Dodgers: Is it Time for a Starting Rotation Revolution?

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 18: Manager Dave Roberts
PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 18: Manager Dave Roberts /

During the Los Angeles Dodgers game against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday, Tom Koehler hit Nelson Cruz on the wrist with a tailing fastball up and in.

Perhaps Cruz was waiting for the ball to drop over the plate, like Koehler’s signature curve, and the extra fraction of a second prevented him from getting out of the way. Fortunately, Cruz was uninjured and able to remain in the game, but it was a telling moment regarding the Dodgers’ new arm in the bullpen.

Many are beginning to view Koehler as a replacement for Brandon Morrow now with the Chicago Cubs; both have experience as a starter and both have had to recover from injuries that changed their images in front offices around the league. Where Koehler has been viewed primarily as a starter, the Dodgers brass has seen his vast potential for his curveball/fastball exchange in more limited action.

Perhaps you remember how Charlie Morton came out of the pen in Game 7 of the World Series and shut down the likes of Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager? What poetic justice it would be if Koehler can do that to the American League champion this October.

The role of the bullpen is perhaps cyclical in nature. For years, starters that weren’t “good enough” for the rotation were banished to the bullpen and came on in long relief to mop up the mess of the starter, or saved for a game that looked headed to extra innings. Soon the shift in the bullpen from starter to specialist lengthened games as pitching change after pitching change occurred, batter after batter after batter they revolved.

Now it may be time for a revolution in baseball, and with pitchers the likes of Koehler, the Dodgers may be in prime position to lead the way.

The Dodgers have a number of pitchers that could reasonably be considered for the rotation. With Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Kenta Maeda, the starting five seems set going into the season, but Ross Stripling, Brock Stewart, Tom Koehler, and Walker Buehler all could be candidates as well. Add in Wilmer Font, Julio Urias, Mitchell White, Henry Owens, and Dennis Santana, and you may begin to see the embarrassment of riches that the Dodgers have.

With a 25 man roster to consider for much of the regular season, teams usually have a combination of 12 to 13 hitters or 12 to 13 pitchers, with flexibility based on injury and/or need. If the Dodgers go with 13 pitching arms at the major league level, they could set the bar with an effective new approach where starting pitchers are the bulwark of the bullpen.

The Dodgers could have an opening day pitching staff of Kershaw, Hill, Wood, Ryu, Maeda, Buehler, Stripling, Stewart, Koehler, Tony Cingrani, Scott Alexander, Pedro Baez, and Kenley Jansen. Alexander, Baez, and All-Star closer Kenley Jansen would be the only pitchers without any starts in their career, although Cingrani hasn’t started a game since 2015 and is effectively a “pure reliever” at this point.

But the notion of moving away from a bullpen composed mainly of specialists is not the novelty of this approach but in the method of managing the staff that this particular roster represents. Although it seems to vary from pitcher to pitcher, there has been much discussion bandied about of late about the decrease of the effectiveness of a pitcher the more times a batter faces him in a game.

The batter has learned what to expect from the pitcher having likely seen the full repertoire of pitches in the starter’s arsenal and combined with the pitcher beginning to tire, the batting averages start to go up. Indeed, look at the decrease in the number of complete games, shutouts, and innings pitched in recent memory and you will see how managers have been handing the ball to their relievers more and more often.

But not like this.  I propose that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt follow the following method. A starter begins the game and continues, assuming he’s pitching well, until he faces a batter for the third time. At that point, he gets the hook when a batter reaches scoring position.

To illustrate, imagine Alex Wood starts a game against the Atlanta Braves. In the first inning, he faces four batters, giving up only a single but stranding the runner. In the second inning the number five hitter leads off and hits a home run, but Wood recovers to retire the next three batters. In the third inning, Wood retires the batters in order.

The fourth inning proves more difficult as he faces the heart of the lineup. Wood gives up a single and walks two, but is able to escape without allowing any runs by retiring the next three batters. As the fifth inning begins he is set to face the opposing pitcher for the second time, and then the leadoff man for the third time in the game. Here is where the new method comes into play.

Let’s say Wood retires the first two batters, but then gives up a booming double to the second hitter in the lineup. Wood has now pitched four and two-thirds innings has only given up one earned run but has a runner in scoring position. Under a traditional approach, Roberts might be tempted to let Wood finish the inning; he has only given up one run thus far and only needs one more out to qualify for the win. And if Roberts has to bring in a reliever, he will need to figure out how to bridge a long gap from here in the fifth inning to Jansen in the ninth.

But Wood is now facing the number three hitter in the Braves lineup for the third time. The runner at second base could end up being the difference in the game, and with so many “starters” in the bullpen, Roberts can afford to bring in a fresh arm here to face the batter for the first time and end the threat.

Who does Roberts bring in? Conventional wisdom may suggest that he brings in a long reliever, one of the four “starters” now in the bullpen. But starting pitchers are used to starting games, and shouldn’t be brought in except for at the start of an inning, if possible, under this approach. Of the four “pure relievers”, Jansen is the closer; he will be saved for the ninth inning.

That leaves right-hander Baez and lefties Cingrani and Alexander. Each of these pitchers is a specialist and should be used to the pressure of dealing with a runner in scoring position. Assume the Braves number three hitter is Freddie Freeman as it was for 116 games last year. Roberts would presumably bring in Cingrani to face the lefty and get out of the inning.

For the sixth inning, Roberts can now choose another “starter/reliever” for the next two innings. Let’s say he brings in Koehler. Koehler can pitch the sixth and seventh (it doesn’t matter if the batters are righties or lefties, he has experience as a starter and is used to getting both out) leaving Alexander for the eighth and Jansen to close out the game. If the Dodgers are losing, Koehler could pitch the eighth as well, and in a home game, Alexander could pitch the ninth.

“That’s fine for one game,” you might say, “but how does that work on a continual basis?” “How does this affect the five-man rotation?”

“A pitcher needs to be practically perfect to get a W in this system, they will never go for it.”

“Kershaw deserves better, we need to keep him happy going into his opt out at the end of the season.”

“All the pitchers will revolt!”

These are valid issues and demand further discussion. Let’s take a look at how the staff could be set up on a five-day basis.

Day 1: Kershaw, Alexander, Baez, and Jansen.

Kershaw averages just over six innings per start over his career and is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. He is an exception to the rule, and in truth, it is necessary to the functioning of this system to have one day managed in a more traditional fashion. Kershaw has been dealing with back injuries the past few years and may be beginning to decline, but for now, he should still be sent out for his six-plus innings.

If Kershaw can go seven and the Dodgers have the lead, then Roberts only needs to use Alexander or Baez for the eighth and Jansen can close out the game.

Day 2: Hill, Buehler, Jansen.

Assuming Roberts had to use Alexander and Baez on Day 1, count on Hill for five innings, Buehler for three, and Jansen for the ninth. If Hill or Buehler tire, Cingrani can come in to finish an inning.

Day 3: Wood, Koehler, Alexander, Jansen.

As stated in more detail above, Wood goes five, then Koehler for two, Alexander for one, and Jansen to close it out.

Day 4: Ryu, Stewart, Baez, Jansen

Day 5: Maeda, Stripling, Jansen.

As in Day 2, Roberts tries to get three innings out of his “second starter” and then closes out the game with Jansen.

In each of the games, Cingrani is available to put out a fire in the middle of an inning should one of the pitchers struggle. If one of the “pure relievers” has been used too many days in a row, Roberts can try to get one of his “second starters” to go an extra inning. If the Dodgers are getting shelled one day, Roberts can adjust by bringing in one of the pitchers slated for relief three days later.

For example, if on Day 2 Buehler comes on in the sixth inning and can’t get anyone out, Roberts can bring in Stewart who hasn’t pitched in three days. Because Buehler isn’t getting a full day of work in, he should be fresh enough to take Stewart’s place in the bullpen two days later on Day 4.

“What about wins? What happens to pitcher’s stats? What will baseball purists think?”

It’s true, a starter will need to be on his game to finish five innings. If he only allows one base runner per inning for the first four innings, he will face a batter for the third time during the fifth.  But this is exactly the attitude a starter should have. If he is able to stay in the game and finish five innings, then he truly deserves the win. He is certainly more deserving than a pitcher who pitches five and gives up four runs but is bailed out by his offense that happens to score five or more.

Will that allow for more “vulture wins” where a pitcher like Cingrani comes in with two outs in the fifth inning, makes one pitch and ends the inning and earns the win? Is that fair to the starter?

Yes and no. In this situation, as noted here, the official scorer is allowed to assign the win to the most effective reliever. If Hill goes four and two-thirds, Cingrani a third of an inning, and then Buehler pitches three with Jansen coming in for the ninth, the scorer can assign the win to Buehler. (Stat geeks might start separating wins between “Earned Wins” and “Assigned Wins” and the idea might not be without merit if this proposal catches on, but that is a discussion for another time.)

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Roberts also has the luxury of implementing this system because of the unique quality of the Dodgers organization. Wood, Maeda, and Ryu each pitched out of relief last year, and Hill did so for seven years earlier in his career. Each could be flip-flopped with Buehler, Koehler, Stewart, and Stripling if necessary.

With the number of candidates for the rotation that don’t make the opening day roster, the Dodgers could utilize the 10 day DL rule to bring up another “starter/reliever” should one of the current pitchers need rest; the Dodgers have been quite strategic in effectively finessing the roster and the rule in the past.

Additionally, the argument can be made for each starter on the roster to have reduced innings. Kershaw is recovering from back injuries, Hill has had trouble with blisters, Wood hasn’t pitched a full season in a long time and has had elbow and ankle issues of late. Ryu is still recovering from an injury last year and hasn’t pitched a full season. Maeda tires at the end of the season and was relegated to a bullpen role last year as well. Buehler, Stripling, Koehler, and Stewart are all currently primarily in the bullpen although they could be used as spot starters, and when Urias is available, he too will be watched closely with inning and pitch count limits.

If any of the pitchers are injured, the Dodgers can call up the likes of Font, Santana, Owens, and White, or relievers Yimi Garcia, Josh Fields, Adam Liberatore, or Edward Paredes. This system will also provide more opportunity for the Dodgers front office to trade any of these players if the right deal arises and find that extra piece to put the finishing touches on the roster.

In this way, the pitching staff can be well rested, motivated, and with the versatility of each pitcher be in the true essence of the word, a rotation.

Next: Sizing up the NL West: Dodgers vs the new look Padres

It may seem like a drastic change, one that may be difficult for the players to accept, but if they can hang in there and take this curveball thrown at them, and remain determined, it could provide for a signature season, and telling moments for the future.