LOS ANGELES — Dodgers pitcher Trevor Oaks saw his 2017 season cut short by an injury, but has a chance to contribute to the major league rotation at some point next season with a style and poise that make the right-hander stand out among pitching prospects in the organization.
Oaks was one of two pitchers added to the 40-man roster in November, protecting him from potential selection in Thursday morning’s Rule 5 draft. It was a few months later than he was planning to join the roster.
“For me personally I was hoping to making the big leagues last year in September and help them out, but that oblique injury set me back,” Oaks said in a recent telephone interview.
Oaks was 4-3 with a 3.64 ERA in 84 innings with Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2017, but was sidelined the final two months with an oblique strain. He was limited the rest of the season to a series of rehab appearances, both at the Dodgers complex at Camelback Ranch in Arizona and in Ogden in the rookie-level Pioneer League.
“He’s a great person, and really focused on being a great teammate. We saw it this year in instructional league, when he threw some innings here,” said new Dodgers director of player development Brandon Gomes. “He was such a mentor to some of the guys that were there. It was really fun to watch.”
The Dodgers drafted Oaks in the seventh round in 2014 out of Cal Baptist in Riverside, where Oaks won the PacWest and NCBWA West Region Pitcher of the Year as a junior.
“He’s a very competitive guy, obviously. He’s a very cerebral pitcher, he can think his way through things,” said Cal Baptist coach Gary Adcock. “What we were able to do for him was to simplify a plan for him, get him to trust his stuff a little bit more, and be a better attacker on the mound.”
Adcock, who played college baseball at UCLA with Dave Roberts, set a goal for his pitchers of 15 or fewer pitches per inning — “We really preach tempo,” Adcock said. — emphasizing quick outs, something Oaks still thinks about. He averaged 15.2 pitches per inning in Triple-A in 2017, and was at 13.3 in 2016 between both Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A.
“If you can get outs in four pitches or less, that’s a lost art. That’s what I try to set out to do every time. With all the analytics and everything, the emphasis on strikeouts has gone up a ton,” Oaks said. “Everybody likes watching those “wow” pitches that blow hitters away, and that’s obviously what our objective is and we’re trying to do that. But if I so happen to get a hard ground ball out to my shortstop in two pitches, I’m not going to be disappointed.”
Trevor Oaks 2015-17
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The strikeouts still came for Oaks, who set a career high with a 21.5% K rate in 2017, but his bread and butter is keeping the ball off the ground with his sinker. He posted a 50.8% ground ball rate in Triple-A this season and in the last three years has a 58.3% ground ball rate.
“He’s a big ground ball guy with a heavy sinker. He’s got a big body capable of taking down 200-plus innings at the big league level,” Gomes said. “His cutter-slider helped him get some swings and misses, and also induced weak contact versus lefties. The next step for Oaksie is to refine his sinker and command, and add in what we feel can be a really strong change up moving forward.”
That big body led Dodgers minor leaguers with 151 innings pitched in 2016, a number topped in the organization by only Kenta Maeda and Clayton Kershaw. Oaks was on a similar track in 2017 before his oblique injury.
“I feel like I’m a little bit different than everybody else. I’m not going to throw fastballs up in the zone all day, but I’m going to keep coming at guys. I think that’s kind of a lost art at times,” Oaks said. “The efficiency and trying to get deep into ballgames, you don’t really see that as much anymore. It’s mostly get through five innings and hand it over to the bullpen. I’m trying to make that my competitive advantage in baseball.”
On a Dodgers team that is hesitant to let its non-Kershaw starters face a lineup a third time through the order, whether Oaks gets to utilize his durability remains in question. But his efficiency figures to pay off however long his leash.
Oaks lasted at least six innings in each of his last eight starts in 2017 for Triple-A, and in 2016 went six innings or longer in 20 of his 24 outings, including seven or more innings 10 times.
“The Dodgers do like the strikeouts, but they’ve also adjusted too. They’ve said, ‘We do need some depth because it saves the health of the bullpen’,” Oaks said. “The longer the starter can go, the more options you have later in the series for your bullpen guys, because now they’re fresh.
“If you can go six innings plus, you’re only having to use two, maybe three arms out of the bullpen and that’s huge. It will help you win ballgames.”
At the moment Oaks is behind Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Hyun-jun Ryu, Maeda and Brandon McCarthy on the starting depth chart. The Dodgers used just 10 starting pitchers in 2017, but have averaged 13 starters per year in the last five seasons.
In other words, given the current depth chart Oaks figures to get his major league shot at some point in 2018. And now that he’s on the 40-man roster his path from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles has one less impediment.
“I’m really excited the Dodgers are giving me the opportunity and have that faith in me,” Oaks said. “I hope that I can prove them right.”