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The 2016 Dodgers rotation: The 2015 Red Sox redux?

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There are striking similarities between the way the Dodgers rotation looks currently and the way the Red Sox rotation looked a year ago. Are there any reasons to think LA can avoid Boston's disappointing results?

New Dodger Kenta Maeda is one of several question marks in Los Angeles's rotation.
New Dodger Kenta Maeda is one of several question marks in Los Angeles's rotation.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Let's play a game! What team am I talking about? Going into the offseason, many fans and writers expected this team to sign a single, splashy free agent starter, and as one of their best pitchers from the previous season had just entered free agency, a re-signing seemed imminent. Instead, they took "a more nuanced" or "deliberate" approach to the market, and acquired several less-certain, lower-ceiling starters. As a result, their rotation is a group with both talent and "uncertain futures." To one writer, it "has question marks;" to another, it's "the big question mark" going into to a season; and to a third, it has real "uncertainty."

If you read the title of the article, you know I cheated; that's a mix of stories and quotes from the last few months describing the 2016 Dodgers, and from roughly this time one year ago describing the 2015 Red Sox. It wasn't difficult to find quotes that could apply to either team, since, as hard as it is to believe with the 2015 season complete, Boston's rotation was generally seen as a low-cost, high-upside play by Ben Cherington at the time. Obviously, that's not the way things turned out, and the Dodgers are certainly hoping the similarities are just superficial, or at least don't last past April.

The fact that both teams had the chance to re-sign one of their best pitchers is more coincidence than anything else. But both teams declined to do so and took somewhat similar strategies by signing a number of mid-tier or uncertain pitchers as replacement. The Red Sox decided not to top the Cubs' bid for Jon Lester; instead, they traded for and extended both Rick Porcello and Wade Miley, then signed Justin Masterson to a one-year deal. The Dodgers didn't beat the Diamondbacks' offer to Zack Greinke and instead signed Scott Kazmir, who was playing independent baseball as recently as 2012; Brett Anderson, who just completed his first season with more than 50 innings since 2011; and Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda, who has been consistently excellent, but on the other side of the Pacific.

Before the season started, Boston's strategy was seen as prudent, if unexciting. By investing in multiple pitchers rather than one, the sense was that most of them would perform as expected, and if one wasn't as advertised, the others could pick up the slack. Instead, they all disappointed. Porcello tried to go from ground-ball specialist to fastballing strikeout hurler, and it didn't work out. Masterson's fastball velocity, already down to 90ish in 2014 from 94-95 in 2013, fell further to the high 80s, leaving him totally unable to miss bats. Miley, actually, was basically as advertised, giving the Red Sox almost 200 innings of league average pitching, but with Clay Buchholz's season cut short and Joe Kelly not good, Miley would've had to do a lot more to keep this rotation afloat.

That said, there are several reasons to think that, despite starting in similar fashion, the Dodgers' 2016 rotation won't follow the same path as the Red Sox' in 2015. First, and most obvious, they have an ace to trump all aces in Clayton Kershaw. He just missed on his third straight Cy Young award after an outstanding 2015, and he's the easy favorite entering 2016. Barring a freak accident (which, to be fair, is always possible; these are pitchers we're talking about, after all), the Dodgers can be virtually certain they'll have Kershaw producing 4-8 WAR of value over the course of a season. By contrast, the downside case for the Red Sox was basically unbounded, as literally none of their pitchers were a sure thing. That's a huge, huge point in the Dodgers' favor, and not one that should be undersold.

Secondly, while the Red Sox had and the Dodgers have a lot of uncertain players penciled in to their rotations, the Dodgers' players are better. Even with the same amount of fluctuations, the Dodgers' players simply have a better mean case. Justin Masterson was coming off a season with a ERA just shy of 6 in over 100 innings, Wade Miley hadn't broken 2 WAR since his rookie season and had been trending in the wrong direction since then, and Rick Porcello struck many as a very odd way for the Red Sox to spend $80 million. On the other hand, Scott Kazmir has been consistently above-average since his return from the wilderness, and Brett Anderson has at least been quite good when healthy. Kenta Maeda is the hardest to predict or project, but Steamer, ZiPS, and PECOTA all think he'll be worth roughly 3 WAR per 200 innings. This is a better group than the Red Sox have, leaving more room for productivity even in the midst of underperformance.

Thirdly, the Dodgers have much better backup plans than the 2015 Red Sox did in case something goes wrong. Alex Wood is the first in-line should any of the first five falter, or should Hyun-Jin Ryu not be sufficiently recovered from shoulder surgery, and he was totally competent last season in nearly 200 innings over 32 starts (fWAR and WARP of 2.6). He'd fit comfortably into many team's depth charts as their number four starter; instead, he's the Dodgers' first fallback. Their second is Mike Bolsinger, another young pitcher who acquitted himself well in Los Angeles's time of need last season and many teams would love to have as something more than a seventh starter. And that's not even considering Brandon McCarthy, another good-but-oft-injured pitcher, rehabbing from Tommy John and hopefully returning around the All-Star Break.

When their Plans A went south, the Red Sox turned to... Steven Wright, a knuckleballer and someone near and dear to my heart but not the type of player you want to see behind the "IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS" sign. Beyond him, the Red Sox had several prospects who admittedly acquitted themselves very well and fairly well, respectively, in Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens, but there were anything but trustworthy going into the season. A team with any kind of reasonable depth doesn't give Rich Hill four starts, and while I'm very glad they did, it's still a sign that the Red Sox weren't prepared for their plans to go awry, or at least not to the degree that the 2016 Dodgers are.

The final reason to believe the Dodgers' season won't go the way the Red Sox' did is because the odds of the Red Sox' season going that way weren't very high. You can disagree with the overall wisdom of the strategy, as both the 2015 Red Sox and 2016 Dodgers are teams with the resources to sign premium free agents that chose not to, but by diversifying their risk across multiple players, the odds of getting no value are reduced. That doesn't mean they're eliminated, as Boston found out, but they had to get pretty unlucky to do so. The Dodgers have a lot of advantages over last year's Red Sox, but simply hoping for a better roll of the dice might be the biggest one.

Despite the apparent similarities between the rotations 2015 Red Sox and 2016 Dodgers, the Dodgers don't seem likely to undergo the same collapse. Indeed, if anything, it looks like Friedman & Co. saw the failings of Boston's strategy – no single reliable performer, low starting value, not enough depth – and ran back essentially the same strategy with those fatal flaws corrected. The result is a Dodgers rotation that, despite some uncertainty, has the best projection from FanGraphs and the third-best from Baseball Prospectus, both of which do their best to take into account all the risk and uncertainty discussed above. There's a reason they actually play the games, though, so whether this strategy is redeemed or not remains to be seen.

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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score.You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.