'He's turned into a weapon.' How Michael Grove became a high-leverage Dodgers reliever

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY17, 2024: Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Michael Grove (29) pitches in relief against the Cincinnati Reds at Dodger Stadium on May 17, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Daniel Hudson was the same age (27) when he moved from the Arizona rotation to the bullpen in 2014 as Dodgers right-hander Michael Grove is today, and even though the transition was more by necessity than design — Hudson had Tommy John surgeries in 2012 and 2013 and had to ease the stress on his elbow — it was still a blow to his ego.

“In the beginning, it’s kind of tough, it almost seems like a demotion, especially when you’re young and you’ve been starting your whole career,” said Hudson, now a 37-year-old Dodgers setup man who closed games for the World Series-winning Washington Nationals in 2019.

“But then you kind of get over that and see it as like, ‘No, this is my opportunity to show that this is my niche, this is my spot on the team, and I’m going to go out there for one or two innings with whatever I’ve got and [dominate].’”

Grove, a starting pitcher in 18 of his first 25 big league games in 2022 and 2023, didn’t view his move to the bullpen this season as a demotion, but he has clearly adopted the bulldog mentality described by Hudson, much to his and the Dodgers’ benefit.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder from West Virginia struggled in his first four games as a long man and middle reliever, giving up 10 earned runs and 13 hits in 7 ⅔ innings (11.74 ERA) of his first four games.

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But Grove has been so effective since April 10 that he has moved into a setup role, teaming with Hudson, right-hander Blake Treinen and left-hander Alex Vesia to help sustain an injury-plagued bullpen that lost closer Evan Phillips and setup men Ryan Brasier and Joe Kelly in the last three weeks and is still without Brusdar Graterol.

Grove was 2-2 with a 2.16 ERA in his last 14 appearances before Monday night’s game against the Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium, a stretch in which he gave up four earned runs, eight hits, struck out 26 and walked four in 16 ⅔ innings, lowering his ERA to 5.18 in 18 games on the season.

Entering Monday, the bullpen as a whole has gone 6-2 with a major league-best 1.28 ERA, 79 strikeouts and 24 walks in 84 ⅓ innings of 26 games since April 21, a stretch in which the Dodgers went 20-6.

Treinen, who sat out most of the last two seasons because of shoulder injuries and the first five weeks of 2024 because of fractured ribs, did not give up a run in six innings of his first six appearances. Vesia has not given up a run in 15 ⅓ innings of his last 14 games, lowering his ERA from 4.05 to 1.23.

Versatile left-hander Ryan Yarbrough has given up one run in 12 ⅓ innings (0.73 ERA) of his last six games. Hudson has been a back-of-the-bullpen mainstay all season, going 1-1 with a 2.84 ERA and two saves in his first 20 games, striking out 20 and walking one in 19 innings.

“There are a lot of good things going on in the bullpen, and our pitching staff as a whole, but Grover settling in has been the biggest one for me,” Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “He’s been throwing in seventh- and eighth-inning situations, and [what he’s done] has been huge.”

Grove has relied primarily on an 86.5-mph slider that, according to Baseball Savant, has much more vertical drop (36.6 inches) than horizontal break (4.8 inches). He has held opponents to a .167 average (10 for 60) in at-bats ending with the pitch.

Grove has replaced a four-seam fastball that averaged 94.8 mph last season with a more lively two-seam sinking fastball that averages 95.5 mph with 15.0 inches of drop and 11.1 inches of horizontal break, while retaining his 92.6-mph cut-fastball and 80-mph knuckle-curve.

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Grove’s chase rates, according to Baseball Savant, have improved from 22.3% in 2022 to 27.2% in 2023 to 31.9% this season. His strikeout rates have jumped from 18.1% in 2022 to 24.2% in 2023 to 31.1% this season.

The sinker has armed Grove with another pitch to neutralize left-handed hitters, who are batting .148 (four for 27) with no homers and a .537 on-base-plus-slugging percentage off him this season after hitting .352 (45 for 128) with six homers and a 1.025 OPS off him last season.

“Honestly, he’s turned into a weapon,” Hudson said of Grove. “He’s starting to really trust his slider and his sinker in the zone, and he’s starting to throw more strikes. It’s been awesome, a lot of fun to watch.”

Before adjusting to his new role, Grove, a 2018 second-round pick who came up through the Dodgers farm system as a starter, had to accept it.

That was easier to do after the Dodgers acquired ace Tyler Glasnow from Tampa Bay and signed the right-hander to a five-year, $136.5-million extension, signed Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto to a 12-year, $325-million deal and veteran left-hander James Paxton to a one-year, $7-million deal last winter.

Erstwhile ace Walker Buehler also returned from a second Tommy John surgery in early May, and three-time National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw is expected to return from shoulder surgery this summer.

“Everybody wants to start, and I believe I can start, but we also have a really unique collection of talent with Walker coming back and Kershaw coming back,” Grove said. “My ability to make an impact on the team is in the role I have now.

“I want to be in the big leagues, and I want to play for this team that wins a lot of games and has a chance to win in October, and part of that is making sacrifices and doing what’s best for you and for the team. I understand that.”

Grove got his feet wet in the bullpen last season, when he made six relief appearances in the regular season and two in the NL Division Series loss to the Diamondbacks, but he has been fully submerged there this season, leaning on the team’s veterans for advice.

“They’ve helped with my preparation of knowing when I could be going into the game, knowing how the score and the situation and who’s thrown a lot over the last few days can dictate a lot of that,” Grove said. “I’m doing my best to kind of know each day what’s going to be expected of me.”

The biggest challenge for Grove and most young starters transitioning to the bullpen is learning how to conserve their physical and mental energy before and during games, how to throw enough to stay sharp without taxing their arms too much.

“It’s that day-to-day work before the game, just trying to keep that at a volume where it’s not going to pile up on you and it’s enough that you feel ready every day,” Grove said. “It’s been kind of a balance there.”

Grove doesn’t know if his move to the bullpen will be permanent, but he has pitched well enough in relief to carve out an important role on a championship-caliber club.

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“We have a lot of really good players in this room, and it’s about finding what everybody individually can do to help us win a World Series,” Grove said. “That’s kind of my focus right now.”

Grove is doing his part, pitching well enough to go from a long-relief, low-leverage role to a short-relief, high-leverage role. Each of his last seven appearances before Monday night have come in the seventh inning or later.

Grove replaced Paxton in the seventh inning of a 3-3 game Friday night and picked off Cincinnati pinch-runner Jacob Hurtubise at first base, struck out the left-handed-hitting Jake Fraley with a 79-mph curve and got Santiago Espinal to pop out to second base. The Dodgers went on to win 7-3. Grove struck out two of three batters in the seventh inning of Saturday night’s 4-0 win over the Reds.

“It’s been a transition for Michael to be able to go in shorter bursts and to be available more often, and he’s continuing to adjust,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But what he’s done has been fantastic. He’s a valuable piece.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.