As the Dodgers prepare to host the Atlanta Braves for Game 1 of the 2018 NLDS series on Thursday, lots of questions will surround the construct of the team. This is a franchise that prides itself on depth, and we have seen just that over the past two seasons. A lot of eyes will turn to the starting rotation because the Dodgers, in theory, have seven guys for your usual five spots.
But this is the postseason, and you hardly, if ever, see teams go with a full five-man rotation. It’s extremely ineffective because you want your best pitchers pitching as much as possible while preventing your worst ones from taking the mound. So that technically means seven guys for four spots, but Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood have made the transition to the bullpen already, which is where they are expected to perform from this month.
Ross Stripling and Rich Hill are the candidates for the last spot, but with how Stripling has scuffled to close the season, Hill’s strong finish, Hill’s experience, and Hill’s contract, you can bet that he will take the mound during Game 4, if it gets to that point and Los Angeles is up 2-1 in the series. And that is what the projected starting rotation, according to MLB.com, believes will be the case. But to be more specific, Hyun-Jin Ryu was just announced as the Game 1 starter:
Game 1: Hyun-Jin Ryu
Game 2: Clayton Kershaw
Game 3: Walker Buehler
Game 4: Rich Hill
It’s interesting that Ryu will go Game 1 because pitching on Thursday would mean Clayton Kershaw had a full four days of rest. But it’s also smart to give him that extra day. his worst season in, perhaps eight years, but his worst season is a career-year for 80% of other guys in the league. He pitched 161.1 innings and had a 2.73 ERA, his worst since 2012, a 1.041 WHIP (first time over 1.000 since 2012), and 8.6 K/9 (first time under nine since 2013). His “struggles” are mainly due to his drastic drop in fastball velocity.
But he’s still the guy on the starting staff. Even with Walker Buhler’s rise, Kershaw is the face of the franchise, and usually, the Dodgers go as he goes. But this year is different. He won’t have to carry the load for two reasons. First, with his decline, expectations won’t be so high as they were in the past. Every other season since 2013, he’s been the best pitcher in the game but did not live up to his standards consistently come October.
Maybe this year may be different, Clayton Kershaw is a top seven or eight pitcher at best and isn’t on the pedestal he once was, so there isn’t as much pressure from the baseball world; only from him and Dodger fans. But that’s better than he, fans, and the rest of the baseball community. And, at the same time, he will not have to carry the weight as much this postseason because he isn’t the best guy on his own team.
That title currently belongs to rookie Walker Buehler, who pitched Monday during Game 163 to help the boys in blue clinch the NL West. And, in hindsight, the extra game quietly worked out for the better because that means Buehler is rendered effectively useless for the first two games, which means that there is no question that Hyun-Jin Ryu would take one of the first two games, which would have been the right move even if Buehler was on full rest. It’s as simple as this: throwing Buehler on the road and Ryu at home would optimize the combined production from him and Ryu.
Last season, Dave Roberts used left-hander Rich Hill at home for Game 2 in each series, and Yu Darvish for all Game 3s because they happened to come on the road. This, even knowing Yu Darvish was the more talented pitcher. But Hill is a finesse left-handed pitcher whose stuff may not play up as well on the road as it did at Dodger Stadium, and Ryu is in a similar position.
It’s best to put a pitcher like him at home. He doesn’t have power stuff like Buehler, so it may not be as effective on the road. Yes, he did have a 1.97 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 89 strikeouts in 82.1 innings this season, and does have more experience than the rookie. Also, Ryu has proven to have “ice in his veins” in the most significant moments, but the Korean has not pitched in the playoffs since 2014 because of injuries.
And the 31-year-old had a 3.58 ERA in 27.2 road innings compared to a 1.15 ERA at home in 54.2 innings. And, in 26 home innings since August 31, the Korean has a 1.04 ERA, a .227 on-base allowed, and a paltry .299 slugging. Ryu is a pitcher that you want to make feel as comfortable as possible to get the best out of him, and sending him out at Chavez Ravine is the best way to do so. It’s better to be safe and sorry.
Plus, at this point, the Dodgers should feel comfortable throwing Walker Buehler out in any situation, rookie or not. He has developed in front of our very own eyes and lived up to every challenge and challenger faced. He’s young, but fearless and has a swag surrounding him that should make any supporter comfortable on the road for a Game 3 of a five-game series. Simply put, he can pitch anywhere.
He has a 3.45 ERA on the road, but a lot of that is skewed from the beginning of the season. Since his hot streak began back on July 31, Buehler has a 2.19 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and .519 OPS against in 37 road innings. And in 20 innings against .500 or better on the road, the 24-year-old has a 1.35 ERA. And everyone remembers his coming-of-age game against the St. Louis Cardinals on the road where he threw eight shutout innings in what was a must-win game a few weeks ago.
Which leads us to Rich Hill. The veteran lefty was, as mentioned earlier, the Dodgers’ Game 2 starter for all three series in 2017. But, in 2018, the veteran has had a bit of an up-and-down season that saw him finish with a 3.66 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 150 strikeouts in 132.2 innings. If that is your fourth starter, you’re in a terrific position because the 39-year-old is a guy who can pitch like an ace any given time for a long stretch.
He has playoff experience and is proven. And in July, when the Dodgers visited the Atlanta Braves, he had his best game of the season, throwing seven shutout innings of three-hit ball. And he did so in 95 pitches while throwing 72 of them for strikes. Plus, Hill finished off the season on a strong note, allowing just one run, six hits, and zero walks in his last two games, spanning seven innings each.