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Preparing for the World Series: Meeting the Dodgers rotation

A high-upside group, though one with some variance

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Seven Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On Monday, we met the very deep group of hitter that are going to make up the Dodgers’ lineup on a daily basis, and it’s a talented group of players that also boasts the versatility that allows them to move players around the diamond on a daily basis. Today, we look at L.A.’s rotation, which is not quite as deep or scary of a group, but one with the talent that could easily steal the show in this Fall Classic. In that way, it’s very similar to that of the Red Sox in that you don’t necessarily expect all four pitchers to be lights out for the entire series, but you can see a scenario in which it happens. Let’s take a deeper look at the four pitchers who are expected to take the mound to start games for the Dodgers.

Game One: Clayton Kershaw

The first game of the World Series is a dream matchup of aces, with Chris Sale going up against Clayton Kershaw. This may have been a more exciting matchup even just a year or two ago, but it is surely nothing to sneeze at right now and still features two of the best pitchers in all of baseball. There is a perception about Kershaw that he is on a downward trajectory in his career and clearly on the back nine. That is not necessarily false, but there is a misconception that this means he is now bad, or even simply not great. That is false. Where Kershaw has struggled most in recent years compared to his Pedro-esque peak is with his health. Always a workhorse who would give 230+ innings on a yearly basis, back injuries have held him back the last couple seasons. However, when he’s been right and on the mound, he’s been almost as good as he’s always been.

This season was his worst since his rookie year, which makes it sound a lot worse than it was. The reality is that it says a hell of a lot more about how amazing he was before 2018. Despite not really looking like Clayton Kershaw for much of the year, he finished with a 2.73 ERA with a 3.14 FIP and a 3.11 DRA. After adjusting for park values — and Kershaw regularly pitches in pitcher-friendly parks — those numbers are still 29, 20 and 31 percent better than the league-average pitcher. That’s a down year.

One thing we’ll hear plenty of about Kershaw leading up to this game and any other start he makes in this series is his history in the postseason. It is true that, on the whole, he has not quite been himself in October, but really we should be done with that by now. He’s had a number of strong outings in the playoffs over the last two years, and that includes two gems from this postseason (as well as one terrible outing, to be fair). Overall this October the future Hall of Famer has pitched to a 2.37 ERA with 16 strikeouts and four walks over 19 innings while allowing an OPS of just .472. Kershaw is going to feature largely a three-pitch mix with his slider being the offering he uses the most often, followed closely by a low-to-mid-90s fastball as well as a curveball.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Six Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Game Two: Hyun-Jin Ryu

The Dodgers are going to start this series with a pair of lefties, which means we are going to get a steady dose of Steve Pearce in the lineup at Fenway Park. That is just fine with me. Following Kershaw in this rotation is going to be Ryu, who is coming off a shortened, but fantastic, season. Ryu has missed plenty of time over his career, but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen this version of the lefty before. After missing most of May, all of June and July, and half of August, the Dodgers southpaw only ended up throwing 82 13 innings on the year. Over that time, however, he was great to the tune of a 1.97 ERA, a 2.96 FIP and a 2.45 DRA. Again, adjusting for park values those numbers were a whopping 49, 25 and 45 percent better than the league-average pitcher.

The question as we look at the prospect of facing a pitcher who was so good in the regular season is how much of it was a fluke. I certainly think it’s fair to believe that at least some of the performance will not be sustained, simply because I don’t believe Hyun-Jin Ryu is the best pitcher in the game. However, a lot of it looks very real. That being said, he’s not unbeatable, and the Brewers did get to him in his second outing of the NLCS. In fact, he’s gotten worse with each postseason start. Looking at his game logs, the key seems to be putting the ball in play. Ryu isn’t going to walk a lot of batters, so Red Sox hitters need to jump on early pitches and not fall behind in counts. If he’s striking guys out, Boston will be in trouble, but if not he is certainly beatable. Ryu has a wide arsenal, featuring a low-90s fastball along with a cutter, a curveball and a changeup.

Game Three: Walker Buehler

The lone right-handed starter in the Dodgers rotation, he is also arguably the most interesting pitcher in this group. Other than the fact that we’ll have to suffer through horrible Ferris Buehler’s Day Off jokes throughout this game, it is going to be exciting to watch Buehler in a likely matchup with Nathan Eovaldi. That will pit two pitchers with a wide range of possibilities on the mound against each other. Buehler is a recent top prospect who came up and pitched a little out of the bullpen last year, but his true career started in 2018. There was a little inconsistency in the regular season, but he was mostly fantastic all year long and ended the season with a 2.62 ERA, 2.99 FIP and 3.21 DRA. Adjusted for park values he was 32, 24 and 28 percent better than league-average. As a former first-round pick and former ace at Vanderbilt, the results aren’t surprising, but they are pretty damn impressive for the 24-year-old.

League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Seven Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For as strong as his regular season was, teams have found a way to get to him so far in this postseason. In Game 3 of the NLDS, the Braves scored five runs off the righty over five innings of work. Then, in Game 3 of the NLCS, the Brewers scored four runs in seven innings. Buehler did get the Game 7 start as well, and he was great. Additionally, even when he was allowing runs the peripherals didn’t really suggest he should have, as overall he has racked up 22 strikeouts with just four walks over 16 23 innings. Where Buehler can get into trouble is with the long ball, despite the fact that he is nominally a groundball pitcher. He’s allowed one homer in each of his three postseason starts thus far, and he had four regular season outings in which he allowed multiple homers. It’s easier said than done to hit homers in Los Angeles, where Buehler will make his first start, but if the Red Sox can launch the ball against the young righty they’ll be okay. Buehler is a five-pitch pitcher with a mid-to-high-90s fastball along with a sinker, a cutter, a curveball and a slider.

Game Four: Rich Hill

We end with an old friend on the mound as the Dodgers’ Game Four starter, and with the third lefty out of four rotation spots. Hill, of course, totally reinvented himself in the Red Sox organization back in 2015 and showed it in the majors over a short four-game stint, and he’s used that to relaunch his career. He’s probably only got a few years left, but he is still at least somewhat effective in 2018. Hill wasn’t super consistent this year, showing off both sides of the spectrum and ending with a largely average season. Overall he finished with a 3.66 ERA, a 3.93 FIP and a 3.92 DRA. Adjusted for park, he was only 5, 1 and 13 percent better than the league-average pitcher according to those metrics. Getting back to the inconsistency for a second, Hill had eight regular season starts in which he allowed at least four runs and he had ten in which he allowed one or zero runs.

As the fourth starter in the Dodgers rotation, he has only made one start per series, but he has been good in both of them. Although Hill is not going to go deep at this point in his career — he went a combined 9 13 innings over those two starts — he can be effective. The Braves and Brewers combined to score just three runs in his starts, and Hill also threw a scoreless inning of relief in the NLCS. So, the lefty has a high ceiling and can very well shut down Red Sox hitters, particularly with his strikeout stuff. However, he also loses his control from time to time — despite the good results, he walked five in 4 13 innings in the NLCS. Additionally, Hill had a very real home run problem in the regular season, allowing 1.4 homers per nine innings despite throwing in a pitcher’s park. However, he has yet to allow a long ball in the postseason, so a key to this Game Four will be Boston reversing that recent trend. Hill is mostly a two-pitch pitcher, leaning largely on a high-80s/low-90s fastball as well as his curveball.