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Dodgers succeeding despite loss of Clayton Kershaw

The Dodgers were supposed to crash and burn without Kershaw, but they have thrived instead.

Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

On June 30th, Dodgers fandom stood still at the announcement that Clayton Kershaw was going on the disabled list. The team was already six games back of the Giants, and the starting rotation behind Kershaw was struggling. Here’s how the rotation looked at the time Kershaw went down.

RA9 FIP K% BB% GS
Clayton Kershaw 1.86 1.66 32.9 2.0 16
Kenta Maeda 3.03 3.41 23.9 7.5 16
Scott Kazmir 4.90 4.56 23.7 9.4 16
Mike Bolsinger 6.83 5.82 20.5 7.4 6
Julio Urías 4.36 3.60 28.7 10.5 7
Ross Stripling 4.78 3.75 17.3 9.1 8
Alex Wood 4.81 3.27 25.6 7.9 10

That’s pretty bad. Kershaw had never been pitching better, which sounds unbelievable when you say that. In fact, he’s still among the league leaders in DRA-based WAR! He was carrying the starting rotation as much as it is possible for one pitcher to do so. Dodger fans were understandably hoping that Kershaw would be on the DL for the minimum 15 days. It was then announced that such wishful thinking would likely not happen. Then things got worse when July passed with no Kershaw, and then the Dodgers announced on August 3rd that he would be transferred to the 60-day DL, which means that he wouldn’t be eligible to return until August 27th. Currently, the most optimistic outlook is that Kershaw will return in September. However, if at any time it’s determined that he needs surgery on the herniated disc in his back, he’ll be out for the year.

If Dodger fans knew how long Kershaw would be out when he first hit the DL, they probably would’ve gone in full blown panic mode and give up on the season. But since #youcantpredictbaseball, the team has gone 21-15 since Kershaw went down and are now only one game back of the Giants, who have slumped during that time with a 16-20 record. Dodgers accomplished this despite only outscoring their competition by 16 runs since July 1st.

So who was the pitching stud that the Dodgers acquired to replace the great Clayton Kershaw? Well... ummm... it was Bud Norris. He had been having a decent year for the Braves up to that point, with a 4.36 RA9 and 3.91 FIP, though he only had a 19.9 percent strikeout rate. Some might point to his 6.72 ERA and 5.04 FIP the year before as a major red flag for the deal, but Norris wasn’t nearly as bad as those numbers would indicate, because he had a .332 BABIP and 16.7 percent HR/FB ratio. However, his 4.46 DRA and 104 cFIP were quite decent.

In acquiring Norris, the Dodgers weren’t solely betting on positive regression. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out, Norris had ditched his changeup in favor of a cutter while on the Braves. He had always struggled against lefties in his career, and it had gotten worse during the first two months of the season. The Dodgers seemed to be hoping that Norris’s new found success against left-handed hitting in June were sustainable thanks to his new pitch. A reduction of platoon splits would make Norris a passable back-end starter.

The Dodgers acquired Norris for some spare parts in order to avoid putting in a sub-replacement level pitcher. Unfortunately, DRA doesn’t have any splits, but I’d estimate he’s been worth half a win by that measure since the Dodgers acquired him. Baseball Reference has the most pessimistic evaluation of Norris’s performance on the Dodgers, which has him at replacement level.

Overall, the Dodgers’ rotation hasn’t exactly stepped up since Kershaw hit the DL.

RA9 FIP K% BB% GS
Bud Norris 4.66 4.11 26.7 6.7 6
Brandon McCarthy 4.15 3.95 26.2 16.6 8
Scott Kazmir 3.92 3.88 25.5 6.2 7
Kenta Maeda 3.81 3.64 26.2 5.7 13
Julio Urías 6.00 3.53 17.2 9.2 3
Ross Stripling 3.75 4.22 17.0 2.1 2

Not shown in this table are disastrous performances by Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brett Anderson, both of whom are now back on the DL, and Brock Stewart.

Kazmir has performed better. Maeda, on the other hand, has predictably regressed, as it was unlikely that he was a true-talent 3.03 RA9 pitcher. McCarthy has struggled with his control badly since coming back from Tommy John surgery, though that will likely improve. Urías has suffered from a .381 BABIP, but he’s not striking anybody out.

So how are the Dodgers doing this? Their starting rotation is keeping them afloat while their offense has gone off. In July, the Dodgers’ offense hit .277/.349/.451. They led the NL in OBP by 17 points and SLG by 15 points. Their .344 wOBA was 20 points better than the runner-up Marlins. That might not sound like much, but it’s a lot. Naturally, there was a lot of luck involved in that, as it came with a .333 BABIP and 14.3 percent HR/FB.

Several players raked in July, including Yasmani Grandal, whose renewed success this season has been discusses at this site by Chris Anders. Howie Kendrick turned around a disappointing season by riding a .414 BABIP and 18.8 percent HR/FB to a .344/.425/.538 line in July. Justin Turner has been on a tear since Kershaw went down, hitting .314/.358/.628 with 10 HR, though again, that’s with a 20 percent HR/FB. After having slumped badly for half of 2015, Joc Pederson has bounced back in 2016, and after coming back from a DL stint on July 19th, he has hit .314/.358/.628. Again, there’s a lot of batted ball luck involved in that, but he is also hitting the ball very hard during that time period with a 43.1 percent hard-hit rate.

Unfortunately, this offense is highly unsustainable. The good news is that the Dodgers’ offense hasn’t regressed too much yet. They are currently ranked fourth in the NL by wRC+ for the month of August. However, the Giants’ skid combined with the Dodgers’ surge has made it so that that FanGraphs now projects the Dodgers to win the NL West by one game, with a 59.9 percent chance to do so. Of course, projections are not predictions, and the team is still going to need Kershaw back for the best chance possible at winning their first World Series since 1988. Still, who would’ve thought things would have looked so good for the team in mid-August without Clayton Kershaw for a month and a half and counting?

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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.