The Dodgers had Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer atop the rotation heading into last year’s postseason. Given everything that’s happened since then, it feels like only a distant memory at this point.
This year the Dodgers head into the playoffs with neither of those guys. Scherzer obviously left via free agency in last offseason, and Buehler recently underwent Tommy John surgery, after missing most of the 2022 campaign. Of the starters that remain, the postseason picture this year is blurry.
Heading into this season, the Dodgers were more seen as another really good starting rotation, rather than the undisputed number one in the sport, which had been the case in some recent campaigns, and that feeling was only exacerbated with the news that Buehler would miss significant time.
There was even the argument being thrown around if it was the best one in their division, with the Padres bolstering interesting depth, and the Giants replacing Kevin Gausman with Carlos Ródon coming off a 107-win season.
Well, the end of 2022 is near, and the Dodgers will finish the season with the best starting rotation in baseball, carrying a 2.75 ERA, and 1.046 WHIP, both number one marks in the entire sport. The answer for this Dodgers team has been in the front office’s ability to continuously carry great depth, and look about as impenetrable to the setbacks of injuries as any baseball team can.
Tyler Anderson, who was originally signed to be a spot starter, bulk man out of the bullpen, was able to step into the rotation in April and deliver a breakout All-Star campaign that makes his one-year contract look like a massive bargain.
Clayton Kershaw still managed to deliver over 100 innings of ace-caliber pitching despite his multiple injury stints, and Andrew Heaney has in some ways been superb in the 64⅔ innings he’s been out there.
Julio Urías has developed into the ace everyone envisioned him being as a teenager, and will likely finish in the top three in National League Cy Young voting. Last but not least, different names throughout the season like Mitch White (who’s no longer with the club), and Ryan Pepiot have delivered above league-average production when called upon.
All in all, the key to success from this Dodgers rotation has been quality from one through six-seven, even with spot starters, and that’s really going to create an interesting scenario for the postseason rotation.
Lack of length, but an abundance of quality
Even Urías hasn’t really pitched particularly deep into games with regularity, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the front office has him on a leash or anything. The training wheels are off, but generally, Urías will deliver six innings of great quality without pushing much at or over 100 pitches.
With the understanding that Tony Gonsolin won’t be able to fully stretch himself out by the start of the postseason, even if all goes right from now on, in his journey back to the mound, Dave Roberts has an interesting setup heading into the playoffs.
This team in a lot of ways reminds us of the championship squad of 2020, in its rotation setup. That ball club won it all with an extended postseason and worked mostly with a two-man rotation, and some bullpen/piggyback games in between.
Other than Kershaw and Buehler, Roberts didn’t give anyone else a lot of leeway and used arms like Urías to come in for multi-inning relief work in high-leverage situations.
While it isn’t an exact comparison, the Dodgers may make use of something similar in this year’s postseason, especially because the bullpen probably isn’t as deep as in years past, especially with Blake Treinen unlikely to pitch until the postseason, if at all.
What we should expect from this rotation in October
The Dodgers starters right now are:
- Julio Urías
- Clayton Kershaw
- Tyler Anderson
- Andrew Heaney
Dustin May went on the injured list Saturday with lower back tightness, but they hope to have him back in some capacity for the postseason, although it is hard to know for sure at this point.
Gonsolin is expected to be back in some, limited role for the postseason, but won’t be fully stretched out like a normal starter.
Based on what we’ve seen from Roberts as of late, we can divide this group into three tiers.
Tier 1: Urías and Kershaw
Tier 2: Anderson
Tier 3: Heaney, Gonsolin, and May
These tiers are not strictly defined by talent. We’re looking primarily at postseason usage.
Urías is the clear ace of this staff right now, and frankly, even with a healthy Buehler, he’d need to be at his absolute best to get Game 1 over Urías this year, and barring any last-minute injuries, Kershaw will in fact start Game 2 of the NLDS in Dodger Stadium.
The absolute certainty ends there though, outside of Roberts saying Sunday that Anderson would start a playoff game.
You’re probably wondering why Anderson is by himself in tier 2, with a pitcher that’s at the very least as good as him in Gonsolin in tier 3, and it’s really only because of the injury. If Gonsolin was healthy he’d be in tier 2 with Anderson, and even borderline tier 1.
Heaney’s home run issues are relevant, but they probably make him look worse than he’s actually been. We’re talking about a southpaw with an absurd 35-percent strikeout rate who’s putting up a 3.06 ERA. All in all, Heaney’s closer to Tyler Anderson than most people realize in terms of talent.
As of right now, Anderson will likely get the ball for Game 3 of the NLDS, but he’s not gonna work with the same leeway that Urías or Kershaw will. At the first sign of trouble, Roberts is much more likely to give him the hook, and if he struggles in a couple starts, that position isn’t set in stone.
The fourth start is up in the air, but it honestly won’t be as decisive as it seems. Whichever of the three ultimately gets it, he won’t go deep in the game, and it’s probable we see a piggyback situation, depending on how the first three games go.
Roberts could even go outside the box and opt for an opener with Heaney or May if he returns healthy, providing the bulk innings in the middle. Heaney has been working on a tight pitch count since his return, topping out at 91 pitches, and May’s status is unknown at this point.
If he isn’t backed into a corner and forced to use one of his starters out of the bullpen in the first three playoff games, there’s a very good shot we’ll see at least two of Heaney, May, and Gonsolin covering the bulk of a potential Game 4. If they’re all healthy at that point.
Evan Phillips has been absolutely money, and Alex Vesia really turned his season around, but beyond those two and Chris Martin there isn’t a lot of trust in the rest of that bullpen to come in and shut things down. Announcing a closer by committee with roughly two weeks left in the season shows that.
Don’t be surprised if Roberts winds up turning to one of these starters early on in the playoffs, to come in and put out a fire. Especially now with both May and Gonsolin at best-case scenario, returning from injury and basically jumping straight into postseason play.
Overall though, the Dodgers are in very good shape, and to come into the postseason with this much talent on the mound, it certainly creates multiple opportunities for the manager.