The All-Star festivities are over, and now the sprint to the finish of the season begins in the second half.
With 66 games remaining in the regular season, the NL West race will be a close battle down the stretch. The Dodgers open the second half in first place (53-43), with the Diamondbacks (53-44) just a half game back, and the Rockies (50-48) and Giants (50-48) still numerically in the mix as well at 2 games and 4 games back respectively.
The NL Wild Card most likely won’t come out of the NL West with Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Atlanta all playing good baseball. It makes the Dodgers’ quest for their sixth straight division title that much more key to getting into the playoffs. A Wild Card spot would be horrible for our collective blood pressure.
The Dodgers’ starting rotation is one of the biggest question marks heading to the second half that begins with 17 consecutive games without a day off. Dave Roberts is leaning toward a six-man rotation that includes Clayton Kershaw, Ross Stripling, Kenta Maeda, Walker Buehler, Alex Wood and Rich Hill. The starting rotation has been hit with multiple injuries, and nearly all the starters have been on the DL at some point and some multiple times.
Dave Roberts explained to Kaelen Jones of MLB.com:
”If everything stays status quo, then we’re gonna have to have some big conversations,” he said. “So right now, I look at it as a good thing. At some point, we’re going to reach a crossroads. … Right now, we don’t have that problem.”
With all the injuries, Ross Stripling stepped up and pitched spectacularly in the first half posting career high numbers in 14 starts and 11 relief appearances. He went 8-2 with a 2.08 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 10.2 K/9 with a 28.1 percent strikeout rate and 3.7 percent walk rate.
Stripling is a lock in the starting rotation going forward despite John Smoltz’s idea - during the All-Star Game broadcast - that Stripling will be moved back to the bullpen. The 28-year-old’s next start will likely push him past his career-high of 100 innings at the major league level, but there is no indication he will come out of the rotation any time soon.
Clayton Kershaw (3-4, 2.74 ERA, 3.17 FIP) hasn’t had a consistent year after landing on the disabled list twice with biceps tendinitis and a lower back strain. The three-time National League Cy Young Award winner and former MVP has landed on the disabled list in three straight years. He’s a lock for the starting rotation, and hopefully he can get back into dominant form down the stretch.
Kershaw’s time down could potentially be advantageous as far as pacing going into a potentially long postseason run again. He’s steadily lengthened his pitch count since returning from the DL. He’s gone to the breaking ball more with a 90-92 mph fastball.
During the Freeway Series, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Kershaw “still has the ability to dominate.”
The Dodgers and Kershaw (he’s in his opt-out year) will look to the perennial ace to peak when they need him to - in October.
Kenta Maeda can be fantastic as both a starter and a reliever. He came into Sunday’s game against the Angels out of the bullpen for the seventh inning, inheriting two runners after Kershaw lost a contentious at-bat against Mike Trout and walked him. Maeda hit Justin Upton with a pitch but struck out Ian Kinsler to end the threat.
Maeda also struck out two in a one-inning relief appearance in San Francisco on April 7. As a starter, he’s excelled too and has struck out batters at a career-high 29.7% clip with 11.2 K/9. Maeda should be in the starting rotation heading into the second half.
Walker Buehler (4-2, 3.45 ERA, 3.00 FIP) had a tough time coming back from the rib injury, but he impressed after getting a early shot on the big club earlier in the year when injuries befell the rest of the starting squad. Other than a couple of disastrous outings at Coors Field and a rough relief appearance vs. Chicago, Buehler has pitched well.
In his last start before the break, against the Angels, he allowed two runs on six hits with five strikeouts in 5 innings of work. It was a promising way to segue into the second installment of the season for the young right-hander who looks to be part of the Dodgers’ starting mix for years to come.
Two candidates that could be shifted to the bullpen after the six-man rotation plan ends in August are Rich Hill and Alex Wood. Hill (2-4, 4.55 ERA, 4.92 FIP) finally put a laser to those blisters, but he’s been inconsistent this year as well, with or without the beard. The 38-year old veteran has already allowed 11 home runs in 12 games and 55 1/3 innings this year after allowing 18 home runs in 135 2⁄3 innings last season. His curveball grip may have been affected by the juiced up balls, and he has blamed his blisters on it in the past.
If he can stay healthy and effective, Hill stays in the rotation. When he’s good, he’s very good. He’ll get his first shot when he starts things off for the Dodgers in the second half on Friday evening at Miller Park.
Wood (5-5, 3.92 ERA, 3.47 FIP) is the starter who’s most likely on the bubble as far as being moved to the bullpen. He’s never been able to recreate his first half from last season that earned him an All-Star nod. Wood has been effective out of the pen in the past. With a surplus of starters along with his struggles in the first half, it seems like a logical choice should the Dodgers decide to pare down the rotation after the 17-game stretch.
Hyun-Jin Ryu, once healthy, will also reach a crossroads in his career with the Dodgers. He suffered a painful sounding groin injury earlier in the season, and he only pitched in six games for the Dodgers this year. Ryu is continuing to progress in his rehab and threw a 25-pitch bullpen session this week. He’s expected to throw another bullpen in three to five days, according to Roberts, saying the lefty will “hopefully just continue to ramp up the intensity and the volume.” Roberts will have to make a decision on what to do with Ryu once he gets closer to returning.
Julio Urias is progressing in his rehab from shoulder surgery in February, and it is speculated that he could rejoin the team in 4-6 weeks, placing more decisions upon Roberts as far as the starting pitching options as the season wanes.
Despite the injuries, the Dodgers lead the NL in ERA (3.49), strikeouts (916), and WHIP (1.20). LA starters are second in all of baseball with a 3.31 ERA in 508 innings. Their relievers are seventh in the league with a 3.80 ERA and have allowed the second-most home runs (45). There’s room for improvement, especially in the relief department, but their pitching has been strong overall.
There will be some tough decisions ahead, plus there’s still two more weeks before the official trade deadline. I’d be surprised if they don’t acquire some arms after bolstering the lineup with Manny Machado’s bat. As the saying goes, you can never have enough pitching.
The Dodgers will need a dominant Kershaw and continued consistency from Stripling and Maeda as well as strong second halves from Buehler, Hill and Wood to capture the NL West title and forge on to what could be another long postseason run. Barring any injuries that shape future decisions on the starting rotation, to have six healthy starters to start the second half is a problem you want to have.