If you've ever doubted the importance of depth in baseball, let the 2016 Dodgers rotation teach you a lesson. In the winter, it seemed like Los Angeles had too many starting pitchers. Then the injury bug bit...and bit...and kept on biting. Here's a hopefully complete list:
- In March, Brett Anderson messed up his back; he pitched for the first time this year last week in Single-A.
- In May, Alex Wood went down with an elbow impingement, which eventually forced him to undergo a procedure that will knock him out until September.
- In June, Clayton Kershaw hit the DL with a back issue; no one really knows when he'll take the hill again.
- In July, Hyun-Jin Ryu made his return from the shoulder woes that kept him out for the entire 2015 campaign. After one start, the team sidelined him indefinitely with elbow inflammation.
- Just yesterday, Bud Norris had to leave his start early because of a back ailment.
Combine all of that with some hiccups from youngest Julio Urias and Mike Bolsinger (who is only getting innings because of the dire situation in the rotation), and you can see how ugly things have gotten. Thus, the Dodgers have tried to parlay some of their tantalizing prospects into a starting pitcher with a pulse. They are 'in' on Rich Hill, which would be a nice addition, but even Hill has his warts (for example, he hasn't had a 100-inning season in nearly a decade). [UPDATE: Hooray! The Dodgers have officially swung for Hill.]
No matter what happens with the injured hurlers and with Hill, the Dodgers seem to have one spot in their rotation locked down. Brandon McCarthy, in his first five games back from Tommy John surgery, has looked like the savior Los Angeles needs. He's notched a 2.39 ERA over 26.1 innings; one out of every three batters facing him has struck out, while just one out of eleven has drawn a free pass. His advanced peripherals aren't quite as strong — he has a 3.46 DRA and 93 cFIP — but they still paint the picture of a dependable arm.
What's made the difference for McCarthy in 2016? A fair amount of the credit should go to his four-seam fastball, which he's once again relied upon heavily:
From 2011 to 2013, McCarthy scrapped the four-seamer in favor of a sinker/cutter pairing. He started to move away from that mix in 2014, then went all-in with the four-seamer again in 2015. That pitch has a lifetime whiff rate of 9.1 percent, which has been consistently superior to the cutter and sinker. Despite its subpar ground ball rate of 32.6 percent, the four-seamer has clearly helped McCarthy's cause — per Baseball-Reference, he's thrown a swinging strike 10.0 percent of the time in 2016, up from 8.4 percent in the previous seasons.
But McCarthy started leaning on the four-seamer in 2015, and on the surface, he struggled that year. During the 23.0 innings he pitched before going under the knife, his adversaries hit nine home runs off him and made hard contact 47.5 percent of the time. This season, he's given up just two long balls and depressed his hart-hit rate to 33.3 percent. And his breaking ball, rather than his heaters, has likely set that in motion:
The curveball has always generated weak contact — it has a .214 TAv against when put in play, besting the four-seamer (.248), sinker (.248), or cutter (.280). As my former colleague Jeff Long explained in the 2014 offseason, McCarthy has developed a 12-6 break on his curve; along with the pitch's generally low location, that makes it difficult to square up.
McCarthy hasn't pitched to contact with his curveball, either. Although the pitch doesn't garner many whiffs, it does drop in for quite a few called strikes. Among the 113 starters with 100+ curveballs thrown this year, only 11 have gotten more looking strikes than McCarthy:
(Note that Kazmir, Maeda, and Urias all appear in the top four. Evidently, there's something in the water in Chavez Ravine.)
At 20.6 percent, McCarthy's called strike rate is notably above his career clip of 18.5 percent, and the curveball seems to have contributed the most. That pitch and the four-seamer have come together to make McCarthy a high-strikeout, contact-suppressing starter for the Dodgers.
While Los Angeles currently has just three healthy starting pitchers, all of them should hold their own over the stretch run. In addition to McCarthy, Maeda has consistently excelled this season, and Kazmir has looked far better over his last twelve starts than he did in his first nine. If Urias, Bolsinger, and/or Ross Stripling can carry over their PCL success to the majors, and one or more of the incapacitated starters can make it back to the mound, this club could be dangerous.
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All statistics as of Monday, August 1st.