Dodgers: The Two Pressing Pitching-Related Questions

Wednesday and Thursday nights marked the Dodgers’ 11th and 12th walk-off wins of 2019, more than any other team. And while they’ve been exciting, some have been a bit disconcerting because of why they were in that position in the first place. Take Wednesday for example.

It came on the back of an excellent outing from Walker Buehler and was capped off by Max Muncy’s fifth-straight appearance with a home run. But both feats were overshadowed by closer Kenley Jansen, who blew his sixth game of the season.

And while that game raised even more questions regarding the status of the Dodgers’ longtime relief ace and closing situation, Buehler gave us yet another one which Dave Roberts and management will have to address by the time the playoffs come around.

Is it Time the Dodgers Give Someone Else a Chance to Close?

Jansen has had a terrific career as the closer for Los Angeles since 2013. One which may make him the greatest reliever in franchise history. But as is the case with all relief pitchers (except Mariano Rivera), there’s a shelf-life. And Jansen has seemingly reached his.

His cutter velocity is at a career-low while his command and break just aren’t as sharp. And this is evidenced by a career-worst 3.70 ERA, a 1.048 WHIP (his second-worst), and a 26.4% K-BB% which is below his career mark of 31.4%. And in 48.2 innings, he’s already given up eight home runs and blown a career-high six games.

He’s been an even bigger disaster on the road, with a 5.12 ERA and .760 OPS allowed and things aren’t going to get any easier in the hostile playoff road environments. And during the second half of the season, he’s allowed seven earned runs in 12 innings (5.25 ERA) with a 1.417 WHIP and opponents’ .819 OPS.

Not exactly what you want from the man who’s supposed to make you feel comfortable anchoring your bullpen during the playoffs. So, is it time to change closers, or go to a closer-by-committee formula?

Joe Kelly is the popular choice to supplant Jansen, but on the surface, his 4.43 ERA and 1.38 WHIP aren’t what you’d label “relief ace” material. And this is why you must look at things in context.

In case you haven’t been able to follow the team, that figure is because of a horrid start to the season. But since June 1st, the right-hander has tossed 24.2 innings, posting a 1.48 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 2.02 FIP with 36 strikeouts (on the back of an elite 36.4% strikeout rate), in more and more high-leverage opportunities.

Opponents are hitting just .169/.253/.236 off him with a .218 wOBA during this stretch, and when they do make contact, Kelly’s done an excellent job at limiting the hard hits, while keeping 66% of the batted balls on the ground.

The veteran is picking up steam at the right time, and reminding us why the Dodgers handed him $25 million this past offseason. During the Red Sox’s World Series run in 2018, the 31-year-old allowed just two runs (one earned) in 11.1 innings with 13 strikeouts.

Dave Roberts is still sticking with Jansen, but it’s hard to envision he and Andrew Friedman risking a still-compromised Jansen over a white-hot Joe Kelly or steady Pedro Baez.

Who Do the Dodgers Give Game 3 To?

After seven shutout innings on Wednesday, we were once again reminded that the Dodgers have three aces. Three guys who can legitimately start Game 1 of a playoff series and you’d expect to win.

You have the NL Cy Young frontrunner in Hyun-Jin Ryu. The franchise ace for the past decade and future Hall-of-Famer in Clayton Kershaw. And the budding superstar in Walker Buehler.

With LA expected to have home-field advantage through the NL playoffs, and potentially the World Series, it means the first two games of each round will take place at Chavez Ravine. Thus, the “problem.”

Who gets the short end of the stick and must start Game 3 on the road? And for that matter, who takes the mound in Game 1? It’s no doubt a great problem to have, but one that will require careful consideration.

In years past, the easy answer would be Clayton Kershaw for Game 1 and take it from there. But the 2018 NLDS was the first time things were shaken up, as the Dodgers handed Ryu the first start, which Kershaw was none too happy about.

But the results were great, as the duo tossed a combined 15 scoreless innings to help take a 2-0 series lead. But in the NLCS and World Series, things went back to normal, as Kershaw was given the ball for both openers. But in 2019, who knows?

Ryu has been the best pitcher on the team all season long which qualifies him to start the series, let alone appear in the first two games. Kershaw is the one with the pedigree, and Buehler easily has the best stuff from the three.

The most likely scenario would be Ryu and Kershaw pitching the first two games (in whichever order), with Buehler going on the road. But looking at the numbers, it’s worth a discussion:

Home Splits

Hyun-Jin Ryu0.812.270.7980.47722%0.208
Clayton Kershaw2.423.521.0510.66920.7%0.283
Walker Buehler2.132.760.8090.51931.1%0.220

Away Splits

Hyun-Jin Ryu2.553.781.1040.70315.4%0.294
Clayton Kershaw3.143.390.9770.59220.6%0.251
Walker Buehler4.373.641.2650.73818.2%0.311

All three are significantly better at home- except for Kershaw, whose peripherals suggest he may be better away from Los Angeles in 2019. Ideally, you want them all taking the mound in Chavez Ravine, but someone will have to sacrifice.

You can assume the front office will want Ryu to be as comfortable as possible, so he will get one of the starts in LA. But that’s also because he’s been otherworldly there and deserves it.

For the other slot, logically, Buehler would be the choice. He’s been a completely different pitcher at Dodger Stadium, and since the All-Star Break, has allowed just one run and 23 baserunners in 29 innings there with 42 strikeouts.

But that would then entail waiting on Kershaw until Game 3, which is hard to imagine happening. However, would you want a Cy Young version of Buehler followed by a really good Clayton Kershaw? Or a slightly better (arguably) Kershaw followed by an unpredictable Walker Buehler who has the chance to implode? Kershaw is the veteran with the experience, making him a better candidate to handle the road.

These are the tough questions Roberts and Friedman are getting paid to make, and they’d prefer this scenario to the opposite. And whichever route they decide going, we should trust.

Again, the two lefties will likely take the first two games at home, but it shouldn’t be an open and shut case, because on paper you can argue that the answer is different.

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Featured Image via Flick/D.Dorman

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