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The Dodgers’ Inexhaustible Supply of Starters Is Defying History and Logic

And Clayton Kershaw is about to return …

Getty Images
Getty Images

On Sunday, rookie starter José De Leon made his Dodgers debut, whiffing nine Padres without issuing a walk. On most teams, an outing like that would’ve automatically triggered another turn in the rotation. On the Dodgers … well, we’ll see. Los Angeles Times beat writer Andy McCullough’s story about the uncertainty surrounding De Leon’s next start mentioned 11 other Dodgers pitchers who have started, are currently starting, or could still start again this season. De Leon, the team’s top-ranked pitching prospect (and the 35th-best prospect in baseball, per MLB.com), will have to take a ticket and wait until his number is next.

De Leon’s limbo is nothing new; for the second consecutive season, there’s been a ton of “TBD” on the list of L.A.’s probable pitchers. From 2010 to 2015, major league teams averaged 10.1 starters per season. The Dodgers, who led the majors with 16 starters last season, are tied for the top spot with 15 this year. They aren’t the first team to test a staff’s limits like this, but based on past precedent, that blueprint shouldn’t be working this well.

As one would expect, it takes a melting pot of pitchers to use more than 30 starters in a two-season sample, with reputations ranging from unheard of to heralded, and salaries ranging from league minimum to league leading. Each of the team’s many rotation members comes with a unique set of instructions. The second-half anchor of the 2016 rotation, offseason addition Kenta Maeda, is pitching on an NPB-style schedule meant to minimize fatigue. Maeda, who leads the team in innings since the All-Star break, has started on “normal” (four days’) rest only once in that span. The Dodgers’ limited-workload contingent also includes De Leon, Ross Stripling, and Julio Urias, the just-turned-20-year-old who started the season as the game’s top left-handed pitching prospect and made it to the majors without ever throwing more than six innings in a minor league start.

On the unsung side, there’s Brock Stewart, a converted infielder who started the season in High-A and didn’t make Baseball America’s preseason list of the team’s top 30 prospects. Then there are the fragile free-agent signees who’d be first-round draft picks in a fantasy league scored by DL days: Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir (and more). And of course, there’s Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball, and trade deadline acquisition Rich Hill, who ranks second behind Kershaw on the leaderboard of lowest ERAs among pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched. Kershaw is due to return Friday from the back injury that’s kept him sidelined since late June; Hill, who’s been plagued by an almost-unhealable blister, has thrown 12 innings in the past two months.

Plenty of rotations have had casts this unsettled; prior to last season, 134 major league teams had featured 15 starters or more. What separates the Dodgers from most teams with revolving-door rotations, though, is that the Dodgers are good. The five other teams who’ve used more than 13 starters this season — the Braves, Reds, Padres, Angels, and Athletics — are a combined 125 games out of first place in their respective divisions. That’s pretty typical: Those 134 high-turnover-rotation teams recorded a collective winning percentage of .418. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are on track to finish 92–70 for the second consecutive season, and their five-game lead over historically slumping San Francisco with 23 games to go gives them a better than 90 percent chance of winning the NL West for the fourth year in a row.

Let’s put that accomplishment into perspective: Before last season, only one other team in baseball’s long history (the 1989 Giants) had qualified for the playoffs after asking 15 or more pitchers to start. The Dodgers are about to do it in back-to-back years.

The cherry on top of this crazy cake is that the Dodgers aren’t succeeding in spite of their rotation. Even though they’ve cycled starters in and out of active duty all season, the Dodgers’ rotation has helped the team, on the whole. That, too, makes the Dodgers stand out. In the 65 full seasons for which we can calculate Deserved Run Average, Baseball Prospectus’s most comprehensive measure of pitching performance, 71 teams (excluding the 2015 Dodgers) have used 15 or more starters. On the whole, their starters have pitched 7 percent worse than the average rotation; only 13 have been better than average. (The ’89 Giants, for instance, had a below-average rotation but brute-forced their way to the World Series by leading the majors in position player WAR.) The 2015 and 2016 Dodgers’ starters have been 20 percent and 8 percent better than average, respectively. The 1959 and 1987 Yankees are the only previous teams with 15 or more starters to finish with a winning record and a better-than-average rotation DRA — and those Yankees were worse than the 2015–16 Dodgers in both respects.

So how have the Dodgers defied the odds? Most teams that use 15 or more starters don’t draw it up that way: Injuries and poor performance force them to dip deeper into their pitcher pools than they’d planned. The further they stray from their frontline arms, the more their performance suffers. Though the Dodgers didn’t exactly set out to use this many starters, they constructed their rotation in a way that made it more likely that they’d have to dig deep. Then they stockpiled backups, some of whom they hoped they wouldn’t have to use.

According to Baseball Injury Consultants, the Dodgers lead the majors with 1,234 days lost to injury this season. That can’t have come as a complete surprise to a team that’s shown no fear of free-agent starters with lengthy injury histories or irregular physicals. Because they have the game’s deepest pockets (and most lucrative TV deal), the Dodgers could afford to take on health risks, knowing that even if their efforts at injury prevention fell short, no one loss (or, for that matter, many) would irreparably sabotage their season. Their high-risk pitcher portfolio has rewarded them handsomely in some cases (Maeda, Anderson’s 2015) and backfired just as spectacularly in others (McCarthy, Anderson’s 2016).

Big dollars don’t explain everything. Smart player evaluation and development deserve some credit for the Dodgers’ success. De Leon was a draft gem from the 24th round; Urias was a scouting discovery, albeit one who got a sizable bonus; Mike Bolsinger, a useful starter in 2015, was an almost-free find whom the Diamondbacks didn’t want. It’s also helped that the Dodgers have gotten league-leading framing from catcher Yasmani Grandal, a pickup from the Padres whose ability to earn extra strikes more than makes up for his shortcoming as a game-caller.

Without their high-priced teammates, though, those inexpensive players wouldn’t have produced a first-place team. Pitchers who’ve started for the Dodgers this year have combined for close to $100 million in 2016 salary, more than nine teams are spending on their entire rosters. Roughly half of that price tag comes from the foursome of Anderson, McCarthy, Kazmir, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who’ve combined for minus-0.2 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference. Investing that much money with zero return would have sunk some teams, but the Dodgers had the resources to spend their way out of the hole. They also had the resources to make Kershaw baseball’s highest-paid player; fielding 15-plus starters hurts a lot less when one of them is on an all-time top-10 trajectory.

The best news for the Dodgers is that they’re tantalizingly close to seeing the chaos subside at the most important point of the year. All season, they’ve been sifting through starters, searching for the most potent mix. Suddenly, it’s starting to solidify. For the moment, Hill is healthy, having thrown a six-inning one-hitter last Saturday and suffered no known setbacks since then. Kershaw’s start on Friday will be telling, but the lefty said almost three weeks ago that he felt “100 percent,” and he made a successful minor league start last weekend. Those two and Maeda would give the Dodgers the best top three of any team in October. De Leon, Urias (who’s been superb since his second start but is probably bound for the bullpen), Kazmir (who suffered a setback on Wednesday), or McCarthy could capably bring up the playoff rotation’s rear. De Leon has the least big league experience, but based on his first start and his Triple-A performance, he might be the best choice.

We’re still a month away from Game 1 of the NLDS, and based on how their seasons have gone, no one would be shocked if Kershaw and Hill were again unavailable by then. In that scenario, the Dodgers would have to do what they’ve done since the start of last season: Make a sacrifice to the Many-Faced God, plug in other pitchers, and play on. Thus far, they’ve survived, and thrived, on fluidity.

What the Dodgers have tried isn’t really a replicable plan. Nor is it the new Moneyball; if anything, it’s an approach that wouldn’t work without money. The Dodgers are spending in a way that no team has spent. We probably shouldn’t be shocked that they’re winning in a way that no one has won.

Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.