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Dodgers Could Use Surplus Starting Pitching to Win in October

Starters in the bullpen? Is that even legal?

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 01: Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Dustin May (85) throws a pitch during a MLB game between the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 1, 2019 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With the Dodgers off to a hot start in August, spirits remain high amongst the Los Angeles faithful. Yet the continued excitement of perhaps the best team in franchise history is understandably muted for some by the relative inactivity at the non-waiver deadline. Refusing to meet Pittsburgh’s absurd asking price for Felipe Vasquez, they chose to hold on to their farm system, chiefly top prospect Gavin Lux. They will instead try to put together a playoff pen internally, to the derision of many fans. 

However, as evidenced by the last two World Series winners (against Los Angeles no less), the Dodgers may indeed have their purported internal solution for the pen: use surplus starting pitching as much as possible, especially if you don’t trust certain relievers. As my colleague Daniel Preciado emphasized recently, the team has plenty of starting pitchers with the versatility to work in relief.

To be clear, this article is not a defense of Friedman’s minimalist deadline approach this year. I believe the deadline was indeed a failure, if only because it was created by his negligent approach to building the relief corps since the 2017 off-season. I’m also not saying bullpens no longer matter in October; anyone who thinks they can sneak through all three rounds with a mediocre-to-bad one is kidding themselves. Last year’s “fingers crossed” approach almost worked for Los Angeles, granted, until it came undone in the disastrous fourth game of the WS. 

Recent History

If anything, recent postseason history seems to indicate an elite bullpen is part of a complete championship picture. The 2016 playoffs were shaped from beginning to end by utilizing relief aces as much as possible. Buck Showalter’s inexplicable refusal to use Zach Britton cost the Orioles the AL Wild Card game, while the Dodgers improvised with Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw to survive game five of the NLDS. Most importantly, the Cubs and Indians rode Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller respectively nonstop to the World Series. 

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – MAY 14: Ken Giles #51 of the Toronto Blue Jays throws a pitch against the San Francisco Giants in the ninth inning of their MLB game at Oracle Park on May 14, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)

Nonetheless, things have changed since that super relief October three years ago. When 2017 Astros closer Ken Giles melted down to an ERA over 11.00 in the playoffs, they might as well have given him a bus ticket out of town, leaning on starters like Charlie Morton to bring home the trophy instead. Last year, when the Red Sox found themselves in a neverending 18-inning game at Dodger Stadium, they trusted Nathan Eovaldi to gobble up those excess innings. And when it came time to shut the door for good in the clinching game five, Chris Sale was summoned rather than a shaky Craig Kimbrel for a ruthless final three outs.  

Moreover, a statistically elite bullpen doesn’t guarantee a title. Last year, the Brewers, Astros and Athletics had nonpareil pens, and none of them made it to the Fall Classic. Or go back to the 2014 World Series, when the Royals’ seemingly unbeatable Herrera/Davis/Holland bullpen troika was one-upped by Madison Bumgarner in game seven. 

And even in that 2016 postseason, the limits of riding relievers nonstop became evident in game seven of the World Series. Despite shutdown pitching from Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester that seemed to assure victory, Cubs manager Joe Maddon opted to push the clearly gassed Aroldis Chapman for another long save. It led to Rajai Davis’ game-tying home run, and had it not been for the extra-innings heroics of Ben Zobrist, it likely would have been a move that consigned Maddon to Grady Little-esque infamy. 

Comparisons

Dodgers
PITTSBURGH, PA – MAY 24: Kenta Maeda #18 of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks on during the seventh inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on May 24, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

With these comparisons in mind, the Dodgers likely wouldn’t win a championship on the strength of their bullpen this year even if they had acquired elite pieces. They are, and have always been, about starting pitching. And in 2019, their rotation is the best in the game, chiefly on the strength of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw and their ability to go deep into games. This allows veterans Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling, as well as rookies Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, to be used fluidly between rotation and relief as needed. 

Compared to the last two WS winners and their extra starting pitching, the Dodgers clearly have the pieces to do the same this October. In my view, the key to this strategy working is how ready Rich Hill is by October. His stated timeline for return puts that in doubt. As I’ve touched on often recently, the biggest problem is the almost total lack of good lefties in relief, the only viable one being Julio Urias. If Hill is healthy enough to work out of the pen, they’ll be much better off. 

These remaining months should be a stringent audition for starters new and old to make their bullpen case for October. No more committees, no more six-out saves for Kenley Jansen, no more dogmatically playing match-ups like Alex Wood in game two of the 2018 World Series. If the Dodgers are to win the World Series, and save Andrew Friedman’s hide in the process, they should use only their best starting pitching options in relief when the moment demands it. 

Written by Marshall Garvey

7 Comments

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  1. Wow great article as I have been thinking the same for a while now! The Dodgers have the luxury of having a lot of starting pitchers and their farm from Rancho Cucamonga all the way to Oklahoma is loaded with pitching. I did feel they should have made a trade for another starting pitcher one who is October ready. However, after seeing these young arms/young talent as a whole on this Dodgers roster it’s really exciting to watch and I understand why the Dodgers will not trade their prospects. Not only are we seeing the deep young talent on this Dodgers roster but we are also seeing a Dynasty being built in front of our eyes.

    • Thank you so much! And I wholeheartedly agree. I would prefer to have a standard pen myself, but if Gonsolin and May keep this up (and Hill is decently healthy) I’m starting to feel we’ll be fine after all.

  2. Dodgers do have a depth of starting pitchers………..but not having a closer………in fact not having any idea how you are going to close out games any longer is nerve racking. Urias and Baez look pretty good, but everybody else is suspect, including Kenley. Now we see how the other half lives. Let’s hope we advance far enough into the playoffs that this conversation actually matters.

    • I agree. I have lost all faith in Kenley, especially in the WS, and at this point would rather see Kelly be the closer.

      • Marshall, first thing is that whoever is pitching out of the BP, whether a starter or reliever, that said pitcher MUST do better at keeping the baseball in the yard during PS and especially in the WS. In 12 games combined in these last 2 WS Dodger pitching surrendered 23 HR’s. That did not or will not get that ring. Next, the musical chairs with lineups during PS and WS , handling them as they now do during the regular season has shown to NOT work, especially in the Fall Classic. OH and BTW, it might also hep if they could somehow be better against the elite LHP they will no doubt be facing as well.

        • Spot on, as usual, AZUL!!!!! The additions of May and Gonsolin will work in our favor as they allow Maeda and Urias to remain in the BP. This means Yimi might be on the outside looking in; the same with Floro who has been less than stellar. We need our starters to keep the ball in the ball park consistently. Kersh’s desire to throw strikes has made him very prone to giving up dingers in the early inning, thus putting us behind the 8-ball. Believe it or not, I like Hill in big games; his slow delivery and assortment of pitches confounds most clubs. He might be the ideal middle reliever. As far as lineups, the platooning must diminish as the season concludes. I want there to be consistency among the starting 8.
          Take a look at Houston’s SP and BP and it becomes apparent that we need to really be on top of our game to win the WS. But, it can be done!!! Go Blue!!!

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