates much of his torque with his upper body. But the Dodgers have no plans to change its mechanics.

“It’s hard to say that a mechanical change will prevent injury every time a guy throws 100 mph,” McGuiness said. “I think you’re walking down a slippery slope and trying to change someone’s stride or something, especially given their throw.”

Graterol didn’t think his weight was an issue, but changes to his winter training routine — he worked out three times a day most days, with more stretching and cardio — and his diet helped him drop from 285 pounds to 262 pounds.

“My weight was up, but my bike was there — I was throwing 102-103 mph,” Graterol said. “But I feel a lot better. I feel like I can make everything easier.”

Teammates noticed the weight loss immediately. “I saw him on the first day of spring training,” Vesia said, “and I said, ‘You’re ready to go this year.’ Roberts said the weight loss doesn’t necessarily show increased engagement. “I would say it shows his maturity,” Roberts said.

McGuinness isn’t sure if or how Graterol will benefit from being lighter.

“It can help him potentially build a decent foundation to get through the whole season and help him recover a little bit better,” McGuiness said. “But there is an argument that being a little heavier at the beginning of the year can also be an advantage. So there are two sides to this coin.”

The Dodgers had an established closer for a decade when Kenley Jansen held the role from 2012-2021, and they entered 2022 with veteran closer Craig Kimbrel as their ninth-inning specialist.

Late-game pitching decisions will be based more on matchups than defined roles this season, but whether he’s closer, setup man or short helper, Graterol will be an important part of the mix.

“Doc will continue to use him in big situations there and we need him healthy all year round,” Vesia said of Graterol. “He’s going to be a huge part of our bullpen whether it’s in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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