Was there anyone else to begin this review with? Just 23-years-old and consistently underrated and overlooked by the mainstream media entering 2011, Clayton Kershaw silenced all of his remaining critics with one of the best seasons for a pitcher in recent memory, Dodger or otherwise.
Consistent from start to finish, Clayton improved in every respect from his fantastic 2010. First and foremost, he cut a walk and a half off of his 2010 mark, and has seen a three-year improvement in that area of his game (4.79/3.57/2.08 BB per nine). He set career highs in tERA (2.52), FIP (2.47), and SIERA (2.81); induced more ground balls than last season (40.1%/43.2%), while giving up less fly balls (42.1%/38.6%); and continued to master the craft of creating weak contact. With his already amazing ability to get hitters to swing and miss, Kershaw also generated more infield popups, in 13.3% of his opponents’ plate appearances to be exact. An infield popup serves the same purpose as a strikeout, as no runner who may be on-base will advance, and it does in fact speak to his skill at creating weak contact, a point that can’t be emphasized enough.
Kershaw, who has seen a four-year incline in his WAR (1.4/4.1/4.7/6.8), struck out 9.57 per nine innings pitched, and combined with his limiting of free passes, saw his K/BB ratio leap up to over four and a half and his WHIP reach a new low of 0.977. Keeping hitters off-balance with a four pitch repertoire that features a fastball, slider, change, and Public Enemy Number One, Clayton is in line to finish first or second in the Cy Young voting.
Considering that he’s young, has had tremendous success already, and captured the pitching Triple Crown in 2011 (two of which are meaningless categories, though that of course does not diminish his dominance this season), he’ll be in line for a lengthy raise as he hits arbitration for the first time.
With the season he just had, proving conclusively that he could control his walks and be a workhorse at the same time, as he made 33 starts and surpassed the 200 IP mark for the second consecutive season, the Dodgers would be wise to sign him long-term. They would have been wise to do that prior to this campaign, of course, but better late than never.
Chad Billingsley entered 2011 on the heels of his best season as a pro, one in which he posted a career best 3.18 tERA and a FIP of 3.08, another professional low for the righty. He had washed away the complaints of many that he lacked the intestinal fortitude and mental stability to pitch successfully, deep into games, and in high-pressure situations (though, of course, we know that those claims never carried any water to begin with). His performance earned him a new multi-year, big money contract, and the Dodgers entered the season with one of the premier one-two punches on the mound in either league.
Unfortunately for Chad and the Dodgers, 2011 proved to not be another step forward for Chad. His numbers fell across the board, as he missed fewer bats, allowed more free passes, and saw his home run rate nearly double as his BABIP remained steady with his 2010 mark. While there were undoubtedly games where he was singled to death, as it was put by one Dodger blogger, Bills simply did not perform as well as he is clearly capable of. His tERA, FIP, and SIERA all increased from their 2010 resting places (4.18, 3.83, and 4.26 in 2011, respectively), but most troubling of all were his strikeout and walk ratios. He whiffed a full season low 7.28 opposing batters per nine while walking a full season high of over four per nine.
Bills struggles resulted in a WAR cut in half from the previous year (2.1, down from 4.5) and questions about his mechanics and health. Still shy of his 28th birthday, Billingsley has every chance to rebound, and much like his poor second half of 2009 led to his best professional season, said rebound in 2012 would not be the least surprising to me. In fact, I’ll call it right now, as I fully expect Chad to be productive as Kershaw’s running mate next season, provided he is in fact healthy.
Hiroki Kuroda, in perhaps his final season as a Dodger, was once again solid, though he followed Billingsley in having a down year from 2010. His WAR fell from 4.1 to 2.4, his K/9 IP dipped down to 7.17, and he allowed a whopping 24 long balls in over 200 IP.
Again though, at the progressing age of 36 and as a third starter, Hiroki was not the issue. His 4.22 tERA left much to be desired, but his FIP was 3.78 and his SIERA checked in at 3.66, and as always, his control was impeccable (2.18 BB per nine, and a K/BB ratio of over three and a quarter). 13.1% of plate appearances ended in an infield popup, though he induced far fewer ground balls than in 2010 (51.1%/43.2%).
Should this in fact be his last season in Los Angeles, Kuroda departs with a career FIP of 3.55, over three strikeouts for every walk issued, and 12.2 WAR over four seasons. All in all, a very good big league career for the Japanese import, and Kuroda’s consistency will be missed.
After coming over from Chicago at the deadline in 2010, Ted Lilly was signed to a ridiculous three year, $33 million dollar deal by Ned Colletti to be a fourth starter. And quite predictably, he flopped in a major way for most of the season. Competing with Matt Kemp to be the second Dodger to go 30/30 in 2011, Lilly couldn’t help himself in allowing home runs and stolen bases at a seemingly record pace. The lefty threw just under 200 innings and allowed 28 home runs and 35 stolen bases, with 4.24 tERA and a FIP of 4.21.
The 35-year-old did end strong, holding opponents to a .169/.250/.293/.543 line over the final two months of the season (though it should be noted he benefited immensely from a .208 BABIP).
Dodger fans have to hope and pray he can be half the man he was from August on, as he still has two years and $22.5 million remaining on his contract, will most likely be the third starter in 2012, and has a full no-trade clause for this upcoming campaign.
Rubby De La Rosa/Nathan Eovaldi
Rubby De La Rosa made his major league debut on May 24th, and would throw 60 and two-thirds innings over 10 starts and three relief appearances before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. The young righty was impressive in his limited exposure, whiffing 60 against 31 walks and displaying a nice collection of four pitches. Out for anywhere from 10 months to over a year, the Dodgers will be without his electric arm as he works his way back to the starting rotation.
With some major league experience and success, excellent swing and miss ability, and a strong minor league track record, if he rebounds from the arm injury, the Dodgers have a potential gem and fixture in the rotation for years to come, as he held opponents to a .225/.306/.364/.670 line with 33 Ks in 35 IP over his final six trips to the hill.
Nathan Eovaldi replaced De La Rosa in the rotation before being moved to the pen as the season wound down and he reached his innings cap. Eovaldi posted a 4.35 FIP, but struck out just under six per nine while walking just over five per nine. Whether he settles into the rotation or the pen, Nate will need to refine his control and bump his strikeout numbers back up to what they were at a handful of minor league stops, including an 8.65 mark in AA prior to his call-up.
Minor League Strength
The starting rotation is a definite organizational strength for the Blue Crew. Along with young arms we’ve seen, like De La Rosa and Eovaldi, the Dodgers also boast minor league stud Zach Lee, as well as Garrett Gould, Allen Webster, Ralston Cash, 2011 draftee Chris Reed, and even the consistently frustrating Chris Withrow.
The Dodgers have shown the ability to draft and develop starters in abundance, an excellent quality and a testament to the work of Logan White, De Jon Watson, and their respective staffs.