Wednesday, February 1 2023

By Rowan Kavner
FOX Sports MLB Writer

The best pitching staff in baseball has been without its Opening Day starter for two months.

It lost its All-Star Game starter to the injured list on two separate occasions. It has been without its most dependable high-leverage reliever since the middle of April, and it lost for the season the player who took the place of that late-inning threat. 

Through all of that, the Dodgers lead the majors in ERA (2.87), WHIP (1.06), wins (76) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.62). 

“I think it’s just understanding that what we have in the room that particular night is good enough to win a ballgame,” manager Dave Roberts said. “And I think that we do a good job of not having side doors as far as potential excuses.”

MLB Power Rankings: Los Angeles Dodgers lead this week’s list

Ben Verlander gives us his MLB Power Rankings for Week 18, with the Dodgers finally taking over the top spot.

The Dodgers continue to take every hit in stride, unearthing aces, discovering new bullpen behemoths and finding ways to put up zeroes on a consistent basis better than any other team in baseball. As sensational as Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman have been atop one of the most electrifying lineups in baseball, that trio recognizes what has consistently led the Dodgers to their record-setting win pace.

“It’s always been pitching,” Freeman said. “Our pitching has been amazing all season. We’ve just been hitting a lot better as of late, scoring a lot of runs, letting them settle in and get deeper into ball games. It’s just kind of been clicking on all cylinders for about four or five weeks now.”

Despite a litany of pitching obstacles — Walker Buehler hasn’t pitched since June 10; Clayton Kershaw missed a month due to a back issue and returned to the injured list with another back injury last week; a shoulder issue has limited Andrew Heaney to six starts; Blake Treinen last pitched April 14; Daniel Hudson, who took over Treinen’s late-inning, high-leverage role, tore his ACL on June 24; Brusdar Graterol hasn’t pitched in a month; Tommy Kahnle, who bounced back from Tommy John surgery, made four appearances before a return to the IL; closer Craig Kimbrel has thrown a clean inning in just eight of his 41 outings — the Dodgers are on track to win more than 112 games.

The starting pitchers lead the majors with a 2.68 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. The relievers lead MLB with a 1.09 WHIP and 3.57 K/BB.

And there’s reason to believe those numbers will get even better.  

In the rotation, Dustin May is expected to make his return from Tommy John surgery next week, Kershaw is expected back in a few weeks, and Buehler could return in September. In relief, Treinen and Graterol will both begin rehab assignments this weekend, while Kahnle and Danny Duffy could return at some point in the second half.  

So how exactly did the pitching staff get here, guiding a 76-33 Dodger club with wins in 31 of its past 36 games?

These eight pitchers have paved the path.   

THE ROTATION’S ENGINE  

Julio Urías 

Since the Dodgers lost Buehler to a flexor tendon strain and elbow surgery, their rotation has … pitched even better? Since June 11, Buehler’s first day out, Dodgers starting pitchers have a 2.65 ERA, and no other group in baseball boasts a sub-3.00 ERA. 

Urías’ ascension is a primary reason behind that. The 2020 World Series star has an eight-game winning streak dating to June 18. Since his last loss on June 12, Urías is 9-0 with a 2.16 ERA and .196 opponents’ batting average. In his past five starts, the left-hander is 5-0 with a 1.09 ERA. He has 31 strikeouts and two walks in those 33 innings, tossing a quality start in all five, and his velocity is ticking up as the season continues. His fastball has taken a significant step forward.  

“Julio needs to be that guy at the top right now until we get Clayton back,” Roberts said Tuesday, “and he’s done that.”

Tony Gonsolin 

Miami’s Sandy Alcantara is the only qualified NL starter with a better ERA than Gonsolin. You might want to read that again.

Gonsolin won the fifth starter job in Los Angeles and ran with it. He allowed two earned runs or fewer in each of his first 16 starts of the season, making his first All-Star team in the process.

How Dave Roberts helped Tony Gonsolin become a front-runner for NL Cy Young

Tony Gonsolin tells Ben Verlander about bouncing back from a shoulder injury in 2021, leveling up for the 2022 season, his mentality on the mound and a talk he had with Dave Roberts to help his mindset.

The 28-year-old finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in the shortened 2020 season, when he posted a 2.31 ERA, but his jump this year was dramatic. Gonsolin has already thrown more than twice as many innings as in any previous major-league season, and perhaps that played a role in his late July drop-off. Still, he is 13-1 with a 2.30 ERA and leads the NL with a 0.89 WHIP through 20 starts.  

Tyler Anderson 

When the 2022 season began, Anderson found himself on the outside looking in at a spot in the rotation. He joined the Dodgers wanting to compete for a championship and hoping they could help get the most out of his skills, even if it meant a long relief role. 

He began the year piggybacking Gonsolin’s starts. Now he’s an All-Star.  

Injuries forced Anderson into the rotation in April, and he hasn’t wasted the opportunity. He had never before won more than seven games in a season. This year, he sports an identical 13-1 record to Gonsolin’s — no NL pitcher has more wins — and a 2.72 ERA. Urías, Gonsolin and Anderson are among the nine qualified NL starters with a WHIP of 1.00 or better.  

Guided by a lethal changeup — only five NL pitchers have more strikeouts on the pitch this year — Anderson gets hitters to chase and rarely gets hit hard. He came two outs away from a no-hitter on June 15 and has gone at least six innings with one or zero runs allowed nine times this season.  

EXCELLING … WHEN HEALTHY  

Clayton Kershaw 

Kershaw missed a month of the first half and still made the All-Star team, starting the game for the first time in his career at Dodger Stadium. The honor certainly could have gone to Alcantara, but it was not entirely sentimental. In his last start before the All-Star Game, Kershaw tossed seven perfect innings before allowing his first hit. It was the second time this season that he threw seven perfect frames. 

The health of his back is a concern, and he has no immediate timetable to return from his latest injury, but it doesn’t look like that will stop him from competing down the stretch. When healthy, he is still performing among the league’s elite (2.64 ERA/0.98 WHIP).

Andrew Heaney 

Heaney’s shoulder has given him trouble. His slider has not.

Coming off an underwhelming season between the Angels and Yankees, the left-hander found a team in Los Angeles that believed in his metrics and potential. After throwing a two-seam breaking ball all spring, he switched his grip and his thought process with the pitch in his final simulated game before the start of the regular season. It has turned into one of the more dangerous sliders in the game. 

“I can’t really see shape, and I don’t know velo until I look at the board,” Heaney said in April. “All I can control is get the grip right, throw the s— out of it and see the results. They were there.” 

Opponents are 8-for-47 with 20 strikeouts against the pitch. Heaney is healthy again and looking to build on a 0.64 ERA in six starts this season. He’s averaging a career-high 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. 

THE RELIEVERS 

Evan Phillips 

With Treinen and Hudson down, the Dodgers needed another pitcher to emerge as a high-leverage threat late in games. Enter Phillips.

The Dodgers have a knack for making useful relievers out of other teams’ castoffs. Phillips pitched in Atlanta, Baltimore and Tampa Bay before the Dodgers claimed him off waivers from the Rays last August. He has become the reliable fireman in the Dodgers’ bullpen.

Phillips was predominantly a fastball pitcher in college. As his velocity increased, he found he had less use for his hard slider. In 2019, he began to change his grip on the pitch to get more sweep. It was a work in progress until this year. He found the release point he wanted, figuring out how to stay behind the ball to get the action he wanted.

“This season specifically, I’ve really homed in on that feel, and I’ve been able to rip it every single time,” Phillips said. “The shape is consistent. The velocity, movement, it’s all there.” 

Phillips’ 1.43 ERA trails only those of the Cardinals’ Ryan Helsley (0.79) and the Mets’ Edwin Diaz (1.39) for the best mark among qualified NL relievers, and his 0.82 WHIP trails only Helsley’s 0.64 mark.

Yency Almonte   

Almonte primarily threw a four-seam fastball during his four years in Colorado. The Dodgers changed that immediately, upping the usage of his sinker and reaping the results.  

“After the first week throwing it every day, starting to see a lot of broken bats, a lot of quick contact, a lot of ground balls, I was like, ‘I can do this,'” Almonte said. “‘I like this.'” 

Still, it is the slider mostly guiding Almonte’s success — opponents have a .135 batting average with 25 strikeouts against the pitch, which is more of a sweeper now. It’s getting nearly four more inches of horizontal break than it did last season.  

Almonte had a 1.15 ERA and 0.89 WHIP through 29 appearances before he went on the injured list due to elbow tightness. He didn’t sound concerned that the injury will keep him out long-term.

Caleb Ferguson  

Another Dodger pitcher on the Tommy John comeback trail, Ferguson has demonstrated no signs of rust in his return.

He made his first appearance May 16 in a scoreless inning against the Diamondbacks. Through 17 appearances, he has yet to allow a run. Opponents have just three hits against him in 16⅔ innings.

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. A proud LSU alumnus, he credits his time as a sportswriter and editor at The Daily Reveille for preparing him for a career covering the NFL, NBA and MLB. Prior to joining FOX, he worked as the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. When not at a stadium or watching sports, Rowan enjoys playing with his dog, hiking, running, golfing and reminiscing about the Mavs’ 2011 championship run. You can find him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.


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