After another busy offseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers have managed to bolster what was already the best starting rotation in baseball. It might seem absurd that a rotation that led the league with a 3.29 ERA can improve, and yet they’ve done just that. The only question now is if they can perform at this level over 162 games this time. With that, here is the Dodgers projected 2021 pitching rotation.
1.) Clayton Kershaw
Despite all the hand wringing about his diminishing abilities, Clayton Kershaw remains a bona fide ace. Sure, he’s lost a step since his last full season in 2015, but since then he still owns a 2.44 ERA and 18.9 bWAR. He’s also racked up three top-10 NL Cy Young finishes in that span. 2020 in particular was another strong campaign from Kershaw. With a 2.16 ERA, 0.840 WHIP and 9.6 K/9, he was the Dodgers’ best starter. He also had the best World Series performance of his career, going 2-0 with a 2.31 ERA.
As his fastball continues to lose effectiveness, Kershaw has started relying on his slider and curveball more. Last year, his slider and curveball had expected batting averages of .186 and .227, respectively, as well as whiff rates of 35.0% and 24.3%. Kershaw’s masterful command over these pitches should continue to allow him to strikeout batters at a high rate. He may no longer be a top Cy Young contender, but don’t be surprised to see his name on a few ballots this November.
2.) Trevor Bauer
As the highest paid pitcher in baseball, Trevor Bauer will need to prove that his 2020 NL Cy Young wasn’t a fluke. Aside from his excellent 2018 and 2020 seasons, Bauer has spent most of his career profiling as a solid middle of the rotation type. Time will tell if he can come anywhere close to replicating his 1.73 ERA or 0.795 WHIP ever again, let alone in 2021.
That said, Bauer does have a lot going for him. It wasn’t just luck that carried him last season, as he led all starters in xBA (.163), xwOBA (.225) and xERA (2.29). Enabling this were his unmatched spin rates, which paced the league at 2776 rpm on his four-seamer, 2908 rpm on his cutter and 2951 rpm on his slider. Since he’s relying on these pitches more than ever and generating the best results of his career, expect this trend to continue in 2021. If it does, Bauer might just go for the Cy Young repeat.
3.) Walker Buehler
While blister problems limited his abilities last year, Walker Buehler remains one of the most exciting young pitchers in MLB. With a 97-mph fastball and one of the best curveballs in the league (3042 rpm), Buehler can make the most formidable batters look lost at the plate. Every hitter in the league should be concerned that even in a down year, Buehler still produced a 3.44 ERA and 10.3 K/9.
Where he struggled last year was in limiting hard contact. A 90 mph average exit velocity and 36.6% hard hit rate led to a lot more home runs than usual. However, this might have just been a result of his blister problem. Especially considering that a lot of this hard contact came against his 50% whiff rate curveball. When Buehler let a few of them get away from him, batters were crushing them upon contact. As seen in the postseason, though, when healthy and with proper command, he is as sharp as they come. If all goes right, Buehler could be a serious Cy Young contender in 2021.
4.) David Price
The biggest unknown here is 35-year-old David Price. The 2012 AL Cy Young winner returns after opting out of 2020. His 2019 season didn’t go very well either, as injuries limited him to just 22 starts. He performed decently in them (4.28 ERA, 3.62 FIP), but by then it was clear he was a shell of his former self.
That’s not to say Price will be bad this year. If anything, he should be a more than acceptable back end starter. After all, he actually set a career-high strikeout rate at 10.7 K/9 in 2019. Though he’s lost a lot of speed on his pitches, he still generates decent movement on his changeup and cutter. He also tweaked his arsenal in 2019 to rely on his changeup more than ever (26.5%), as well as using his four-seamer (27.5%) more than his sinker (26.2%) for the first time since 2015. For reference, he led the AL with a 2.45 ERA that year and finished second in Cy Young voting. Will he be as good this year? Probably not. But at the very least he should still be a solid rotation piece.
5.) Julio Urias
The final spot is currently contested by Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urias. All three pitched in the rotation last year and each one has a viable case. May, the youngest of the three, made 10 starts in 2020 and dominated with a 2.57 ERA. His 4.62 FIP and 7.1 K/9, however, may make him better suited for a long relief role for now. As for Gonsolin, he was statistically the best of the trio (2.31 ERA, 2.29 FIP, 0.836 WHIP), but made just eight starts. He was also rocked in the postseason to the tune of an 8.68 ERA.
This leaves Urias, the most experienced of the bunch entering his sixth season. His 3.27 ERA and 7.4 K/9 in 2020 may not be eye popping, but he easily tops the other two in generating weak contact (28.6% hard hit rate, 87.1 mph exit velocity). He was also the best in the postseason, giving up just four runs in 23 innings. While the battle is just getting started in spring training, at this point in his career, Urias has earned the right to be a starter for the Dodgers.
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