The foundation for any team’s success is their starting pitching. No matter how many bombs get sent into the fans, or how many bases are stolen, a team will not be considered a “contender” if there aren’t a number of men you can rely on to eat the majority of innings and secure ever-valuable outs for your team. Into the last week of spring training and Dave Roberts has announced his starting five.
In this second part of the team profile, I’ll be projecting where the players are standing after their 2021, and the progression and regressions made, and what we can expect from them as fans in the 2022 season.
An opening day starter for the past nine out of 10 seasons, this is the year that Clayton Kershaw has been replaced as the ‘Ace’ of the rotation. Honestly, this is a position that Walker Buehler has held for the past two years but the iconography of Kershaw is hard to shake.
Dave Roberts has announced that this season is Buehler’s time, and he will start the season on the mound in Colorado on 8 April. Buehler has said that as long as Kershaw is here, he’s learning and not leading, but this will be the season of change.
While opening day starters are mostly symbolic, Buehler is the number one and even with Kershaw returning, Buehler is now the benchmark for all the pitchers in the Dodger system to emulate.
Buehler should and will be in the hunt for his first Cy Young. He had a career-best year for innings pitched, ERA, ERA+ and WAR and carried the Dodgers through most of last year before the narratives and performances of Scherzer took the shine off Buehler for the last two months of the season.
Ultimately he finished fourth in the Cy Young award behind Max Scherzer, Zack Wheeler, and Corbin Burnes. Anywhere in the top 10 is to be expected and if he can build on his excellent 2021 season, a consecutive top-five finish would be superb.
No one who will pitch in 2022 will have collected more Cy Young awards than Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw had a slight renaissance in the Covid-shortened 2020 season culminating in two brilliant starts to help the Dodgers win the World Series.
Unfortunately, Kershaw had another injury-ravaged season in 2021 while still performing to a very good standard. Entering free agency at the end of 2021, the potential re-signing of Kershaw was debated among fans and armchair General Managers. On one hand, you have arguably the best pitcher in Dodger history and the best pitcher of the last 15 years; on the other, you have an injury-prone player who can’t be fully relied on for starts demanding over $15 Million.
If your objection to re-signing Kershaw is due to his injury record, and worrying about someone being paid 16 Million to rehab, then your point may be valid, but if you don’t see value in a player, you consider “washed”, then your point needs some refining.
Kershaw over the last two seasons has a 3.10 ERA, for most pitchers, either of these would be a career year. The tragedy of a legend is that once they outperform all competitors all that’s left to compare them to is themselves. From 2008 to 2019, Kershaw had a 2.44 ERA, and seven consecutive seasons in the top five of Cy Young voting. If Kershaw can sustain a sub 3.7 ERA, then I think this season can be counted as another success.
Julio Urías, entering his seventh season in and around the Dodger rotation, is still the youngest member of this rotation and someone who has plenty of upside potential. While his Dodger legacy was solidified after the heroic relief appearances to clinch the NLCS and WS, his future definitely remains as a starter for this club.
Urías also finished in the top 10 for the Cy Young award last season and dramatically cut down his walks allowed and had a league-best 20-win season. For Julio, dining with the elite is entirely possible, so I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a season similar to Buehler’s 21.
The most encouraging aspect of Urías’ 2021 season was the innings that Roberts extracted from him. A player who has also struggled with injuries was remarkably consistent last year and stood on the mound for over 185 innings. If Roberts could squeeze out the extra 15 innings from Julio and we have a pitcher who could compensate for some of the innings that Kershaw can’t guarantee any longer, that would be a huge bonus for the bullpen. With the staggering depth of pitching in the National League now, being the 11th best pitcher means a lot, but with the steps Urías makes year on year, another top 10 finish should be expected and targeted.
When Dave Roberts announced that Dustin May would be his fifth starter to complete his opening week five-day rotation of the 2021 season, Tony Gonsolin found himself looking at more innings in relief ready to step in when required. This year with his long time minor league buddy on the injured list following Tommy John surgery, Gonsolin has been added to this season’s starting rotation.
With Kershaw injured for lots of last season, Bauer placed on a never-ending administrative leave, and top prospect and age-mate Dustin May out for the season with Tommy John, suddenly Gonsolin was required. Roberts clearly has May ahead in the order, but Gonsolin got 13 starts last year to the tune of a much better than average pitching with a 127 ERA+. Remarkably, this was the weakest ERA+ for a season in Gonsolin’s young career. 2021 was Gonsolin’s worst season in ERA, HR/9, and a staggering increase in BB/9 and therefore a big decrease in strikeouts/walk.
Finally, in the starting rotation from the jump, 2022 will be the season to see what Gonsolin is made of. Will he be able to find his smaller sample size excellence of 2019 and 2020, or will the good results with a few worrying underlying metrics be more consistent in 2022? The best way to determine this will be innings. Last year Buehler started 33 games and pitched 207 innings. If Gonsolin can get 20 Starts and 120 innings, we will have a much better foundation on how to further judge him.
Andrew Heaney is back with the Dodgers after his First stint with the club lasted a mere number of hours. He was acquired by a trade with Austin Barnes from the Marlins and was flipped to the Angels immediately for Howie Kendrick.
Heaney might be seen as the highest upside potential of all the pitchers that entered free agency this off-season, however this is mostly due to the bar being lowered further due to a very poor 2021 season. Heaney was absolutely plagued by the big ball in New York. Heaney surrendered 3.3 HR/9 in New York. He faced 157 batters and conceded 13 home runs. That’s a bomb going past the outfield every 12 batters.
What Andrew Heaney can do is strike batters out. Through his tumultuous 2021 season, his K/9 sat at an impressive 10.4 and has been as high for a season as 11.2. This is more K/9 than the other four pitchers in the Dodgers rotation.
So how do we fix Heaney, seems easy, find a way to eliminate the home runs while continuing to challenge batters over the plate. Okay, easier said than done than just easy. It’s a pretty obvious comparison, but a pitcher who struggled with HRs and walks but also struck players out like a machine is Robbie Ray. Reigning American League Cy Young winner Ray finally found a way to turn his brilliant stuff into consistent excellence in Toronto through 2021.
Friedman must have some scope on the limits that the pitching coaches have, but Heaney is seen as someone worth the gamble. For Heaney, the obvious thing to watch out for is the HR/9. If Heaney can restrict the long balls to a 1.7/9 innings pace and drop his ERA under 4.00 for the first time since 2015, then this short term starter signing could be seen as a smart piece of business.
Injuries, form and competition for places are rampant in this squad, nothing is a sure thing. These players are your starting five for now, but that could change quickly and often. For now, let us keep an eye on form and pray to the fitness gods that we see them on the mound for many innings to come.
Featured image by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images
Freddie Law-Keen is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @FLK_Sports