CINCINNATI — No team loses more high-impact starting pitchers than the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet no team consistently pitches so well. It is part of life in blue.
“I was at the Sandy Koufax statue ceremony last week, and he talked about how, when you put this uniform on, there’s a lot of pitching legacy with the Dodgers,” Manager Dave Roberts said here on Tuesday, before a game with the Cincinnati Reds. “And I do believe that when you have Clayton Kershaw here, the bar is set very high. So the expectation when you take the mound for us is higher.”
Kershaw, who missed a few weeks with a lower back injury, has returned to resume his march to the Hall of Fame. The arms around him keep changing, but the results stay the same. The Dodgers’ starters led the majors in earned run average through Wednesday, at 2.62, despite missing a decorated five-man rotation from 2021.
At various points last season, the Dodgers employed Max Scherzer, Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler, David Price and Dustin May. Those pitchers made 77 starts for a team that tied a franchise record with 106 victories. All are gone from the rotation.
Scherzer signed with the Mets. Bauer was suspended for two years in April for violating baseball’s domestic-violence policy. Buehler had elbow surgery this month for a flexor tendon strain and his return is uncertain. Price is a middle reliever. May is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
For the Dodgers, though, it is just an opportunity for others to shine. Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson have combined to go 17-0, helping keep the team at the top of the National League West in a virtual tie with San Diego. Both starters could be first-time All-Stars next month.
“I feel like they never write anything off here,” said Anderson, a left-hander who signed with the Dodgers after six years with four teams — and a 4.62 earned run average. “Some teams, if you try stuff, they don’t really like trying new things. Whereas they’re not afraid to try new things here — and they also know how to weed out things that don’t work.”
Anderson, who signed a one-year deal for $8 million, modified his best pitch, the changeup. It is now the slowest of its kind among qualified N.L. pitchers, at 79.2 miles an hour, according to Fangraphs, helping his ordinary fastball play up.
Gonsolin made a concerted effort to throw more strikes this season, while using his splitter more than any other N.L. starter. Teams have largely discouraged pitchers from using that pitch, for fear of injury, since its heyday in the 1980s. But Roberts believes the splitter should make a comeback — and Gonsolin could give it a showcase if he starts the All-Star Game at home next month.
“That would be pretty cool,” said Gonsolin, a ninth-round Dodgers draft choice in 2016. “For it to be at Dodger Stadium would be huge. It would just be awesome to be part of that environment, to get that opportunity if it does happen.”
Andrew Heaney, who returned from a shoulder injury last weekend and has all but scrapped his changeup, has an 0.59 E.R.A. with 23 strikeouts and four walks in three starts. Heaney signed for one year and $8.5 million after struggling last season for the Angels and the Yankees.
“Throw your best pitches more frequently,” Heaney said. “That makes a lot of sense to me.”
Heaney, like Anderson, had a track record of mediocrity for multiple teams; in eight seasons, his E.R.A. was 4.72. Yency Almonte, a setup man with his fourth organization, has found success by emphasizing sinkers over four-seamers. Another reliever, Evan Phillips, had a 7.26 E.R.A. for three teams, and a 2.43 mark since the Dodgers claimed him off waivers last August.
“We’ve still got to compete; it’s not like we come over to the Dodgers and they sprinkle some fairy dust on us and all of a sudden, we are who we are,” Phillips said. “We’re all talented, and I think they just challenge us to bring out the best in ourselves. And in a room like this, when you’re surrounded by Hall of Famers and All-Stars left and right, it lifts everybody up.”
Kershaw, 34, finished last season on the injured list but returned for one year and $17 million. He has been with the Dodgers for 15 seasons, long enough to witness their last losing record (80-82 in 2010) and their return to the kind of pitching dominance that defined Koufax’s prime in the 1960s.
“The Dodgers do a good job of finding out what you do well and utilizing that — a lot,” Kershaw said. “There’s certain organizations that do pitching really well. We’re one of them. Cleveland’s one of them. Tampa Bay’s one of them. I think everybody does it a little differently, but it seems like the Dodgers find somebody’s strength that might not be seen on paper, but if you dig a little bit, you see that this guy’s got some ability.”
This is the sixth season in a row that the Dodgers have had the lowest E.R.A. in the N.L., at 2.90 through Wednesday. Heaney said the cohesion among departments in the team’s vast coaching and front-office structure made it easy to implement changes.
“There’s an openness to being able to say, ‘Let’s try something different,’ and guys aren’t anxious about that,” Heaney said. “There’s a trust, like, ‘OK, they’re not going to bring this to me if they don’t believe in what it could unlock.’”
General Manager Brandon Gomes pitched for Tampa Bay under Andrew Friedman, who left to run the Dodgers’ baseball operations department in 2014. Raw data has not changed much since he played, Gomes said, but teams have found more ways to apply it.
The old idea that players will usually follow their established patterns — that they will play to the back of their baseball cards, as the saying goes — no longer applies.
“There are different paths to get at player development, and not just in the minor leagues,” Gomes said. “There’s major league player development going on as well.”
The Dodgers could add more depth in the second half, with May, Danny Duffy, Tommy Kahnle and Blake Treinen possibly returning from various injuries. The Dodgers are spending a combined $6.725 million this season on Duffy and Kahnle, and if neither comes back, they can afford the gamble. Their bets on Heaney — and, especially, Anderson — are already paying off.
Such a portfolio sets the Dodgers apart. The team has a payroll around $260 million, according to Spotrac, just below the Mets for the richest in the majors.
“Between how well they find guys in the rough and their ability to spend money — at the end of the day, if you spend money, you get good players, and good players win games,” Kershaw said. “I don’t care how every other team thinks they’re going to do it, that’s how you have a good team, is to be able to do that. If you’re not going to spend money, you might have a good year or two. But you’ve got to have good players, and good players cost money.”
The Dodgers’ big spending, for players like Kershaw, Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Trea Turner and others, matters most. But their success in developing players in the majors may be saving their season.
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