Dodgers: The “Next 5” Starting Pitchers are Key to Big Season


Last week, this space tackled what it will take from the Big 3 starters (Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Alex Wood) for the Dodgers to win the West and once again contend for the best record in baseball.

While our contention was that those three would need to step up in a big way again in 2018, counting on that as a sure thing is, well, never a sure thing.  Indeed, the Dodgers’ fortunes may come down to the last two spots in the rotation.

As of this writing, it would appear that after the 80 or so starts from the Big 3, the remaining 80 or so starts will, barring a trade, come from some combination of the “Next 5” starters: Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, Brock Stewart and Walker Buehler.

The ZiPS projections call for Maeda to get 27 starts, Ryu 21, Stripling 10, Stewart 17 and Buehler 19 for a total of 94.  That would take a considerable strain off the Big 3 and allow Dave Roberts to rest and/or skip any of the three more than once during the long summer to assure they are at 100 percent come October.

It’s not a coincidence that Kershaw missed significant portions of the past two seasons and pitched the best post-season baseball of his career those two years.  Yes, he still struggled a bit in each of the past two post-seasons, but nowhere near the meltdowns, he suffered through in his previous three playoff appearances.

Fans were calling for Kershaw to be the World Series Game 7 starter as soon as Game 6 ended. His four innings of two-hit shutout relief after the starter (I can’t even bring myself to say his name, but it rhymes with You, and he’s now the Cubs’ problem) did nothing to quiet those shouts.

So, what do the Dodgers need from Nos. 4 and 5 in their rotation? Innings. Plain and simple.  If a team played all 162 games and each game went exactly nine innings, that would total 1,458 innings to a season. Yes, there will be some extra innings games and some shortened due to rain.

So, let’s just use 1,458 as our baseline. Last season, Maeda, Ryu, Stripling, Stewart, and Buehler combined to throw 379 innings. ZiPS projects the same quintet to tally 536.1 innings in 2018.  That leaves a little more than 900 innings for the Big 3 and the bullpen to fill.

Let’s do some comparisons: There were a total of 3,885 regular season Major League “starts” in 1974 (I’ll use that year because it’s the first full Major League season I can remember in detail). There were a total of 1,089 complete games that year, or 28 percent.

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The Boston Red Sox led the Majors with 71 complete games (44 percent); the Cubs were last with 23 complete games (14 percent).  Fergie Jenkins led the Majors with 29 complete games that year. Gaylord Perry was next with 28, Mickey Lolich had 27, Nolan Ryan 26 and Luis Tiant 25.

In contrast, the 2017 Cleveland Indians led the Majors with seven (yes S-E-V-E-N) complete games, or 4 percent of their starts. Three teams (Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and the White Sox) had exactly ZERO complete games last season.  Today, there are 4,860 “starts” in a Major League season. A mere 59 of the 4,860 starts were complete games in 2017. That’s only 1.2 percent.

There were 65 pitchers who had more complete games in 1974 than the entire Indians roster had in 2017.  It all comes down to the innings. In the era of go-to-the-bullpen-in-the-fourth-inning mentalities from managers, starters’ innings have become the gold standard. The more innings from your starters each night, the better rested and, thus, better performance you’ll receive from your bullpen.

The Dodgers threw two complete games in 2017 (Kershaw and Hill), which put them tied for seventh in baseball. Expecting complete games in today’s game is not a safe way to plan for a season.  The Dodgers will need all 500-plus of those innings (and maybe more) from the “Next 5” if they are to contend for a World Series championship in 2018.

The Big 3 are projected to win 38 games this season. As we said last week, though, 45 wins aren’t out of the question.  The Next 5 are projected to win 33 games in 2017. Expecting 40 might be a stretch, but 37 might be doable.

Next: Kiké could have an even bigger role in 2018

While the Big 3 make all the money ($58 million combined in 2018), the Next 5 (estimated $12.6 million combined) could be the backbone the Dodgers need to stand straight and win just one more game in 2018.