Last week, the Dodgers starting rotation accomplished something truly remarkable, especially for a team surging towards the playoffs: Four wins in a row by rookie pitchers, Jose De Leon, Kenta Maeta, Ross Stripling, and Brock Stewart. Solid starts by De Leon and Julio Urias against the Yankees this week only continued the positive young pitching theme that has developed this season for the Dodgers.
No one predicted this. How could they? A bunch of rookie pitchers leading the way for a first place team? Seems like an improbable scenario. Yet here we are, watching it play out that way for the 2016 Dodgers.
How did this happen so quickly?
This year was supposed to be a bridge year for the Dodgers rotation. In the off-season, they signed veteran Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeta (who is technically an MLB rookie himself, but had eight years of experience pitching in Japan.) These two complimented a rotation that already had Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, as well as injured pitchers Hynu-Jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthy, and Brett Anderson, all who the Dodgers were hoping could make a return at some point. These were the guys that were supposed to be leading the way this season.
Wrong on that one I guess.
Many believed young prospects like Urias and De Leon would likely need another year of seasoning at AAA, and if they were going to make any appearance in Los Angeles, it would come later in the year, perhaps for the September call-ups. Other rookies like Zach Lee and Ross Stripling also had their name thrown out there as possibilities early in the year, but the general consensus surely didn’t have a bunch of kids being mainstays in the Dodgers starting rotation.
Wrong on that one too.
Right off the bat, Ross Stripling surprised many by earning the #5 spot in the rotation to begin the year. And all he did in his first start was throw a no-hitter for 8 1/3 innings before being removed for pitch count concerns. Since then, he’s been in and out of the Dodgers rotation throughout the year, providing some quality starts and working out of the bullpen when needed.
As the year went along, the injury bug bit the Dodgers again and again, like it always seems to do, and not even super-ace Clayton Kershaw was immune. This allowed other young guys an opportunity to showcase their skills.
After dominating AAA hitters at Oklahoma City, Urias was called up back in May, and has showed flashes of brilliance over the course of the year, illustrating why he’s such a highly regarded prospect. Brock Stewart made his debut in late June, and has continued to improve each time out, allowing only 2 ER in his last three starts. Jose De Leon came up when rosters expanded in September and earned wins in his first two starts of his career, striking out 12 over 11 innings.
The way all these guys are performing, the future sure seems to be now.
What role will these rookies play going forward?
I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but it’s sure hard not to think about October baseball. As of late Tuesday night, the Dodgers currently hold a 3 1/2 game lead over the San Francisco Giants with 18 left to play, and certainly anything can still happen in the race for the NL West crown. But if the Dodgers are fortunate enough to get to the post season this year, one of the most intriguing questions will be what they do with their pitching, particularly the starting rotation, and whether any of these rookies will play a role.
Assuming no further injuries occur (fingers tightly crossed) I think it’s safe to say the Dodgers post season rotation would start with Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Kenta Maeda. Many times in the playoffs, teams will go with a 3-man rotation, especially in the first round. The Dodgers have done it the past two years, lining up Kershaw and Zack Greinke for two starts each.
However, if and when the Dodgers need a 4th starter, opportunity could present itself to one of their rookies.
The logical choice would have been Scott Kazmir, but unfortunately, he too succumbed to the injury bug, and was recently diagnosed with spine inflammation, likely ending his season. Other alternatives include Bud Norris and Brandon McCarthy, but neither of those options seem ideal. The latter had serious command issues before landing on the DL and didn’t look good in his rehab start last week. The former hasn’t looked good in any start for months.
So, the Dodgers could very well want to turn to their young rookie arms. Unfortunately, it may not be that simple. Urias and Stripling are both rapidly approaching a predetermined innings limit, and will probably be shut down sometime soon. Stewart has thrown more innings this year than he’s ever pitched and could be in the same boat, although, he might get more leeway as he’s not 20 years old (like Urias) or coming off of Tommy John surgery (like Stripling.)
The one who could perhaps be the go-to guy come playoff time is Jose De Leon. Including Monday’s start against the Yankees, he’s pitched only 97 innings this year. Given that he pitched a total of 114 in 2015, one might assume the Dodgers could let him go up around 130-140 or so. If they pace him out over the rest of the regular season, he should be available in October if the Dodgers choose to call his number.
Rookie Pitchers in the Playoffs? Yes!
Some may pause at the idea of relying on a rookie pitcher in the post season. There’s no arguing the inexperience factor, but that hasn’t stopped some from excelling in the past.
Dodgers fans might remember a young rookie kid back in 1981, who followed up a superb regular season with continued dominance in the playoffs, and helped lead the team to a World Series Championship (as well as start the Fernandomania phenomenon.)
Here are some other examples just over the last 20 years of rookie pitchers shining in the bright lights of October.
- Livan Hernandez – 1997 NLCS, Game 5: 9 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 2 BB, 15 K
- John Lackey – 2002 ALCS, Game 4: 7 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 0 BB, 7 K
- Madison Bumgarner – 2010 WS, Game 4: 8 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 2 BB, 6 K
- Sonny Gray – 2013 ALDS, Game 2: 8 IP, 0 ER, 4 H, 2 BB, 9 K
- Gerrit Cole – 2013 NLDS, Game 2: 6 IP, 1 ER, 2 H, 1 BB, 5 K
- Michael Wacha – 2013 NLCS, Game 2: 6.2 IP, 0 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 8 K (Dodgers fans might remember this one well.)
Those are just a handful of recent examples, with three of them being in the same season just 3 years ago. Point being, there have definitely been success stories of rookie pitchers taking the ball in a big post season game.
First things first; The Dodgers need to get in the playoffs, and go from there. The inner optimist in me says there’s a good chance that will happen, and when it does, fans might be treated to a young kid taking the mound in an important playoff game.
Trial by fire, kids… trial by fire.