The latest Dodgers weekend attempt to track down the team ahead of them in the National League West comes Saturday night against the Rockies, with two of the best pitchers in the league facing off at Coors Field.
Walker Buehler won’t win the NL Rookie of the Year; Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto have seen to that. Likewise, Kyle Freeland is well behind the NL Cy Young Award-vying triad of Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola. But both have still been fantastic, and a big reason why the Rockies and Dodgers have the two best records in the division.
Buehler has a 2.92 ERA this season, and with 115 strikeouts in 104 innings is trying to become just the fifth Dodgers rookie with more strikeouts than innings (minimum 100 innings), and only the third without previous professional experience in Japan.
Buehler has whiffed a career-best nine in two of his last three starts.
Over his last seven starts Buehler has a 1.48 ERA, allowing seven total runs with 51 strikeouts and 14 walks. The Dodgers first need to make the postseason but if they get there it wouldn’t be a shock if Buehler is the Game 2 starter, if they earn the luxury to line things up as they want. It’s probably not a coincidence that the current rotation order has Buehler following Clayton Kershaw.
Freeland has been terrific in his second year, with a 2.96 ERA in 28 starts. If we stop right there, that’s enough, since in the previous 25-year history of the franchise only one Rockies pitcher has qualified for the ERA title and posted an ERA below 3.00 — Ubaldo Jimenez (2.88) in 2010. Jimenez’s 161 ERA+ is the only one in Rockies history to top Freeland’s current 157 ERA+.
What sets Freeland apart this year is how he has excelled at Coors Field, with a 2.27 ERA in 12 starts. He’s allowed five runs in his last five starts at home, and the last time he gave up more than two runs in Denver was on June 10.
Since Coors Field opened in 1995, the only pitcher to post a sub-3.00 ERA in at least 10 Denver starts was Jorge De La Rosa (2.76) in 2013. Tyler Anderson, who starts Sunday for Colorado, posted a 3.00 ERA on the dot at home in 12 home starts in 2016.
Freeland ranks fourth among NL pitchers with a whopping 6.7 Wins Above Replacement, the Baseball-Reference version, behind the aforementioned trio of Nola, Scherzer and deGrom. Freeland’s peripherals haven’t quite matched his results so his FanGraphs WAR is 3.3, but that’s still tied for eighth in the league, tied with teammate German Marquez. That duo, plus Jon Gray (3.2 fWAR) rank in the top 10 among NL starters, which gives an idea of just how strong the first-place Rockies’ pitching has been.
A reasonable argument could be made for Freeland to finish fourth in the voting. His catcher added further perspective on Friday:
The average era for the last 15 NL Cy Young award winners at Coors Field, in the year they won that Cy Young award is 4.18. @KFREE_21 has a 2.27 at Coors. At the very least, he should be in the conversation! @rockies @mlb Stats per @MosesMassena16.— Chris Iannetta (@Chris_Iannetta) September 7, 2018
In the Rookie of the Year voting, it’s basically down to a choice among Acuña and Soto, a pair of generational talents that are just 20 and 19 years old, respectively. After that it’s a free for all. Buehler leads NL rookie pitchers in fWAR (2.3)., and ranks third in Baseball-Reference WAR (2.5) behind Dereck Rodriguez of the Giants and Jack Flaherty of St. Louis. Throw in a dash of Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader and Marlins infielder Brian Anderson and there you have Buehler’s competition for a third-place ROY finish.
Buehler has already started twice at Coors Field, allowing four runs in five innings in a loss on June 2 then pitching seven scoreless innings on Aug. 11. Freeland allowed two runs in seven innings in that latter start, his only home start against the Dodgers this season. The Dodgers led that game 2-0 before Ryan McMahon stunned JT Chargois with a three-run walk-off home run in the midst of the LA bullpen’s worst stretch of the year.
That stretch was without Kenley Jansen, as is this series. In Friday’s series opener after Kershaw left with a two-run lead, the Dodgers used five relievers to get the final nine outs, including a pitching change in the middle of each of the final three innings. It figures to be more of the same the rest of the weekend.
Time: 5:10 p.m. PT
TV: SportsNet LA