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The Dodgers’ wild rotation plan is working, again

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised any more, but for yet another season, the Frankenstein’s monster of a rotation in LA is getting results.

Miami Marlins v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The recent history of the Dodgers can be neatly divided into three eras: pre-Guggenheim Group, also known as “the Dark Days,” when the team was still owned by the McCourts; the early-Guggenheim era, when the team had Scrooge McDuck-levels of cash but not much direction; and the present, which began when Andrew Friedman took the helm and started to push that cash around with a purpose.

The result has been frightening; while the Dodgers haven’t found much postseason success, they’ve won more than 90 games for four straight years, and look very well set up for the future.

But their team-building strategy has not been the traditional one of the super-rich team — to sign as many high-profile free agents as possible — and the talent on their roster is relatively evenly spread, especially once you get past Clayton Kershaw. That egalitarian approach has been especially clear when you focus on their rotation, which has been staffed (again, excepting Kershaw) not by expensive, front-of-the-line workhorses but a motley collection of oft-injured, but useful starters.

The Dodgers depth chart over the last few years has included names like Kenta Maeda, Brett Anderson, Scott Kazmir, Mike Bolsinger, Alex Wood, and Brandon McCarthy. Just as notable are the names you don’t see: David Price, Johnny Cueto, and Zack Greinke (after 2015, when he hit free agency). Rather than splurging on any of those players, the Dodgers signed or otherwise acquired numerous unreliable pitchers, with high ceilings and low floors. The plan, as far as it could be discerned from the outside, was to trust that enough of those players would hit their upside to constitute an effective starting five, even if it meant frequent shuffling between the rotation, bullpen, disabled list, and minors.

And it’s worked, mostly! In 2015, the first year under Friedman (and Farhan Zaidi), Dodgers starters had a 3.40 FIP and a 3.24 ERA, good for 17.7 fWAR and third in MLB. In 2016, they ran a 3.65 FIP/3.95 ERA, accumulating 16.4 fWAR and ranking fourth in the majors. And thus far in 2017, the Dodgers rotation has a 3.63 FIP and a 3.57 ERA, and are third in MLB with 5.7 fWAR.

Now, normally, a third consecutive year of a strategy working probably wouldn’t warrant an article. But the consistency of Los Angeles’s success with this model of rotation is very notable, because inconsistency seemed like a possible pitfall the rotation might encounter. Two and a third years of excellence doesn’t prove that inconsistency is impossible, of course; 2017 isn’t over, and, again, the structure of the Dodgers’ rotation is such that injury and ineffectiveness could strike at any moment, and if enough goes wrong, LA could see their whole rotation go down in flames. But the fact that it’s survived thus far is telling.

The success of the Dodgers this year has not come in spite of Kershaw, exactly, but it has come despite Kershaw looking slightly less immortal than he has in past years (3.09 FIP/2.37 ERA). Filling the gap has been a resurgent and mostly healthy Brandon McCarthy (46 23 innings thus far with a 2.95 FIP and 3.28 ERA) and the newly excellent Alex Wood (currently on the disabled list, but having provided 48 innings with a 1.87 FIP/1.69 ERA). Plenty of Dodgers are injured or underperforming — Wood himself, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Rich Hill — but just as in 2015 and 2016, LA is getting enough good performance from enough players for long enough periods to keep going strong.

There’s one question remaining about this strategy: is it replicable? It’s not as if the Dodgers haven’t spent profligately on their rotation (by the standards of almost every other team); this strategy represents merely a different way of spending their immense wealth. But even for a team that can spend as much as LA, matching this technique could prove impossible. The last three years have looked like a pretty delicate balancing act, where the inconsistent pitchers the Dodgers have collectively relied on have been just good enough and just healthy enough to sustain success.

And even if a team has as much money as the Dodgers, and picks their targets as well as the Dodgers did, there needs to be a critical mass of these high-ceiling, low-floor pitchers for this strategy to work. Friedman and Zaidi have been able to keep the roster stocked with nearly 10 viable starters at any given time in the past three years; if they try to repeat this strategy in a few years, it’s entirely possible that there simply won’t be enough of these types of players to combine into a rotation. They may have shown that eight or nine unreliable players can do a great job of filling the back four slots of a rotation, but once that number goes to six or five, this innovative strategy is transformed into the tried and true terrible strategy of not paying enough attention to starting pitching.

In any case, whether it will work in future seasons or not, the Dodgers strategy is working like a charm in 2017. They’re keeping pace with the surging Rockies, and they have the rotation, and all the component cast-off arms that make it up, to thank.

All data current through Thursday, June 1.

Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @henrydruschel.