Since Andrew Friedman took over as Head of Baseball Operations in 2015, the Dodgers have always been near the top of preseason World Series odds. However, they have only won the World Series once since Friedman took over, and never in a full 162-game season. There are many reasons why the team always comes up short in October. However, one group that comes out relatively unscathed is the rotation.
Admittedly, the rotation is a weird area to criticize. Since Mark Prior took over as the team pitching coach in 2018, the team has had a historically good pitching staff. Going by team ERA+, the Dodgers have had the best, second-best, and third-best pitching staff since integration.
Yet, it is how Dave Roberts uses his rotation that is this team’s weakness.
The 2021 NLDS
The best example of poor rotation management is what happened in the 2021 postseason. Going into the playoffs, the Dodgers’ playoff rotation was tricky to nail down. An injury to Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer’s suspension left them unavailable for the postseason. On top of that, Tony Gonsolin had only 3 starts of more than 5 innings the entire year. This meant that Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, and Max Scherzer would be pitching the majority of the innings. A delicate balance would need to be struck in order for the team to go deep in October.
Through the first four games, things were more or less going to plan for the Dodgers. They may have been down 2 games to 1 to the Giants, but their three big arms remained healthy and well-managed. The next two games set the course for the team’s eventual elimination. There is no debate here, Walker Buehler had to pitch on short rest for game 4 in order to keep the season alive. The decision to pitch Max Scherzer in game 5 is less defensible.
Going into the 7th inning of game 5, Roberts had already used Corey Knebel and Brusdar Graterol for an inning. Julio Urias took over after the 2nd and had thrown 59 pitches at this point and was facing the bottom of the lineup. Yet, he got the hook in favor of high leverage arm, Blake Treinen. Kenley Jansen then took over for the 8th, striking out two of the three batters he faced. Up one and needing an elite arm to close out the game, Roberts turned to Max Scherzer to get the final three outs. Scherzer did his job, striking out two batters and clinching his team a trip to the NLCS.
The 2021 NLCS
So, the 2021 NLDS went well! However, the 2021 NLCS against Atlanta is where problems began to show. Game 1 was a bullpen game, as the Dodgers used 8 different pitchers. While Gonsolin, who was 5th on the team in starts, appeared in this game, he didn’t last two innings and gave up a game-tying home run to Austin Riley in the 4th.
The start in game 2 would go to Max Scherzer, who was pitching on two days’ rest. He pitched valiantly for the team, throwing 79 pitches, but could not get out of the fifth. The Dodgers would use five relievers to try and get through the rest of the game. However, already burning through 7 relievers the day before, Roberts turned to Urias to protect a two-run lead in the crucial 8th inning. Rosario would hit a leadoff single and advance to second on a Freddie Freeman flyout. Ozzie Albies would then single in Rosario, and the next batter, Austin Riley would hit a double off Urias to tie the game. The Dodgers would lose in walk-off fashion in the 9th.
Walker Buehler faced a lot of pressure in his game 3 start for the team. The team was burning through the bullpen and desperately needed length out of him. Unfortunately, he did not have it that night, and for the third straight game this series, the starter couldn’t go 5 innings. A further 8 pitchers would be needed to get the final 16 outs.
Julio Urias would now get the ball for the crucial game 4, on two days’ rest. Although Urias would be the first Dodgers pitcher to throw 5 innings since Max Scherzer in game 3 of the NLDS, the outing itself would be disastrous. Urias did not look sharp at all and allowed five runs as a result. Luckily, Phil Bickford and Tony Gonsolin would combine to get all but one of the remaining outs, saving an extremely taxed bullpen.
While game 5 was a bullpen game that required the use of 7 pitchers, including high-leverage arms Graterol and Treinen each throwing two innings, game 6 is where we saw the consequences of Robert’s poor rotation management. Since his game 2 start, Scherzer had trouble playing catch and struggled in his bullpen session. The team made the decision to scratch Scherzer from his start in this elimination game. They instead turned to Walker Buehler on three days’ rest for the second time in eleven days. Going into this game, Buehler had a 0.80 in 4 elimination starts in his career. Unfortunately, that version of Buehler did not show up. Buehler’s pitches were flat and lacked command. This was apparent in the first inning, as Buehler would hang a slider to Austin Riley that would put the Braves up 1-0.
The Dodgers would go on to lose game 6 and the NLCS.
The 2021 NLCS is a very complex case in evaluating what went wrong for the Dodgers and where Roberts’ mismanagement comes into play – six games give a lot of time and opportunities to evaluate. However, the 2022 playoffs were much simpler in identifying rotation mismanagement. The team did not see a single starting pitcher reach the 6th inning in any of the team’s games. Julio Urias had given up 3 runs and was at 79 pitches and set to face the heart of the Padres order for the third time. He was pulled for Evan Phillips. Clayton Kershaw was in a similar spot, giving up 3 runs and was at 80 pitches and set to face 4, 5, and 6 in the Padres lineup. He was pulled for Brusdar Graterol. Two quick hooks for players that likely still had plenty left in the tank.
However, the most egregious example of this was in game 4. Although he was at 86 pitches, Tyler Anderson was dominant. He threw 5 shutout innings and was set to face the heart of the Padres order in the sixth. Soto, Machado, and Drury were 1-6 off Anderson. On top of that, Anderson retired nine of the last ten hitters he faced in dominant fashion. Chris Martin would come in to relieve him.
While we didn’t know it at the time, this was the decision that would cost the Dodgers the series. Many fans wondered, why Evan Phillips did not come out of the bullpen in that ill-fated 7th inning. Perhaps if Anderson pitched an extra inning either Chris Martin or Evan Phillips could’ve come in to rescue the situation knowing the other would be available for the ninth. Alas, it’ll be a what-if that we’ll never know the answer to.
Continued concerns in 2023?
The rotation looks like it may once again be an area of concern for the team going into 2023. FanGraphs projects the rotation to be Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Noah Syndergaard, and Dustin May. However, the projections are not kind to the team, as only May and Kershaw are projected to have sub-4 ERAs. On top of that, May and Gonsolin do not pitch deep into games. As for the depth behind those five, it looks to be just Michael Grove and Ryan Pepiot, who are the only prospects with major league experience. As a result, could we see some of the same 2021-2022 issues in 2023?
The best teams in the postseason are able to strategically use their starters in the bullpen, but more importantly, get length out of them. Even the 2015 Royals, a team famous for using their elite bullpen to win the World Series, averaged over six innings per start in their wins during that World Series. Reliable starting pitching and elite arms behind them have been the formula for success. A strong bullpen with three to four high-leverage arms works when they aren’t being asked to pitch every day.
Until they learn this lesson, the Dodgers are doomed for inevitable disappointment in October.
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