How Good Can Dodgers' Starting Pitching Be After Shutdown Australia Series?

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How Good Can Dodgers' Starting Pitching Be After Shutdown Australia Series?
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There are small sample sizes, and then there are two-game sample sizes. You can't prove anything in a two-game sample size. All you can do in a sample size like that is tease something.

If you watched the two games they played against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney, Australia, you'll know what the Los Angeles Dodgers teased: Their starting pitching could be awfully good in 2014.

In the first game, Clayton Kershaw led the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory with 6.2 innings of one-run ball. In the second game, fellow lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu followed suit with five scoreless innings. He departed with a 5-0 lead, and it's only because Don Mattingly let the dregs of his bullpen see some action at Sydney Cricket Ground that the score was as close as its 7-5 final.

As Mike Petriello of DodgersDigest.com will tell you, Kershaw's and Ryu's numbers look pretty good when put together:

Again, it's only two games. We've also only seen two guys. And while this is just a hunch, I'm thinking that the 0.80 ERA currently attached to the Dodgers rotation isn't going to last.

As far as teases go, though, I wouldn't dismiss this one. It's juicy enough to force us to ponder how good the Dodgers' starting pitching might be, and I'll go ahead and share my thought on the matter:

It could very well outperform last year's Dodgers starting pitching.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

A tall task, indeed. Dodgers starters had a 3.13 ERA last year, tops in MLB. According to FanGraphs, Dodgers starters also finished second in FIP and xFIP. Thus, it doesn't take much effort to argue that the Dodgers had a top-five starting pitching staff.

But what everyone else in the National League should be worried about isn't whether Dodgers starters can simply repeat that performance. What they should be worried about is whether Dodgers starters can pick up where they left off.

There was, after all, quite an improvement in their performance from the first half to the second half in 2013:

Dodgers Starting Pitching by Half, 2013
Split GS IP K/BB FIP xFIP ERA WAR
1st Half 94 566.1 2.55 3.70 3.77 3.42 6.1
2nd Half 68 412.2 4.21 2.96 3.15 2.75 7.8

FanGraphs

Kershaw had a 1.59 ERA. Zack Greinke had a 1.85 ERA of his own. Ryu had a 2.87 ERA. Ricky Nolasco came over from Miami and stabilized the back end of the rotation with a 3.52 ERA. One through four, the Dodgers rotation was solid as a rock. Twice as solid, even.

Now, sure, asking the top four of the Dodgers' current rotation to match that second-half performance number-for-number is asking a lot. Something akin to that level of consistent excellence, however, is surprisingly reasonable.

For starters, Kershaw is going to be Kershaw. If he's not the best pitcher in baseball, he's certainly the best the National League has. And as my colleague Joe Giglio pointed out, it was same-old, same-old in Kershaw's 2014 debut.

While the Dodgers ace struggled mightily in the spring, he said he may have just needed that extra energy the real thing brings (via Dennis Passa of The Associated Press):

Sometimes you just need the adrenaline of a regular-season game, and I just kind of feel relieved to get this one under my belt.

It's always good to get results, obviously. This one counted.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

As for Greinke, his dominance actually began before the All-Star break last year. As Tony Jackson of DodgersScribe.com noted, the veteran righty made a mechanical adjustment after a bad start against the Rockies on July 3, one that allowed him to focus his arm slot.

After that, Greinke held hitters to a .535 OPS and compiled a 1.57 ERA in his next 16 starts. Effectively, his mechanical adjustment allowed him to return to being the pitcher he was between 2009 and 2012, when he was about as good as they came.

Where Ryu is concerned, it says a lot about how seamless his transition to MLB was that you can look at his 2013 season and struggle to find something that qualifies as an adjustment period.

There was a point when things really clicked for him, though. After a solid first 19 starts, Ryu's last 11 starts were superb:

When Hyun-Jin Ryu Got Hot in 2013
Split IP K% BB% K/BB GB% ERA
First 19 Starts 122.0 18.9 8.1 2.34 50.0 3.25
Last 11 Starts 70.0 21.0 2.9 7.25 51.7 2.57

Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs (GB%)

Note: Ryu's GB% numbers were calculated using these figures.

One noticeable change for Ryu was that he increased the use of his changeup, per Brooks Baseball:

  • First 19 starts: 20.3 percent changeups
  • Last 11 starts: 25.9 percent changeups

This decision paid off, as Ryu's changeup racked up a GB/BIP rate over 53 percent and held hitters to just a .130 average.

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

As of this writing, there's no data for how often Ryu used his changeup in his 2014 debut. It was easy to notice that he wasn't shying away from it, though, which would mean he's going to stick with a more changeup-heavy approach in 2014. He'll probably ditch it when the league says he should, and that message may not be along for a while.

Short version: The Dodgers' top three of Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu ended 2013 on a hilariously strong note, and it wasn't a fluke. Kershaw was Kershaw, and Greinke and Ryu made adjustments that needed to be made. All three were outstanding pitchers and should continue to be so in 2014.

The fourth member of the Dodgers' elite starting attack in the second half last year, of course, is gone. Nolasco signed with the Minnesota Twins, and the replacement the Dodgers found for him is Dan Haren. Yes, the same Dan Haren who has a 4.50 ERA over the last two seasons.

But if we compare what Nolasco did as a Dodger to what Haren did in exactly the same time frame...

Haren's Stretch Run vs. Nolasco's Stretch Run
Split G GS IP K% BB% K/BB ERA
Haren 16 15 87.2 23.9 5.2 4.67 3.29
Nolasco 16 15 87.0 20.5 5.7 3.57 3.52

Baseball-Reference.com

The explanation for Haren's turnaround is less obvious, but there was something going on with his bread-and-butter cutter while he was putting together that strong finish.

Cue more data from Brooks Baseball!

Dan Haren's Cutter in 2013
Split Velo HMov BAA ISO
First 15 G 86.4 1.63 .376 .295
Last 16 G 85.6 2.13 .272 .132

Brooks Baseball

Haren's cutter lost velocity, but it gained movement. This was likely by design, as he told James Wagner of The Washington Post earlier in 2013 that he feels like his cutter loses movement if he throws it too hard. Since movement is what a cutter is all about, it's not a shocker that his results improved after he eased off and got some more movement on it.

If Haren joins the Kershaw-Greinke-Ryu trio in picking up where he left off in 2013, then the super-strong foursome of starters the Dodgers had in the second half is going to be a reality for them once again in 2014. That alone could be the difference in this year's starting staff putting up even more impressive numbers than the yearlong totals it put up in 2013.

But don't sleep on the depth the Dodgers have this year. The No. 5 spot in their rotation is a question mark at present, but as of now it belongs to Paul Maholm, who owns a 4.28 career ERA and a 4.18 FIP and 4.14 xFIP to match it. As No. 5 starters go, he's more than solid.

If Maholm stumbles, the Dodgers can plug in Josh Beckett when he's healthy—or Chad Billingsley when he's healthy. They also happen to have one of MLB.com's top 100 pitching prospects in Zach Lee, who's not far off from being major league-ready.

They're not all going to be like the two games the Dodgers played in Australia. There were times when it was obvious that their roster still needs some fine-tuning, and at other times it was obvious that both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are still supposed to be in spring training right now. Moving forward over the next 160 games, things are going to be...different.

Except for maybe the big tease. Kershaw and Ryu set a tone for a season's worth of dominant starting pitching, and you'd better believe that this Dodgers starting staff has the goods to make it last.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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