Pre-Spring Evaluations: Starting Pitching

In less than one week from today, pitchers and catchers for the Los Angeles Dodgers will report to Camelback Ranch, the Spring Training facility for the team, in Arizona. With the 40 man roster full, the Dodgers’ roster is set, going into 2019. Over the next week, we will take an in depth look at different aspects of the Los Angeles Dodgers team. Today, we take a look at the starting rotation for the team going into the season.

Projected Opening Day Rotation

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Walker Buehler
  3. Rich Hill
  4. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  5. Kenta Maeda

Other Rotation Options

  • Ross Stripling
  • Caleb Ferguson
  • Julio Urias
  • Brock Stewart
  • Dennis Santana

The Dodgers will go into the season with nearly an identical rotation to the one they ended the season with. With the exception of Alex Wood, who was traded to the Reds in December, the Dodgers have retained their pitchers from last season.

Atop the rotation are co-aces Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. The former opted out of the final two years of his 7 year $215 million contract and immediately resigned with the team for $93 million over 3 years. The deal was somewhat of a no-brainer for all parties involved, the Dodgers did not want Kershaw to leave and Clayton did not want to leave Los Angeles, the only team he has ever known. Rightfully so, as Kershaw is not only the most accomplished active pitcher in the league, he is most certainly a lock for the hall of fame. With all that being said however, there is a very strong case for Walker Buehler to be the number one.

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As you can see through last year’s velocity graphs from FanGraphs, Walker Buehler simply throws much harder than Clayton Kershaw; it’s not even close. And yes, velocity does matter. Anybody, including your Little League coach, who says that velocity does not matter is either lying or woefully misguided. While there have been exceptional finesse pitchers like Greg Maddux and Don Drysdale in our game’s history, the majority of MLB’s elite pitchers both now and all-time have possessed an electric fastball.

Dodgers fans should know this better than anybody.

Remember when Justin Verlander got traded to the Houston Astros? In hindsight, the deal is a massive success for Houston, but at the time it seemed like a win for Detroit simply for the fact they dumped salary. Years before the trade, Verlander was showing signs of aging as he hit age thirty and his statistics reflected it. The most alarming and tangible sign of decline? His velocity began to decrease and hitters were able to attack him better. For some mysterious reason, when Verlander went to Houston he regained much of the velocity that made him such a power pitcher We all remember him hitting the upper-90s numerous times in the 2017 World Series. We also all remember Boston’s bullpen dominating the Dodgers in 2018. Why? Because everyone out of Boston’s bullpen was throwing absolute lasers off the mound, some of which topping 100 MPH.

The moral of the story? Velocity is IMPORTANT. Pitchers who can command a fastball in the upper-90s tend to be the most effective and are easily the most fearsome. Advantage Walker Buehler. There is another lesson in this; that lesson is that it is indeed possible for pitchers to regain some velocity they once had in their 20s. After signing a contract extension with the Dodgers, Kershaw expressed how priority number one for him is to regain velocity he has lost due to injury. If Kershaw is able to regain the velocity he had from his Cy Young years, there is no reason he shouldn’t start on Opening Day. If he is not able to however, Walker Buehler may just assert himself as the team’s ace.

Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu have both spent extended periods of time on the disabled list the last few years. Despite missing time however, both Ryu and Hill returned for Los Angeles down the stretch, delivering absolute gems into October. The pair of left-handers are both coming into the final years of their contracts, essentially this season is their audition for next offseason, when they will be among the top starters in the league. Neither of these two are work horses and I would be surprised if either top 150 innings, but don’t let that fool you into believing the pair are slouches. On a team loaded with depth, Hill and Ryu will likely be managed cautiously due to their injury histories, in order to preserve the pair for October success. Nevertheless, these two are as good as it gets in terms of middle of the rotation talent, and both would be aces on most Major League rosters.

The first four slots in the Dodgers rotation appear set with Kershaw, Buehler, Hill and Ryu, but the final spot in the rotation is likely up for grabs this spring. As of right now, Kenta Maeda appears the most logical fit to be the fifth starter. Most of his career innings have come out of the rotation, he has a wide array of pitches and with minimal injury history, he is the safest option to start every fifth day for Los Angeles. However, Maeda has become notorious for having a tough time getting past the sixth inning.

Ross Stripling seems to be the most likely candidate to rival Maeda for the final rotation spot. An all-star in 2018, Ross Stripling had an exceptional first half, pitching to a 2.08 ERA. However, everything fell apart after the all-star game, as Stripling’s ERA balooned to 6.41 in only 26.2 innings. Stripling’s injury laden second half led to him being a non-factor down the stretch, but his all-star first half in 2018 makes him a potential bounce back candidate in the upcoming season.

The young tandem of southpaws Caleb Ferguson and Julio Urias are also in position to make a run for a rotation spot. Ferguson initially arrived to the Major League club last June, to serve as a starter in a rotation absolutely thrashed by injury. To say Ferguson’s first 3 games as a Dodger (all starts) were rock would be an understatement. Despite showing a powerful fastball and wipeout curve, Ferguson simply look raw and unpolished. Through 3 games and only 10.2 innings, Ferguson carried an ERA well above 7. However, the Dodgers made the decision to move Caleb Ferguson to the bullpen, and the rest is history. Ferguson became a mainstay in the bullpen, continuing to develop his fastball and curve combination and becoming quite effective. He certainly had the raw tools to be an effective starter in a rotation sooner than later, the question is just whether or not the Dodgers believe he is ready to take the step from an inning of relief here and there to a start of 5 or 6 minutes.

Urias on the other hand, did not make an appearance with the Dodgers until the rosters expanded in September. Ironically, Urias made more appearances in October than he did in the regular season. As Dodgers fans remember, Julio Urias burst onto the scene in 2016 as a teenage phenom, taking the league by storm. Due to an impressive showing of natural abilities as well as statistics to accompany the raw tools, Urias made history in October of 2016, as he became the youngest pitcher to start a postseason game in MLB history. Unfortunately Julio Urias’s 2017 campaign was short lived, when he tore the anterior capsule in his left shoulder in June, shutting him down for over a year. Aftera few set backs, Urias returned just in time to be eligible for the postseason. Urias reminded fans just why he was one of MLB’s top prospects and most coveted young players in baseball. After an exceptional October, Urias should be a reliever at the very least to start 2019. With all that being said, it may be best for both the Dodgers and Urias if he starts the season out of the bullpen, giving the front office and coaching staff enough time to evaluate the progress of Julio, instead of rushing him back to the rotation.

Brock Stewart is a familiar name to Dodgers fans, as he seemingly comes up numerous times a year to make spot starts or fill a bullpen slot for somebody who has gone down on the DL. Frankly, there are numerous candidates more deserving of a rotation spot than Stewart. He has never been spectacular through his brief MLB stints, and is something of a depth guy for the Dodgers. Dennis Santana, the former infielder is still eligible for prospect status and will likely begin the season in the minor leagues. Following a rotator cuff strain last year, it would be irresponsible for the Dodgers to rush Santana back into MLB action, with no glaring need for him.

At the end of the day, the Dodgers have one of MLB’s best rotations in terms of both talent and depth. The team’s starting pitching is easily their greatest strength as well as the envy of almost every MLB team.