The Dodgers have as good a trio heading their rotation on this side of the MLB as the Astros have on theirs. Hyun-Jin Ryu looked like the National League Cy Young Award winner for three-quarters of the season before a rough last month or so. Clayton Kershaw is going to take a five-year walk into Cooperstown after he hangs up his cleats and Walker Buehler is the Dodgers’ future in the rotation.
It’s been clear for months now that these three will be leaned on heavily in October, especially with a suspect bullpen.
Buehler, Kershaw and Ryu combined for 12.6 fWAR of the 19.2 fWAR that they and the other eight pitchers to start a game for the Dodgers this season accumulated. It’s definitely a top-heavy rotation. And while the order is yet to be determined, my money is on it being Kershaw, Buehler and then Ryu. Dave Roberts and Co., probably want to break up Kershaw and Ryu because of a similar velocity profile, and Kershaw is set up best to start on Thursday.
As a whole, Dodger starting pitchers led baseball in ERA, were second in FIP and third in K-BB% and HR/9 — the stats I usually look at to determine how good a pitcher and/or pitching staff is. They also posted the fourth-best ground ball rate of any starting pitching staff.
Let’s look back at last year’s postseason for the Dodgers’ big three.
Ryu got Game 1 of the National League Division Series last year against Atlanta and fared quite well: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K. It was a masterful performance. Unfortunately, the rest of his postseason was not so good. He made two starts against the Brewers in the National League Championship Series and one against the Red Sox in the World Series. Combined, he threw just 12 innings, allowed 19 hits and 11 runs (all earned).
Kershaw followed the Ryu blueprint a little. He threw eight shutout innings in his Game 2 start of the NLDS before struggling a bit in both the NLCS and World Series. He got roughed up in Game 1 of the NLCS (3 IP, 6 H, 5 R) before coming back in Game 5 of the series and throwing a gem (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R). He also closed out the series in relief by striking out Mike Moustakas. He made the Game 1 start in the World Series for a second consecutive year. That time, though, it went poorly. He allowed five runs in just four innings at Fenway Park. He pitched better in Game 5, but he allowed three home runs and it sealed the Dodgers’ fate.
In his first taste of postseason action last year, Buehler got off to a bit of an inauspicious start. He allowed five runs in five innings in Atlanta, four of which came off the bat of Ronald Acuña Jr. Buehler was better in his next time out, but it didn’t lead to a Dodgers win. He had allowed two runs over six innings in Game 3 of the NLCS before a two-run home run in the seventh sealed his fate for that night. He started the deciding Game 7 of the NLCS and, despite not making it through five innings, he kept the Dodgers in the game by allowing just one run in 4 2⁄3 innings. His best start came in Game 3 of the World Series. You know, the 18-inning affair that was the Dodgers’ only win of the Fall Classic? He shut down a potent Boston offense over seven innings of work. He allowed just two hits and no runs in a bit of a coming out party for him. He parlayed that into a strong sophomore season and vaulted him to the top of the Dodgers’ rotation.
Ideally, Rich Hill would be in line for a Game 4 start of any series. And he still might, but he’ll be limited to 3-4 innings, which means the Dodgers will need contributions from the likes of Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May, Ross Stripling and/or Julio Urías. All of them having rotation experience, even if some of them will be used only out of the bullpen next month.
The Dodgers’ strength has always been their pitching. But beyond the Top 3 in the rotation, they’re going to have to get creative. It’s a roll of the proverbial dice, but it’s clear that’s what the Dodgers are going to do. If Buehler, Kershaw and Ryu are generally effective, it may not matter which pitchers throw in Game 4 of any series.
While it’d be nice to have prime Kershaw this season, having a career-best Buehler and Ryu — along with a solid Kershaw — is about the best any team can hope for in October.