Early Season Narratives from a Month in Dodger Blue

The first month of baseball has already concluded, one down, five to go. Somehow it at once managed to fly by and completely drag on. The first week was full of surprises and joy, the second week full of optimism. The following weeks then lose the sanguine sheen of “early days”. The narratives to the season start to get written and struggling players get the eyes of the nation, it all gets very serious very fast. As the season crescendos into May, I think now would be a time to check in with the team and evaluate some of the forming narratives in Los Angeles. So what’s hot, what’s not, what’s been fun, and what’s concerning? 

What’s Hot?

The Rotation

Do you remember when a Dodgers writer that you trust said their big worry for the season was how the starting pitching would turn out? With question marks hanging over four of the six arms assembled for the rotation, I speculated that this plan to buy cheap and upgrade, might not be enough for a World Series. You can read the speculation here.

The Dodgers have the lowest team ERA among all MLB with a 2.25 average and a 1.66 ERA from our starting pitchers. The nerves have shifted from the fans, to the opposing batters as another fantastic rotation is forming in the Ravine.

Walker Buehler, the spearhead of the rotation, has been reliable as our ace, and despite Dave Roberts‘ wishes, he achieved his very first complete-game shutout in Arizona. Over the first three starts, Buehler hadn’t completed the sixth inning. Over the next three starts, he’s given up one earned run in 23 innings and his ERA sits at a healthy 1.96 and has been falling steadily.

Buehler wraps up the complete game shutout in Arizona

Clayton Kershaw has been putting the doubters back into hiding with his performances this year. 30 innings thrown over his first five starts with a 1.8 ERA. In a morning start in Minnesota which all of us in the UK were thankful for, Kershaw threw seven perfect innings with an extremely low pitch count. Without anyone saying the word, the baseball fandom tuned in right as it was getting serious. Kershaw was then relieved, it wasn’t completed and history wasn’t made, but us Dodger fans know what we saw. That was probably the MLB pitching performance of the season.

Kershaw’s Strikeouts from his seven perfect innings

Despite an extremely worrying first start Julio Urías has found his reliable form. After the first start, Urías sat at a 13.5 ERA, and over the next five starts he has chipped away with every inning and knocked it down to 2.10. Julio pitched his best performance of the season in the first Dodger-Giants matchup of the season. He looked in total command against the Giants needing less than 70 pitches to shut them out for six innings.

Although the length isn’t quite there, he’s only pitched into the sixth inning once, Tony Gonsolin is really showing what he can as a senior man in this rotation. 1.30 ERA and opponents are only batting .168 against him. Some of his innings can get messy, but his agility to work out of a jam has been almost as impressive as his splitter. Gonsolin’s next task should be to lower his WHIP and allow himself a few easier innings.

The Signings

Freddie Freeman is enjoying the Hollywood lights. With Fred Freeman Sr. often sitting near the camp watching him play, Freeman finally has the family presence he’s wanted at the game. His eye for a narrative is superb as well. The first home run of the season came against his former club, the Braves, and the image of him standing on second base showering in the chants of “FRE-DDIE FRE-DDIE FRE-DDIE” in his home debut is a moment that will be singed into my mind for a long time. The most consistent bat in a very inconsistent lineup, and ever-present at first base, Freeman is performing exactly as we expected, and right now that’s just what we need.

Freeman humbled by the love from Dodger fans in his home debut

While not as consistently in the lineup, or finding consistency in any position, Hanser Alberto has been a welcome addition to the Dodgers’ playing staff. While he has come up for a clutch hit every so often, Alberto’s value has been seen in the dugout and experienced in the changing room.

With a team so highly strung and focused on success, the Dodgers isn’t a fun place to struggle. There’s always a player behind you fighting for your spot, and there’s never been a fear from management to upgrade from the outside. Alberto’s joy of the game and passion for fun has rubbed off on the players. Bringing in a new celebration for extra-base hits, and teaching some of the bench players how to prepare for the fleeting moments, a player like Edwin Ríos has admitted benefiting massively from having Alberto around.

What’s not?

Senior Bats

Max Muncy and Justin Turner have really struggled with the bat this season. When both of these players were also predicted to spend the most time as the designated hitter in the team, the pressure on their bats has never been higher.

Muncy’s secret weapon is still firing, he has walked more than anyone else in the National League with 25, however, he has 12 hits in 113 plate appearances. So when I tell you his OPS is .635, please be aware of how much worse that could be without a stellar walk record.

Justin Turner isn’t even getting on base. He’s getting on base at a .252 rate, and the slugging isn’t there either. His .543 OPS makes him 44% worse than the league average. During his time in LA he’s averaged 136 OPS+, with his 56 OPS+ this year he is far, far below his standards. Unlike Muncy, he doesn’t have a supplemental skill to justify his continued inclusion, walking just 7.8% of the time. 

The confidence is low and what he needed was one game to jump-start the engine. Game two in Pittsburgh might have given him that spark. Four hits from five plate appearances and three of them doubles, wow, would this be what Turner needs, is it smooth seas from here? Well the very next day, Turner went hitless in four plate appearances. instant deflation. With Chris Taylor adept at third and Edwin Rios one of the hotter bats from the bench, and Alberto’s ability to play anywhere on the infield, Turner doesn’t have too much grace time to continue this slump.

What’s been fun?

Mark Prior’s Magic

Did Andrew Heaney‘s start to his Dodger career actually happen? Was that just a dream shared by many? Do we have any proof? Heaney was one of the worst pitchers in the league last year and was seen as a potential high upside reclamation project for the Dodgers. I was sceptical of his potential value and thought that the rotation would be the first area addressed in the trade season. Instead, he might be Mark Prior’s greatest masterpiece.

Heaney got his first start in Minnesota and pitched into the fifth, allowing only three hits, no walks while striking out five. A promising start, but what was next? Oh, just a six-inning, one-hit performance with 11 strikeouts. Heaney was walking 7.5% of plate appearances and striking out 40%. Due to the devastation and destruction seen because of the pitch, Heaney’s slider has recently been classified as a lethal weapon by the LAPD.

Amazing start, what a way to introduce yourself to a sceptical fanbase, so what’s next? Well, we haven’t seen him on the mound since. He was added to the 15-day injury list, 23 days ago. So we’re eagerly awaiting his return so we can all get back on the train for the Heaney NL Cy Young campaign that he so richly deserves after two starts.

Are two starts an incredibly small sample size? Yes. Are Minnesota and Cincinnati some pretty comfortable opponents to start the season against? Yes. Are we getting carried away? Yes. Can you blame us? No, did you see the slider?

What’s concerning?

Dave Roberts and his Pitcher Substitutions

Is anyone else still upset that Dave Roberts didn’t let Kershaw attempt the eighth inning? While that hurt, Kershaw agreed it was the right decision, but there have been a few others worth discussing. Over two back to back starts, Julio Urías was treated very differently.

Urías was replaced against the Giants with six innings of four-hit baseball, and he was in total command of every pitch. He only faced three batters over the minimum and he had thrown 65 pitches. He looked set to take the mound in the seventh only to be replaced by Brusdar Graterol, who got into trouble, gave up a run, and got hooked immediately for Alex Vesia. Maybe it would have made sense to see if Julio could have gotten us through the seventh Doc?

Julio being asked about the decision to relieve him

So he’s cautious with his starters, right? Not letting Kershaw pitch a perfect game into the eighth, and pulling a dominant Urías on 65 pitches. The very next Urías start, Julio got into some serious trouble in the sixth inning and let the first two batters onto second and third base with no outs. Julio threw everything he had and struck out Cole Tucker with a battle that featured his fastest velocity all season. He was getting hit, but he got himself out of a jam, very positive to see and a good way to end his day with 78 pitches after ‘leaving everything on the mound’. That is until he comes out for the seventh inning and gives up a home run to the first batter he faces and then gets relieved. For a coach who just relieved this starter in the previous while he was throwing much better, this was baffling to see.

The Home Run Ball

You don’t need a home run to win a baseball game, but they are extremely efficient ways of scoring runs, and the Dodgers just aren’t hitting enough. The ball has been tweaked and it does drop like a lead balloon on warning tracks all around the country, but other teams with much less power potential are hitting far more than the Dodgers.

Ranked 18th in the league, the ball has left the yard 27 times in 29 games. All four of our NL West Rivals are outperforming us, and two of our biggest rivals for the National League pennant, the Brewers (43) and the Braves (39) are finding way more pop. The Mets, who are tipped as a top four favourite for the National League have hit one less than us. It’s not necessary to win games, but it is something I’ll be watching out for.

Last year almost exactly halfway through the season MLB cracked down on all foreign substances with pitches and almost instantly the game was feeling the effects. If Home Run numbers continue to stay low, I can foresee a different baseball being made available just in time for the League to blame the cold weather on the lack of bombs. The key to decision making is deniability.

These are six narratives that fans, neutrals, and rivals can keep a watch over. We have our complaints of course, but we are top of the NL West with the second-best record in MLB. The Dodgers lineup is studded with stars to the extent that even when half of them are slumping, we have the lead in the division.

Let’s settle in for May, the Dodgers are playing 31 games in 30 days this year. There’s going to be a lot to keep up with. Are you ready for it?

Featured image by Norm Hall / Getty Images
Freddie Law-Keen is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @FLK_Sports
*All Statistics accurate of 13/5/22*

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