Three Strikes: How the Dodgers are changing the way pitchers are used

2:09 | MLB
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Tuesday April 18th, 2017

The Los Angeles Dodgers once again want you to forget everything you think you knew about starting pitching. The franchise that has given us Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser and Clayton Kershaw is willingly de-emphasizing what used to be the bedrock of winning baseball: reliable, innings-eating starting pitchers.

Rich Hill has a recurring blister problem. Julio Urias is throwing three or four innings per start in Triple A. Scott Kazmir is throwing mid-80s in extended spring training. Brock Stewart has a bum shoulder. Jair Jurrjens, who hasn’t pitched in the majors in three years, is getting a tryout in the Triple A rotation.

All that, and yet everything is perfectly fine for a 7-7 team that plans to use at least a dozen starting pitchers this year. Welcome to a world in which MLB teams put an average of six pitchers on the disabled list every day, and the 200-inning pitcher has never been more rare.

“There’s no team that has the kind of depth we do,” said one club source. “This team is built to win 95 games on the strength of depth carrying us over six months. We should get to 95 wins. But the year comes down to this: Clayton, Richie and Julio being healthy and ready to go to start playoff games. That’s it. So if it means they throw 170 innings instead of 200, that’s fine. They’ll actually be better for it.”

When you outspend the rest of baseball by 20% (the Dodgers’ payroll is about $242 million), you can afford to look all the way to October. What Los Angeles is doing upends what has worked for more than 100 years. Great gobs of money, the rise of bullpen usage and the growing inventory of pitchers who throw hard have emboldened the Dodgers to simply outnumber teams when it comes to pitching.

Here’s one way to appreciate how stunningly different this plan is: In the World Series era (dating to 1903), 137 teams needed 15 or more starting pitchers to get through a season. Most of those teams were terrible. Only three of those 137 teams made the playoffs: the 1989 Giants . . . and the 2015 Dodgers and the 2016 Dodgers.

Here’s another way to look at this tradition-busting approach: Last year, for the first time in the franchise’s 117 season, only one Dodgers pitcher threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (Kenta Maeda). Was the club doomed? Nope. Los Angeles still won the NL West by four games.

It used to be that using so many starting pitchers spelled disaster. But the Dodgers bake such quantities into their recipe. Hill has a “hot spot” on his finger? Shut him down (twice) so it doesn’t become a blister. Urias is perfectly healthy but is only 20 years old and needs to be protected so that he throws only about 165 innings during the regular season? Stash him in Oklahoma City and conserve his innings. (His starts have lasted 3 2/3 and 4 2/3 innings. He should join the Dodgers at the end of this month, with occasional rests during the season.) Kazmir has a bad hip? Let him take his time in extended spring.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Los Angeles still has Kershaw, Maeda, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, Alex Wood and prospect Trevor Oaks. That’s an inventory of 12 starting pitchers in various states of health and repair—even before the Dodgers go out and acquire more pitching. Nor does that group include veteran righty Justin Masterson, one of many battered and wounded pitchers L.A. has tried to rescue under president Andrew Friedman. Kershaw is the only one fully capable of throwing 200 innings, and after his mid-season back injury last year even he is not the guarantee he used to be.

“Kersh is Kersh,” the source said, “but who’s to say even he’s not better off going into the playoffs with 170 innings rather than 200?”

Last year only 15 pitchers threw 200 innings—by far a record low for any full season. (The previous record low was 23 in 1953, with 14 fewer teams.)

Every other team prays for good health from its five starters. In reality, half the starters in baseball will go on the disabled list. The Dodgers just take planning to a whole new level. They count on using three full rotations to cover 162 games so that their three best pitchers are ready when October starts.

This plan of musical starters is even more astute now that baseball has reduced the 15-day disabled list to a 10-day disabled list. Think of the 10-day DL as a quick timeout for a fatigued pitcher. Sixteen days into the season, there were 97 pitchers on the DL—a half dozen per day—and we have yet to see the full influence of the 10-day DL. Check out this year-by-year casualty list, showing how many pitchers were put on the disabled list 16 days into the season:

 
Year total Players on DL Pitchers on DL percentage
2013 144 82 56.9%
2014 137 87 63.5%
2015 163 106 65.0%
2016 144 92 63.9%
2017 154 97 63.0%

In just 16 days this year, there were more pitchers on the DL than pitchers who qualified for the ERA title in any of the past 100 seasons.

McCarthy, a 33-year-old righty, is the prototypical Dodger starter: expensive and good in short doses, but not reliable to hold up over six months. The Dodgers signed him after the 2014 season to a four-year, $48 million contract, even though he was turning 31, had a lifetime record of 52-65, had thrown more than 135 innings only twice and—because of the risky and extreme external rotation of his shoulder in his throwing motion—suffered from frequent breakdowns.

Three years into his contract, he has started only 16 games for Los Angeles. He blew out his elbow in 2015, and when he came back in '16, briefly suffered through a bad case of the yips.

Back in 2015 McCarthy took a shot on Twitter at a journalist by saying he “has the writing equivalent of the yips.” But karma can be a bear. A year later the dreaded yips struck McCarthy on the mound. In three August starts last year McCarthy suddenly could not throw a baseball accurately. He walked 15 batters and hit two others, with his pitches often skittering to the backstop. The Dodgers left him off their postseason roster.

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“It was painful,” he said of having sat out the postseason.

When I asked McCarthy why he suddenly lost control of his pitches, he said it was due to the rigors and routine of coming back from Tommy John surgery.

“When you throw all anybody asks about is how many pitches you threw and how your arm feels,” he said. “You get so regimented in just throwing that you lose the feel for pitching.”

McCarthy said “a normal off-season” cured him of the yips—being around family, enjoying diversions from the rigors of rehab, and most importantly, going about the craft of pitching in a normal manner.

In a rare speedy recovery from the yips, McCarthy is throwing the ball well and precisely. He has provided Los Angeles with three sterling starts, going 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA. And if he doesn’t hold up for 32 starts? No big deal.

If you haven’t heard it already, be prepared to hear and read that “the Dodgers are in trouble” because of injuries to starting pitchers, and because the model that sent them to the playoffs the past two seasons “is not sustainable” or is not part of “winning baseball.” Pay no attention to such talk. It may have been true for 100 years, but it’s not true now—not when you have so much money and so many arms.

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2. Hard Truths 

Earlier this week the Yankees announced that top pitching prospect James Kaprielian, the No. 16 pick in the 2015 draft, will need Tommy John surgery and is out for the year (which can't be a shock given his poor mechanics). That makes this a good time to measure just how poor the return on investment has been when clubs draft hard-throwing pitchers so high.

• Among top 30 overall picks from 2012 through '15, teams used 45% of the most valuable slots to take pitchers (54 of 120, including two pitchers who were twice drafted so high).

• Among the pitchers taken with a top 30 pick, 38% of them have already had Tommy John surgery or thoracic outlet surgery (20 of 52).

• Only 19% of pitchers picked in the top 30 (10 of 52) have stayed off an operating table, remain with the club that drafted them and have reached the majors.

More young pitchers compromise mechanics because the ticket to advancement is to throw as hard as possible, and mechanics, more than overuse, now are the root of most blowouts.

The best returns on investment among top 30 picks from 2012 through '15—as measured by major league wins for the team that drafted them—are the Cardinals' Michael Wacha (34-21), the Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman (25-17) and the Orioles' Kevin Gausman (23-31).

Now you know why the Cubs under Theo Epstein are the only club in the past five drafts not to use a top 30 pick on a pitcher. As I detail in my book, The Cubs Way; The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse, Epstein prioritized building Chicago around position players rather than pitchers because they are safer bets and because everyday players change a franchise culture, not pitchers. That’s how he wound up with his four pillars: getting third baseman Kris Bryant and outfielder Kyle Schwarber through the draft, and first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Addison Russell through trades in which he gave up . . . pitchers.

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3. News and Notes

• Tampa Bay is going nowhere with its offense, which for the second straight year is the worst in baseball at making contact. Exhibit A: On Monday Red Sox relievers threw 56 pitches and the Rays put only four of them in play. Seven of their last nine outs were strikeouts.

• Taking a page from Hill, Drew Pomeranz, Felix Hernandez and others who have increased their curveball usage, Mariners lefty James Paxton has bumped the use of his knuckle-curve from 14% to 23%—a trend that actually began last September when he quit throwing so many cutters and instead relied on his nasty hook. How nasty is it? He has thrown 72 curves this year and nobody has managed a hit against it yet.

• It’s official: A stronger, heavier Bryce Harper is back from the shoulder and neck woes that hampered him throughout the second half last year. On Sunday Harper hit two home runs against the Phillies, including a walk-off three-run homer on a 97-mph fastball from Joaquin Benoit, the first time he had homered on a pitch at least that fast since April 24, 2016.

• Don’t be fooled by the overreactions to early season results, which seem to get more extreme every year as people strive to have their voice heard. As late as May 18 last year the White Sox were 24-16 and the Phillies were 24-17—two of the six best teams in baseball. They finished a combined 26 games under .500. As late Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson used to say, let 50-60 games play out before you start hardening opinions.

• No club will leverage the 10-day disabled list more than Baltimore, where GM Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have been wizards at roster manipulation. They have 25 pitchers on their 40-man roster and carried only three starting pitchers on their Opening Day roster. “This is the most flexible roster we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Showalter said. In six previous years with Baltimore, Showalter used an average of 49 players per year, including 25 pitchers. Earl Weaver, in his first stint with Baltimore from 1969 through '82, used an average of 33 players, including just 13 pitchers per year. “And if I had Earl’s pitchers, maybe that’s all I’d use,” Showalter cracked.

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