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How Have the Dodgers Erased the SF Giants' Huge Lead Without Clayton Kershaw?

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterAugust 16, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 14: Josh Reddick #11 of the Los Angeles Dodgers is greeted in the dugout after scoring a run in the first inning of the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Dodger Stadium on August 14, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

A little after 1 p.m. Sunday, a Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw took the mound.

Fifteen minutes later, the Dodgers were down 5-0, and the pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw was done for the day.

By day's end, the Dodgers—without Clayton Kershaw—had lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 11-3. Sunday starter Brett Anderson had a sprained left wrist. Rich Hill, acquired at the non-waiver trade deadline because the rotation needed help, had his Dodgers debut pushed back for a third time because of blisters.

It would be funny if it weren't so predictable. I wrote them off six weeks ago, and I wasn't the only one.

On second thought, don't click on that June 30 column. The one where I said the Dodgers' season could fall apart because of the back injury that sent Kershaw to the disabled list. The one I wrote when the Dodgers were seven games over .500—14-2 in Kershaw's 16 starts and 30-35 in the 65 games he hadn't started—and six games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

The Dodgers have gone 21-15 since then and are tied with the Washington Nationals for the best record in the National League over that span.

As of Monday morning, they were one game behind the Giants in the West and a 93.6 percent bet to make the playoffs one way or another, according to Baseball Prospectus.

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So the season didn't fall apart when Kershaw went down. It didn't even fall apart when Jon Heyman wrote last week on Today's Knuckleball that Kershaw might not come back at all this year.

It hasn't fallen apart, even though the Dodgers have used nine different starting pitchers since Kershaw was hurt. They've used 13 starters this season, second-most in MLB behind San Diego, Atlanta and Cincinnati.

Overall, the rotation has been as mediocre as you'd expect since Kershaw went down, posting a 4.82 ERA while averaging fewer than five innings per start. The offense has been good, but six teams in baseball have scored more runs than the Dodgers in that span.

So how are they doing it? How are they playing at what amounts to a 96-win pace without the great Kershaw, who was touted for much of the first half as an MVP candidate?

    

1. Building the Bullpen

As Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci first pointed out, the Dodgers are on a record pace in one significant category. Their opponents have a .202 batting average in innings 7-9.

That's not just the best of any team this season, it's the best of any team in any season over the last 113 years, according to Baseball-Reference.com's play index, beating the 1968 Detroit Tigers (who won a World Series) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (who won 116 games).

The Dodgers have used 20 different relievers this year, and they've regularly carried an eight-man bullpen. They've needed it, because their starters pitch so little and their bullpen pitches so much (only the Reds have more bullpen innings). First-year manager Dave Roberts has maneuvered it so well that only 35-year-old Joe Blanton is among the top 17 in the majors in relief innings pitched.

With a strong and deep bullpen, first-year manager Dave Roberts has been making the right moves.
With a strong and deep bullpen, first-year manager Dave Roberts has been making the right moves.Billy Hurst/Associated Press

No Dodger is among the top 12 in relief appearances—proof that Roberts understands he can't rely on just two or three bullpen arms.

Give Roberts credit, but also remember that a strong, deep bullpen is a trademark of Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations, dating back to his best Tampa Bay teams.

   

2. Doing It with Depth 

Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal played up this angle, another one borne out by the numbers.

Unheralded catcher Yasmani Grandal has a .710 slugging percentage since Kershaw went on the DL, the best in baseball. Third baseman Justin Turner is in the top eight in the National League with 29 RBI in that time and has been key in a lineup where so many of the big hitters swing left-handed.

The Dodgers have dumped some big names since Friedman arrived 22 months ago, including Matt Kemp (Grandal was acquired in that deal), Carl Crawford (released with about $35 million left on his contract) and Yasiel Puig (sent to the minor leagues with a $7.2 million salary).

They've also played most of this season with Anderson ($15.8 million) and Andre Ethier ($18 million) on the disabled list and the last six weeks with Kershaw ($34.6 million) on the DL.

The current 25-man roster makes only about $113 million this year—more than Friedman ever had to spend with the Rays but hardly a big-market number. It's working.

Who thought Justin Turner would be leading the Dodgers in RBI? He is.
Who thought Justin Turner would be leading the Dodgers in RBI? He is.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

   

3. Managing Matters

Roberts works the bullpen and the depth but also gets high marks for the tone he has set and the clubhouse he has run.

Friedman told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times:

"He's been challenged as much as I can imagine someone being challenged in year one, just with the sheer volume of injuries. To handle it the way he has, in his first year, is incredible. I know manager-of-the-year banter doesn't really pick up yet, but I don't know how he's not front and center in that conversation."

   

4. Giant Problems

The Giants had the second-best record in the National League (49-31) when Kershaw went on the DL. Had they kept up that .613 pace, they'd have 72 wins and the Dodgers would be seven games behind.

Instead, the Giants opened the door. Because of injuries and poor play coming out of the All-Star break, they're 17-20 since the Kershaw DL announcement.

Credit the Dodgers for taking advantage.

   

5. Semi-Soft Schedule

This one isn't as much of an explanation as you'd think, given how top-heavy the National League is this season. The Dodgers' 21-15 run includes 12 games against teams that are currently in playoff position (Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis and Boston).

They went 7-5 in those games.

Still, with the injuries that have hit the Cardinals, Miami Marlins and New York Mets, it's hard to find five worthy NL playoff teams. The Dodgers have played at a 96-win pace with Kershaw on the DL, but they shouldn't need to keep up that pace to make it to October.

They may need to have a shot at passing the Giants, who they meet for three games next week at Dodger Stadium (just before the Cubs come in) and six more times in September and October.

Even a playoff spot would be an accomplishment, given the challenges the Dodgers have faced and the forecasts of doom when they lost Kershaw. But for a franchise that has played in October seven times in the last 12 years but hasn't been back to the World Series since winning it with Kirk Gibson in 1988, the goal will always be higher.

No matter what they've done over the last six weeks, it's awfully hard to see them winning in October with the team they have now.

There's no way they're a World Series team without Kershaw. This time, I'm sure of it.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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