The Dodgers have yet to formally announce their fifth starter, replacing the injured Tony Gonsolin. This two-horse race between Ryan Pepiot and Michael Grove received another wrinkle as the former left his March 17 start with slight side discomfort, but one that didn’t prevent him from pitching into the fifth inning five days later.
Gavin Stone and Bobby Miller are the two more promising pitchers in the Dodgers system. Despite the former impressing in spring, neither is in line to pitch in the big leagues in this first month or so. Miller did not pitch in Cactus League play while Stone wowed in his brief appearances, striking out 14, giving him a leg up between the two, and made clear he’ll pitch at some point in the majors in 2023.
Pepiot made seven starts last season, and Grove made six, with neither truly impressive. Through his minor league career, Pepiot has been the more well-known name, receiving a 45 future value grade by FanGraphs (Grove’s was 40). Pepiot hasn’t yet been regarded as a top 3-5 prospect in the Dodgers system, though that’s more of a function of the organizational depth.
Pepiot did make two top-100 prospect lists this year, ranked the 55th-best prospect in the sport by Baseball America, and rated No. 70 by MLB Pipeline. Before the 2022 season, Pepiot also made two top-100 prospect lists — 59th at ESPN, and No. 99 at Baseball America.
Here we’ll look at why Pepiot hasn’t been able to lock down this spot with certainty, and what he needs to do to make that happen.
It all comes down to more consistent control, of all his pitches
The calling card for Pepiot in his development towards the big leagues has been his changeup. The former third-round pick has a three-pitch mix, also bolstering a four-seam fastball and slider, but the change is definitely is primary off-speed pitch, having been thrown a quarter of the time in his 36⅓ innings in the big leagues last season.
At first glance, a 3.47 ERA is a pretty solid in a way even encouraging outcome for any pitcher getting his cup of tea in the big leagues, but it doesn’t scratch the surface.
Pepiot’s 1.459 WHIP driven by a ridiculous 16.9-percent walk rate would have surely caught up with him had the Dodgers needed to give him the ball for a higher workload rather than as an emergency fill-in.
That high a walk rate points towards a very easy conclusion, that despite having pretty good stuff, Pepiot simply could not find the zone. A 12.8-percent swinging strike rate, and 28.7-percent whiff rate on his four-seamer, are both superb but were firmly negated by a subpar 47.2-percent zone rate on the pitch.
Pepiot’s 20.7-percent zone rate on his changeup was in the bottom third percentile in the big leagues last season.
Control has been a big issue for Pepiot throughout his minor league career, bolstering a walk rate above 10 percent at virtually every stop (it was 9.8 percent in AAA last season), and so far in spring the results have improved but hadn’t yet put those questions to bed. Pepiot walked five batters in 13⅔ so far in spring, though his 8.8-percent walk rate represent an improvement, accompanied by striking out 19, one third of his batters faced.
For the most part, Pepiot has thrown strikes this spring.
All things being equal, if that side discomfort doesn’t linger, I would expect to see Pepiot get first crack at that fifth rotation spot, but he’ll need to show at the very least tolerable command otherwise he’ll be pitching against himself for most of his outings.