OK, now that the Dodgers have a day off and time to allow the latest storm surrounding Yasiel Puig to calm down, and as we wait for this weird signing of Edinson Volquez to be made official, let’s talk pitching. Specifically, let’s talk about the Dodgers starting rotation. And how it pertains to the upcoming postseason, in which the Dodgers appear to have a very likely shot at participating.
When the Dodgers acquired Ricky Nolasco from the Miami Marlins a few weeks ago, it wasn’t with the intention that he anchor their rotation. They already have one former Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw, who is the unquestioned anchor of their rotation, and in the rare event that he suddenly appears mortal, as he did in a lackluster performance against the Cubs a couple of nights ago, they have another former Cy Young Award winner in Zack Greinke. And they also have a Rookie of the Year candidate in Hyun-Jin Ryu.
So really, the Dodgers got Nolasco to add depth to their rotation. To be the fourth guy, so to speak. But this numbering system that fans and the media tend to ascribe to starting rotations, that really only matters for the first five games of the season. After that, it’s just about which guy’s turn happens to fall on a given day.
Until, of course, you get to the playoffs. And then it matters big-time.
Which brings us to Nolasco, a guy who clearly doesn’t know his place on this team. Over his past two starts, he has pitched 16 shutout innings, allowed a total of five hits and done an uncanny impersonation of a staff ace. In six August starts, he went 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA. And in 10 starts for the Dodgers since his July 6 trade, he is 6-1 with a 2.20 ERA. And while one of the two teams he has utterly dominated in his past two starts was the lowly Cubs, the other was the vaunted Boston Red Sox.
And then, there is Greinke, who, because of the way the rotation fell, got one fewer start this month than did Nolasco. In Greinke’s five starts, he went 5-0 with a 1.23 ERA, giving up a total of 28 hits in 36 2/3 innings.
How strange is that? For the Dodgers to have two pitchers NOT named Kershaw put up numbers like that over a full month?
And speaking of Kershaw, well, all he did was post an otherworldly 1.01 ERA in five August starts — although due his season-long bugaboo of poor run support, he managed to go just 3-2.
So now, let’s look at Ryu. It’s amazing how, in a rotation this impressive and this deep, it’s so easy to start going sour on a guy. Ryu has struggled in his past two starts, losing them both at the same time Nolasco has suddenly turned unhittable, so if you’re suddenly thinking that Nolasco is now the No. 3 starter while relegating Ryu to No. 4, that’s understandable. But is it fair? As long as we’re comparing August performances, consider that in five starts (with one more to come on Friday night against San Diego), Ryu is 3-2 with a 2.84 ERA, which is actually DOWN three-tenths of a run from his superb April-through-July ERA of 3.14.
And so, as we enter these final 4 1/2 weeks of the regular season, we are going to see a lot of things. We’ll probably see the Dodgers clinch a division title at some point. We will almost certainly see the long-awaited return of Matt Kemp from the disabled list, and the daily lineup shuffle manager Don Mattingly will have to do as a result. We will see if Puig can finally get his, ummm, stuff together.
But while we’re seeing all of that, we also are going to be seeing some position-jockeying among these four starters (I’m not even going to mention Volquez or Chris Capuano — you don’t need five starters in the postseason, so they’ll be in the bullpen if they’re even on the roster at all). Mostly, it won’t even be a conscious thing on their parts. They’ll just be out there making their starts, trying to make the most of each time they get the ball. But in the minds of Mattingly, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and general manager Ned Colletti, this is a scenario they will be sorting out throughout.
It really doesn’t matter that much how the first three guys are lined up in the playoffs. If you’re a starting pitcher, you just want to make sure you ARE one of those three guys, because the fourth guy doesn’t figure to get the ball more than once a series. It’s an honor to be picked to start Game 1 of the first series, in the same way it’s an honor to start on opening day, but after that, it’s all about how it shakes out.
For instance, let’s say the Dodgers are able to win their first-round series and advance to the National League Championship Series. In both 2008 and 2009, the last two years the Dodgers made the playoffs, they won their N.L. Division Series in three-game sweeps. That meant that one, they needed only three starters for those series, and two, by ending those series so quickly, they were afforded enough off-days before the NLCS that they were able to line up their rotation exactly the same as they had in the NLDS.
Now, the NLCS is a best-of-seven, so you know you’re going to need a fourth starter at least once. But let’s say the NLDS goes the full five, you win it, and you have only one off-day before the NLCS. Now you have burned your No. 1 guy (let’s assume it’s Kershaw), so he can’t start in the NLCS until Game 3. So at that point, everything gets jumbled and it really doesn’t matter who is 1, who is 2 or who is 3.
But it does matter who is 4, because that guy presumably is your weakest link and will see the least action. And that is what still has to play out for the Dodgers. If you assume — and barring something unforeseen, you can — that Kershaw and Greinke are going to be 1 and 2, that means the intriguing battle, starting now, is between Nolasco and Ryu. And it’s going to be a lot of fun to see how that plays out over these next few weeks.
It could be that it will have nothing to do with their respective performances. Keep in mind, Nolasco is right-handed, Ryu a lefty. So the opposing team could have a bearing on it as well, and we won’t know who that is for a long time, maybe not even until a couple of days AFTER the regular season ends if the Dodgers have to await the result of the wildcard game or a one-game tiebreaker.
You know what’s really amazing to think about? This is a rotation that is MISSING the likes of Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley due to injuries. That’s how ridiculously deep this pitching staff is, thanks to Colletti and the Dodgers’ new, deep-pocketed ownership group.
Entering play on Wednesday, the Dodgers’ starters had the lowest ERA (3.11) of any rotation in the majors. Since July 26, the Dodgers have played 12 games (out of 32) in which their starting pitcher didn’t surrender ANY earned runs. When you get to the playoffs, it’s ALL about starting pitching. Well, not ALL about it. It’s a little bit about the bullpen, a little bit about the offense because every run matters when the pitching is that good, and maybe even a tiny bit about defense because every miscue is magnified. But mostly, it’s about starting pitching. And the Dodgers may have more of it, and a higher collective level of it, than any other team they are likely to encounter on the postseason stage.
When you are so deep that your “low man on the totem pole” is going to be either Nolasco or Ryu, well, you just might be in pretty good shape.
Now, the Dodgers just have to get there.