Here’s a headline that could be written about the Dodgers preseason dealings – “Dodgers watch as two-fifths of their rotation signs with other clubs”. Or someone might have written, “Crickets chirp as Dodgers watch top three free agent starting pitchers sign elsewhere”. Both headlines would be accurate, but also misleading as the Dodgers retool their rotation. As things stand, they will be younger, but will they be better? That is the question that is probably keeping Dodger fans fingernails short and ragged this winter.
The LA Dodgers have a long history of great starting pitchers and deep rotations going back to teams with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Don Sutton, or more recently Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch, and Fernando Valenzuela. So when you see the rotation member (Ryu) who had the best season on the team depart in free agency, you could react a couple different ways. One reaction might be to wonder if the Dodgers were in some kind of trouble – maybe pushing up against the salary cap. One might also show some faith and think that the Dodgers have a plan. Let’s go with that second approach, that the Dodgers have a plan. With the resources available to the team and the talent they already have assembled, there is no way the Dodgers would prematurely close a competitive window. Let’s see what that plan might be.
Clayton Kershaw has been one of the best, if not the best starting pitcher in all the baseball land for most of the 2010s and still managed to finish third among Dodger pitchers in WAR in 2019 (3.4 WAR) after missing the start of the season because of his increasingly balky back. A couple of trends overlapped in 2019 for Kershaw. One, his walk rate decreased below his career rate as he only offered free passes to 2.07 batters per nine innings (career rate of 2.28 per nine). Two, his home run rate spiked to 1.41 per nine (career rate of .68 per nine). It appears he used his fastball a bit more this year, reversing a recent trend for Kershaw where he went to the slider instead of the fastball. This trend occurred as his average fastball velocity dropped from 94.3 MPH in 2015 to last season’s 90.5 MPH. At this point, Kershaw is throwing both the “heater” and the slider around 40% of the time. His slider and fastball are still his best pitches according to pitch values with the changeup (he threw it less than 1% of the time in 2019), which is becoming closer and closer in velocity to his fastball, being a break-even pitch at best in terms of pitch value. His big, slow curve has become less and less effective, and while it was still a positive pitch in terms of pitch value, it isn’t nearly as effective as it used to be. That could be an effect of the slower fastball or possibly a side effect of Kershaw missing time during the spring last year and being unable to get a feel for the pitch during the season. Kershaw is increasingly fighting health issues – mainly his back – while at the same time transitioning to a different stage in his career where he no longer is dominant most nights. There is a lot working against him, but he is a hard worker and very smart so betting against him figuring it out and continuing to be excellent would be foolish.
The resident ace of the Dodgers is Walker Buehler, who at 24 just keeps getting better and better – a scary thought for the rest of the NL West. In 2019, Buehler had a 5.0 WAR, increased his strikeouts per nine from 9.90 to 10.61 while decreasing his walk rate from 2.42 per nine to 1.83 per nine, and decreased his FIP from 3.04 to 3.01 in spite of an increase in BABIP against him (from .248 to .290) implying that he was much less lucky in his first full season than in his debut. Buehler is an ace on a great team pitching in a pitcher’s park. If you had to pick a nit because that’s just who you are, you might point to the increased home run rate last season from .79 per nine to .99 per nine. Beuhler threw 182.33 innings in 2019 and the 200 inning mark might be his next target after a supreme 2019 – that’s what an ace might do. With Ryu gone and no big moves to bring in a top starter on the horizon, this is Buehler’s team now.
On most teams, Kenta Maeda would be entrenched in the rotation. He produced 2.5 WAR in 2019 – his second season in a row above 2.0 WAR, and posted a FIP of 3.95. But on the Dodgers, Maeda is a swingman moving from the rotation to the pen to fill whatever hole needs filling. That might be Maeda’s role again in 2019 depending on what the Dodgers do with all their young arms. He has averaged about 24 starts a season for the last three campaigns to go with 35 appearances. In his first season in the states, 2016, Maeda was used exclusively as a starter but has nimbly bounced back and forth between the pen and rotation ever since. He has averaged at least 9 K’s per 9 innings for his career fanning 9.9 per 9 last season. It seems odd to talk about someone who has been a swingman for three seasons now as being consistent, but that’s Maeda. His FIP changes some from year to year as his home run totals vary, but he is always good for about 10 strikeouts per 9 and around three walks per 9. You’d be hard pressed to find another pitcher who is a better swingman because they either make their way into the rotation full time or are only there because they are fringy, and they fairly quickly show that they aren’t good enough to hold a rotation spot. The Dodgers would be wise to avoid fixing what ain’t broke.
Julio Urias is only 23 but we have been hearing about him for so long that it is surprising that he wasn’t Koufax’ locker mate. He had already tasted high-A (with success) at the age of 18 and was a top prospect in a deep Dodgers system for multiple seasons. Last year, Urias threw 79.66 innings in the majors, including 6 starts for the big club. He did a nice job of keeping the ball in the yard (.79 home runs per 9), and got a little lucky – low BABIP and high strand rates – with an ERA of 2.49 and a FIP of 3.43. Urias made his MLB debut in 2016 but still only has 184 innings in the majors. Is this the year he finally is handed a rotation spot and makes 30 starts? On most teams the answer would be yes, but on the Dodgers you have to keep moving not to get caught from behind. There are two guys who have caught Urias and had successful major league debuts so even though he is only 23, this is an important year for him if he wants to remain a starter. The Dodgers might also decide that the best way to keep Urias healthy is to permanently install him in the pen or make him a swingman like Maeda. Ah – the curse of having a wealth of options!
At 30, Ross Stripling, a former 5th round pick, would be a two or a three on most teams, but on the Dodgers he has mostly been the guy who fills in when someone else can’t go. He has 52 career starts and holds a career ERA of 3.51 with 8.77 strikeouts per 9 to go with 2.12 walks per 9. Those are some excellent career numbers, and he has been even better the last two seasons with K rates over nine and walk rates under two. Last year, Stripling pitched in 32 games, 15 of which he started. He induces a fair number of grounders but, in part because he throws so many strikes, Stripling is prone to the long ball with a career rate of 1.14 home runs per nine. If you are keeping track, that’s three excellent pitchers who the Dodgers move back and forth between the rotation and the pen – seems like a strategy rather than an accident. Stripling’s splits as a starter and reliever look pretty similar and a small sample size shows that he can retain effectiveness the third time through the order. He might be the guy the Dodgers try to turn into a full time starter, unless their usage pattern is how they keep him healthy. I would say watch how they open the season with him, but on the Dodgers that would be meaningless because flux seems to be their middle name.
Dustin May – Gingergaard – is a beast. The former third round pick is only 22, but made his big league debut last year making four starts and working another ten games from the pen. With a fastball that touches triple digits from the pen and averages 96 MPH, he induces a goodly number of grounders and has never allowed more than .82 home runs per nine innings at any stop in his professional career. He is stingy with the walk and in spite of his wicked heat, doesn’t get as many K’s as one might imagine. He still managed 8.31 K’s per nine with LA last year and kept his walk rate to 1.3. May has been a starter his whole career and it would be surprising for the Dodgers to do anything else with him, although it has to be tantalizing to imagine him as the heir to Kenley Jansen in the closer role. He just passed 140 innings pitched in a season for the first time in 2019 and he is young, so the Dodgers are likely to baby him a bit because they can and because he could be great. He is also fun to watch with his wild red hair flying all over the place so he is likely to become a fan favorite.
Yet another young stud, but the old man of this crop of youngsters at 25, Tony Gonsolin, made his debut for the Dodgers in 2019 and threw 40 innings for LA including six starts. Although Gonsolin throws hard like May, his best pitch is a change and he gets a lot of swings and misses with his pitch mix. Before last season, Gonsolin had shown good control and that shouldn’t be a concern going forward even after his walk rate spiked in triple-A. He seemed to mostly find his control again once he reached LA. His biggest issue might be the incredible starting pitching depth of the Dodgers and the fact that Gonsolin could provide more bullpen depth where his fastball plays up – near 100 MPH. He looked equally good in his starts so he will be in the mix to stick in the rotation with a strong spring. He has a legit four pitch mix and the Dodgers might be willing to use him for more innings than May or Urias because he is older.
In 2017, when his arm went boom, Jimmy Nelson was looking a lot like the ace the Brewers had been hoping for since they drafted him in the second round. In 29 starts he was 12-6 with a FIP of 3.05 and 10.21 K’s per nine to go with only 2.46 walks per nine. It was a huge leap for the then 27 year old, and it is hard to quantify how much losing him cost the Brewers. He finally made it back to the majors in 2019 for 22 somewhat ugly innings over three starts and seven appearances out of the pen. Nelson had neither the control nor the velocity from before his injury, but the Dodgers picked him up after Milwaukee non-tendered him. Taking a one year flyer on a veteran like Nelson is something you usually see small market teams try, and Nelson will have his work cut out for him to best some of the Dodgers young arms. If an offseason without pain, where he can train like he normally would, brings him close to where he was before the injury, then the Dodgers will have given themselves even more depth in their rotation. Watch him in the spring to see if his control is back and his velocity is back up around 94.
Oh, the depth of the Dodgers rotation! One hears so many complaints that the Dodgers didn’t make any big moves this offseason when they could have chased a top starter, but if you look at the young arms who have already shown the ability to succeed against major league hitting, it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Dodgers are built to last AND built to win now in spite of what you hear from their critics. While they could probably have overpaid to attract one of the hot arms that were on the market, they would do so at the cost of slowing the development of one of their three top 100 prospect arms. (I didn’t even mention Josiah Gray who is just reaching triple-A.) Yes, it is important to win when your window opens, but imagine a team where Kershaw is your 3 or 4 which could happen as early as 2020, and you understand why the Dodgers are bearish on signing free agent starting pitchers. As of this moment, Buehler is clearly the 1 and Kershaw the 2, but it gets cloudier after that – not because there aren’t good options, but because there are so many. The safe play would be to go with Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling as the 3 and 4 (in either order) and one of the youngsters as the 5 – probably Urias to start. Gonsolin and May could be great additions to the pen right now and when a starter inevitably goes down work one or both of them into the rotation, so keeping them stretched out in the swing spot would be the way to go. The Dodgers almost can’t screw up and as the season unfolds Dodger fans will be happy that this offseason – as least as starting pitching is concerned – played out the way it did.