Do you really think it’s Clayton Kershaw who’s going to pitch the Los Angeles Dodgers the National League pennant again this season?
Well, yes. Kershaw just tossed 21 ⅓ innings of scoreless spring ball. He’s in the midst of a seven-year stretch in which he’s won 118 games, struck out over 1,600 batters, posted a 0.91 WHIP and clocked a 2.10 ERA. Kershaw’s won three Cy Young awards, an MVP trophy and a Golden Glove in that stretch so, yeah, he may very well pitch the Dodgers back into the World Series.
Digging into the Dodgers’ rotation
Kershaw’s wing man is Alex Wood, the 6-foot-4 lefty who, in 2017, finally met the heady expectations placed on him early in his career. Wood was 16-3 with 151 strikeouts in 152.1 innings and an eye-popping 154 ERA+ last year, and has mostly cruised through the preseason to the tune of 16 Ks and a pair of wins in four starts.
Wood’s 2018 projections, however, are very conservative. Doubters look at his high strand rate and low BABIP in 2017 as something akin to luck, point to his second-half struggles and question his overall durability. We shall see. For now, let’s revel in the fact that we have a pair of nasty strikeout artists at the top of the Dodgers’ rotation.
That’s not abnormal for a serious contender. Look at the true challengers for the crown this season: the Astros have Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel as their 1-2 (and Gerrit Cole as their three). The Nationals have Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. The Cubs have Jon Lester and Yu Darvish. The Indians have Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. And so on.
No, the place where a starting pitching staff gets interesting is that back end, those 3-4-5 guys who can make or break a season. We’ve certainly seen enough Dodger campaigns over the past several years poisoned by ineffective rotation depth. Let’s take a moment to remember the likes of Josh Beckett, Mike Bolsinger, Chris Capuano, Dan Haren, Roberto Hernandez and Ricky Nolasco.
The back end of the rotation can turn a little two-game hiccup into a five-game losing skid. They can take a three-run lead in the second inning and gently work it to the bullpen in the sixth, or turn the ballgame into a slugging contest.
The 3-4-5 pitchers can change entire stretches of the season by eating innings when the bullpen needs some much-needed rest. Or, conversely, they can turn your race for the pennant into an 86-win disappointment.
Our own Andy Lane Chapman put together a nice write-up on the Dodgers’ rotation on March 19, noting that she’s not worried about Kenta Maeda; that Rich Hill is a slightly-worrisome 39 years old; and that bigger things are both needed and expected from Hyun-Jin Ryu this season.
I’d agree with all of those thoughts. We know what Maeda is — a solid starter who’s getting through the fifth inning and maybe a little later as long as he can keep the ball in the park.
Rich Hill isn’t a pitcher who relies on a big arm. As long as his control doesn’t fall off the table and his health (and hand) stays blemish-free, he’s going to be good for double-digit wins, regardless of age.
And Ryu — who I wrote about earlier this spring — was downright dominant for an extended stretch last season before he ran out of gas in September. He’s healthy and has a full offseason and preseason under his belt, and I, like Dave Roberts, feel good about the big man in 2018.
There’s more good news: if any of these three pitchers struggle, get hurt or flame out completely, there are a lot of cards left to play.
Call up Brock Stewart. Send Ross Stripling out there. Give Walker Buehler a shot. Julio Urias should be back by the summertime stretch run. Even Tom Koehler may be available at some point. Wilmer Font? Why not?
That’s even without any moves, and the odds of the front office sitting on its hands all season seem slim. The Dodgers’ 3-4-5 rotation should be, along with our newest nemeses in Houston, among the best in baseball.
How do the 3-4-5 starters in the rest of the NL West stack up?
The 3-4-5 guys: Taijuan Walker, Patrick Corbin, Zack Godley.
How do they look? Walker, the big righty with the big fastball and a big propensity for giving up big home runs, had the best season of his short career last year (137 ERA+, 4.04 FIP). Maybe he’s finally making the leap. The lefty Corbin was dominant at times in 2017 (5-0, 0.50 ERA from Aug. 12 to Sept. 2). Don’t be fooled by the mediocre standard statistics — his 3.0 WAR had him 27th on Fangraphs’ 2017 pitcher rankings. Fangraphs also loves Zack Godley, a Syracuse native who posted a 3.5 WAR and a 9.8 K/9.
The verdict: The Diamondbacks have three talented pitchers at the end of their rotation who, after years of frustration by injury, homers and other issues, finally came into their own in 2017. Given the way Robbie Ray and Zack Greinke have struggled this spring, the trio may have to carry the D-backs in April.
The 3-4-5 guys: German Marquez, Chad Bettis, Kyle Freeland.
How do they look? The righty Marquez is working on a changeup and slider after recording a 4.39 ERA, 4.40 FIP and 2.4 WAR in 29 starts in 2017 — his first full season in the Majors. Bettis, another righthander, wasn’t great in nine starts last season, but give the guy break — he was coming back from cancer treatment. His 2018 spring has not been very good, unfortunately. The lefty Freeland collected 11 wins as a rookie and keeps the ball on the ground, which is obviously a plus in Denver.
The verdict: It’s always tough evaluating Colorado pitchers, especially when we’re looking at a pair of second-year full-timers and a guy returning from a life-altering illness. Here’s what Nick Groke of The Denver Post had to say about the threesome: “(Now) the real test starts — hitters got a taste of their talent last season and collected evidence on how to beat them…Together they remain one of the youngest staffs in baseball.” These guys have to prove they can do it again.
San Diego Padres
The 3-4-5 guys: Dinelson Lamet, Luis Perdomo, Robbie Erlin.
How do they look? First of all, the group is in flux: Tyson Ross and Chris Young could still make the staff and Colin Rea, a dark horse starter coming into camp, is out with a strained right lat. Left-handed prospect Eric Lauer had a 2.53 ERA in 10.2 innings but was sent down to minor league camp this week — we’ll likely see him again before too long.
As for the other three candidates: Erlin is coming off Tommy John surgery and missed the 2017 season, but he’s looked good this spring and should make the cut. Twenty-five-year-old righty Dinelson Lamet, 7-8 with a 4.57 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 114.1 innings as a rookie in 2017, has been working on a curveball in the offseason and struck out seven Reds on Wednesday. Luis Perdomo needed to prove that he has a big-league attitude this spring after two mediocre seasons to start his Major League career. After some success in his past two starts, the Padres feel like he’s starting to get it.
The verdict: The fact that 38-year-old Chris Young has a legit shot to make this team as a starter after coming out of the Royals bullpen for the past two seasons speaks to the quality on the back end of the San Diego rotation. Lamet looks like he may be the real deal but it’s an open question if Erlin and Perdomo have the goods to be legit Major League starters — even for the perpetually struggling Padres.
San Francisco Giants
The 3-4-5 guys: Derek Holland, Chris Stratton, Ty Blach.
How do they look? Holland gets the call thanks to a pectoral injury to Jeff Samardzija. Holland was flat-out bad for the White Sox in 2017 (-0.9 WAR, 5.78 FIP) but has been OK this spring so, who knows? Maybe he’ll get by for a few weeks. Righty Chris Stratton is a fastball-curveball guy who had a pretty decent season (3.68 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 7.8 K/9) for a pretty bad Giants team in 2017, but he’ll have to make quite a jump to be anything more than average. Blach, the man with the lowest strikeout rate among qualified lefties last season, as per Fangraphs, wouldn’t be starting were it not for injuries to Samardzija and Madison Bumgarner. Looks like he’s getting the Opening Day start against the Dodgers, though.
The verdict: The Giants are using a four-man rotation to start the season, according to John Shea. I take no joy in stating that the back end of the Giants rotation is, as currently constructed, shabby at best and hot garbage at worst. Well — some joy.