Buehler? Buehler? How the Dodgers built MLB's top pitching staff even when stars couldn't answer the bell

·7 min read

The Los Angeles Dodgers, per usual, were expected to be the best team in baseball from the jump. The 2022 squad’s might was built on a triumvirate of imported megastars (Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman) atop a foundation of mainstays in the lineup and in the rotation. The pitching would start with Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and Clayton Kershaw, and they would figure out the rest.

It turns out “the rest” has needed to take on a much bigger role. Buehler went down in June with elbow trouble that eventually led to season-ending Tommy John surgery. Kershaw has hit the IL twice with back flare-ups. Even Andrew Heaney, who was the club’s most notable offseason pitching addition, missed extended time earlier in the season. You would expected that sort of attrition to kneecap many rotations, or at least force their Death Star of a lineup to win more 12-7 slugfests.

Instead, the Dodgers pitching staff has the best ERA in baseball.

That overall team ERA stands at 2.88 entering Wednesday, with their only close competition coming from the similarly relentless Houston Astros at 2.95. Their rotation ERA stands even further ahead of the pack at 2.77, with the Astros again in second at 3.01. Put another way, the Dodgers’ entire rotation together is pitching as well — by park-adjusted ERA — as the 2021 version of Kevin Gausman that finished sixth in Cy Young voting and earned a $110 million contract over the winter.

Buehler and Kershaw have provided only 155 1/3 innings where FanGraphs’ preseason projections expected 355 this season. Much of the replacement excellence has come from Tony Gonsolin, the cat-loving breakout right-hander who was in the middle of the Cy Young race until he also went down with an ominous “strained forearm” in late August.

So who exactly is headlining the best pitching staff in baseball (on the best team in baseball) and will it hold up in the all-important month of October?

Tyler Anderson has improved dramatically and helped the Dodgers maintain MLB's best pitching staff despite injuries to many key stars. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Tyler Anderson has improved dramatically and helped the Dodgers maintain MLB's best pitching staff despite injuries to many key stars. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The Dodgers’ revolving door of greatness

Year after year, Andrew Friedman and the Dodgers front office finds the next guy (or guys) ready to succeed. This season, the biggest examples are Anderson and Heaney, but it runs deeper — it has to in an era where teams use more arms to throw fewer innings. The 2022 Dodgers, entering Wednesday, had nine different pitchers who had thrown at least 30 innings with ERAs under 3.00. That would match an all-time mark held by … the 2021 Dodgers, along with the 1972 A’s and 1967 White Sox.

That group doesn’t include Buehler or Craig Kimbrel, whose shakiness in the ninth might have been the most concerning part of the entire Dodgers’ roster until he started using “Let It Go” as his entrance music and clicked into gear.

It doesn’t get the same level of attention in Los Angeles, where he can also make splashy moves for the likes of Betts and Freeman, but Friedman — whose executive tree now reigns over much of MLB — has imported the Tampa Bay Rays’ penchant for finding and maximizing rafts of pitching talent to devastating effect.

New faces could be key to Dodgers’ World Series hopes

With Buehler out and Gonsolin’s status up in the air, the sudden and significant roles played by less familiar faces could be put to the test under the bright lights of the postseason. As it stands, the Dodgers’ potential playoff pitching staff looks like this:

  • Starter: Julio Urias

  • Starter: Clayton Kershaw

  • Starter: Tyler Anderson

  • Starter/bullpen: Dustin May

  • Starter/bullpen: Andrew Heaney

  • Closer: Craig Kimbrel

  • Key setup men: Evan Phillips, Blake Treinen, Alex Vesia, Caleb Ferguson

We've seen Urias and Kershaw and Kimbrel on the big stage, but the others are relatively untested. Here's what you should know about the arms upon which the Dodgers' ultimate fate may rest:

Tyler Anderson: The 32-year-old lefty who was even an afterthought among early-30s left-handed Dodgers offseason acquisitions leads the team in innings, because of course. He had a middling 4.62 career ERA coming into the season, with few indicators of an imminent breakout. But the man with a Kershaw-like hitch in his leg kick has unlocked a better version of his changeup in L.A. and thundered to a 2.73 ERA by limiting walks and loud contact.

A fly-ball pitcher, he and Gonsolin have been the primary beneficiaries of an excellent outfield defense. Underlying stats like FIP, DRA and Statcast’s xERA — which attempt to drill down on a pitcher’s performance to provide a better picture of what to expect going forward — have varying levels of skepticism, but they agree that a sub-3.00 ERA is unlikely to persist. That outfield defense isn’t going away in October, of course, but his dearth of strikeouts could create trouble against better teams.

Andrew Heaney: The baseball industry bat signal went up when Heaney signed in L.A., in part because of how quickly it happened — he inked a deal on Nov. 10. That priority level seemed to indicate the Dodgers had big plans, or at least a big idea, to get the best out of Heaney. The lefty compiled a 5.83 ERA in 2021, including a 7.32 ERA in a disastrous, homer-plagued stint with the Yankees. Sure enough, Heaney emerged with a zeitgeisty “sweeper” and has used it to strike out a stellar 35.1% of batters in an injury-interrupted season. His struggles with homers have been acute recently, though, and if the Dodgers had their druthers, he might be relegated to the bullpen in the playoffs.

Evan Phillips: The team’s most successful deployment of the sweeper comes from Phillips, a 27-year-old right-hander who spent a lot of time at Triple-A before the Dodgers plucked him off waivers in August 2021. Using that majestic breaking ball, Phillips has tallied a 1.38 ERA across 52 innings and solidified his place as perhaps the most effective arm in the L.A. bullpen. Watch for him to take the eighth inning or whatever high-leverage spot Dave Roberts determines is most crucial.

Alex Vesia/Caleb Ferguson: Assuming Heaney and Anderson stay in the rotation, Vesia and Ferguson will be left-handed options out of the bullpen. Acquired from the Marlins for reliever Dylan Floro, Vesia has stepped right in and improved on his predecessor’s production. Ferguson has returned from Tommy John surgery with 26 innings of 1.73 ERA ball, but actually has reverse splits for his career, meaning he handles right-handers more effectively. So, if it comes to a big matchup with a left-handed hitter — say, Juan Soto or Bryce Harper — expect to see Vesia.

Dustin May: Finally, there’s May, who’s not unheralded by any stretch. He was a top prospect who thrilled Dodgers fans with high heat, bright red locks and weirdly expressive gangly limbs before requiring Tommy John surgery himself. He has made three starts since returning, and will certainly factor into their playoff plans.

Maybe the biggest question remaining for the Dodgers — beyond where their outlandish win total lands — is whether May is ready to be the rotation answer they may need in October if Gonsolin can’t return.