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Where the Dodgers starting rotation stands, 2 weeks into the season

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National League Wild Card Game: St. Louis Cardinals v. Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Dodgers entered the season with a little more uncertainty around their starting rotation than in recent memory. Especially after the signing of Freddie Freeman bolstered the lineup, it became clear that the backend of the rotation was the most concerning point of this roster.

In a vacuum, the following rotation is nothing to slouch at:

  1. Walker Buehler
  2. Julio Urías
  3. Clayton Kershaw
  4. Andrew Heaney
  5. Tony Gonsolin/Tyler Anderson

Kershaw isn’t the same pitcher he once was, but you’re looking at two legitimate aces, one of the best number three starters in all of baseball, and two question marks at the backend. Pair this with a strong bullpen and the pitching staff shouldn’t make you lose any sleep.

However, this is the same team that had Dustin May as the fifth starter in the rotation only a year ago. The bar has been set so high that a question mark surrounding your fifth starter looks completely off, even though you see that throughout baseball with most contenders.

The counterpoint to this is that the Padres and Giants entered 2022 with very deep rotations, even more so after San Diego’s addition of Sean Manaea.

Giants go five deep with:

  1. Logan Webb
  2. Carlos Ródon
  3. Alex Wood
  4. Alex Cobb
  5. Anthony Desclafani

The Padres also opened up with a wealthy group:

  1. Joe Musgrove
  2. Yu Darvish
  3. Blake Snell
  4. Sean Manaea
  5. Nick Martinez

Side note: Mackenzie Gore and Tyler Beede replaced the injured Blake Snell and Alex Cobb, respectively, and both show some promise in different ways.

Although you’d probably take the Dodgers’ top three over the other two teams, there is no doubt about which backend duo was the most questionable among NL West contenders heading into the 2022 campaign.

With that in mind — a few starts into the season, what have we learned?

The same narrative gets spun year after year. It is simply too early to be judging any player too harshly and determining what his production will be for the whole season. We’ve played roughly a dozen games and most sample sizes take longer to stabilize.

However, none of this means that you can’t learn anything from the first couple of weeks of baseball. There’s plenty of information out there, especially if you know where to look. That means paying attention to trends and changes in approach, sometimes even more so than the final results.

With all of this in mind, we can look at each one of the Dodgers’ starters and what they did over their first couple of starts. There’s plenty to learn and pick up on even if nothing is definite.

Walker Buehler

3 starts, 15 IP, 4.02 ERA, 11 SO, 1.468 WHIP

Perhaps the biggest certainty about this rotation, Buehler is not off to the best of starts. The Dodgers’ ace began the year in Colorado, which is always a tough challenge, with an adequate performance. Buehler allowed six baserunners, a couple of runs, with five strikeouts.

Against the Reds, he was grooving until the sixth inning, in which he labored and ultimately couldn’t finish, allowing once again a couple of runs but over 5⅔ innings. Facing the Braves on Tuesday felt like an uphill battle from the first pitch, Buehler failed to put hitters away and pitched with traffic throughout the whole night.

The encouraging way to look at this beginning from a results standpoint is that despite not having his best stuff, mixing up his pitch mix, and incredibly subpar strikeout-to-walk ratios, Buehler has kept the Dodgers in every game they played, he has gone at least five innings without allowing more than three runs each time out.

The main concern for many with Buehler lies in the strikeout rate, now at just 16.2 percent. Although he had a magnificent year in 2021 and battled for the Cy Young Award, Buehler had the lowest strikeout rate of his career (26 percent). That’s not far off from his career-high (29.2 percent, in 219) and his career average (27.3 percent), but there was room to envision some regression with his ERA.

Buehler has one of the deeper pitching mixes in baseball and as you can see, he is continuing a couple of career trends. Fewer fastballs and more cutters.

A 34.9-percent four-seam fastball usage may not be the final number at the end of the season, but he’s unlikely to surpass even if he gets closer to that 44.5-percent mark of 2021. The four-seamer has been the one pitch getting picked on over his first three starts.

The cutter on the other hand is working marvelously with a 31.3-percent whiff rate. Look to see more of that pitch as the season progresses, becoming more and more one of the staples of Buehler’s arsenal.

Conclusion

Walker Buehler is fine. If you expect him to be atop the leaderboards for K rate, then he isn’t your guy. He may not have the gaudy final results that probably should’ve earned him the 2021 NL Cy Young, but the Dodgers’ ace is fine, and I wouldn’t overreact to these first few starts.

Julio Urías

2 Starts, 7 IP, 3.86 ERA, 5 SO, - 1.429 WHIP

Cincinnati Reds v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As for Urías, the case is a little deeper, and we’ll need to pay close attention to his next run of starts. It seems like forever now that the baseball world’s been saying that the Dodgers babied Urías’ arm for a long time.

That was understandable given his injury history, but the point of emphasis was how his arm would to react after they finally unleashed him in 2021. Urías pitched 200⅔ innings last year, counting the postseason, when his previous career high was 127⅔ innings between the majors and minors in 2016.

The blowup in Colorado is not a point of concern, that will happen to the best of them, but when you check the numbers and realize that his fastball is sitting 91.9 mph when it previously sat at 94.1 in 2021, you become somewhat concerned.

When asked about it: Urías said he is feeling fine physically and didn’t provide an answer to it, just that he needed to make better pitches.

It is too early to make any assumptions and it could be that his velocity comes back in time, it could also be that he’s able to work around this and pitch successfully even if he’s sitting 92. The Reds are not a formidable bunch right now. But Urías was fine against them in his second start.

I should stress that Urías isn’t the only high-profile starter with a diminished velocity in this early season. We’ve seen this with Robbie Ray and Zack Wheeler to name a few, although the latter didn’t have a clean spring.

The pitch mix is the same and there’s nothing else major to report on.

Clayton Kershaw

2 starts, 12 IP, 3.00 ERA, 20 SO, 0.500 WHIP

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer still has it. A point of emphasis in my Kershaw series was to highlight the fact that his prime was so freakishly outstanding, that it became easy to ignore or at least not appreciate just how good he still is.

Kershaw had the highest whiff rate in the big leagues last season. The biggest and only concerns about him in 2022 surrounding him, have to do with availability rather than his ability.

Number 22 began the season reminding everyone just how great he can still be with seven perfect innings in Minnesota, in what will likely be the best pitching performance anyone will see this season.

A couple of inherited runners that scored in the sixth inning on Monday put a bit of a bittersweet taste to his 100th win in Dodger Stadium, but Kershaw was still pretty solid against the Braves.

Kershaw seems to be diversifying more with his fastball, throwing it up in the zone as well to change the eye-level of the hitter. Oftentimes in the past, he was almost strictly down with that heater.

The name of the game is being ready for October, and all the decisions regarding Kershaw will be determined by that. As a baseball fan, one couldn’t help but feel cheated by Kershaw getting pulled against the Twins, but it is simply a hard reality one must accept. It was the right decision.

Andrew Heaney

2 starts, 10 IP, 0.00 ERA, 16 SO, 0.677 WHIP

Cincinnati Reds v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Heaney landed on the injured list Wednesday with left shoulder discomfort, though the hope is that he only misses one start. The reaction to this news is very, very different from what it would’ve been a couple of weeks ago.

Heaney signed with the Dodgers, and although few opposed the idea, the team would and needed to rely on him more than most felt comfortable with. There were two spots without much certainty in the rotation, and Heaney needed to fill one of them. It’s not like he came into a full rotation and a wait-and-see game.

After two starts, a lot has changed for one simple reason.

Heaney has a new slider, and boy is it working.

After an atrocious spring training, Heaney started throwing this slider in a bullpen session in Coors Field of all places, where the Dodgers opened up their season, and it worked well so he decided to carry it into his first start. Mostly because of the terrible results without it in spring.

This new pitch has been called a sweeper (with some debate), though most places still had it as a curveball during his first start. But it’s a sharp slider with bite.

The new slider comes in at 81.9 mph whereas his curveball was slower (79.4 mph last year). The vertical and horizontal movement is not as big with the new pitch. If anything, Heaney’s curveball that he has shelved in 2022 looked more like the sweeper that everyone is talking about.

Two other factors that involve this new approach:

  • The new slider is playing off his fastball much better than the curveball did. He’s creating more deception and hitters can’t pick it up as easily as they did the curve. This effect leads to an obscene 51.1-percent whiff rate on a slider he hardly ever throws in the zone.
  • The fastball command has greatly improved from the previous campaign. Heaney’s been able to stay away from the heart of the plate for the most part, although the Reds’ hitters specifically did him a few favors by missing some pitches to hit.

If Heaney can maintain this once he gets back from what’s hopefully a short IL stint, there’s no reason why his new two-pitch mix shouldn’t thrive with the Dodgers.

Tony Gonsolin

3 starts, 13 IP, 0.69 ERA, 8 SO, 1.231 WHIP

There is a reason why the Dodgers chose to use the traditional starter Tyler Anderson as the piggyback man off of Gonsolin, a converted reliever who hasn’t pitched deep into an outing very often.

Since last season, Gonsolin has been able to keep runs off the board at a solid enough rate to be a decent option, but the basepaths have had way too much traffic for him to be reliable as a starter long-term.

Anderson started the year piggybacking off of him because Gonsolin often has 25+ pitches per inning, which prevents him from going deep into games. The excellent start against the Braves showed flashes of what Gonsolin can do, but even then he had three walks in six innings pitched.

The bullpen will likely be more taxed moving forward with both Gonsolin and Anderson starting games and not them together eating up one outing, like we saw against the Reds.