Why the Dodgers Have Surged Without Clayton Kershaw

Why the Dodgers Have Surged Without Clayton Kershaw
A resilient bullpen and offensive onslaught have been key reasons why the Dodgers have surged since losing ace Clayton Kershaw  | Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

What happens when the most snake-bitten rotation loses the best pitcher on earth; the rock on which the impossibly creaky structure was built? If you had to guess — and we took a crack at it when Clayton Kershaw hit the DL in July — you’d say dark times were ahead for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the rotation has held its own despite a constant shuffle in and out of the trainer’s room and team doctor’s offices. Meanwhile, an overworked bullpen has survived and the offense finally found its groove. As a result, the Dodgers have nudged aside the San Francisco Giants for the NL West lead. Here’s a look inside LA’s hostile division takeover, against most odds.

Rotation: Keep the line moving

If you want to see something scary, look at the average length of Dodgers starts since the All-Star Break. None of the eight (yep, eight) different starters who took the ball for Dave Roberts after July 11 has averaged more than 6.0 IP per start. Collectively, the group averaged fewer than 5.0 IP per start over 29 games, so it’s not hard to see why LA’s bullpen is leading the league in workloads over the second half.

Miraculously, the rotation managed an 11-10 record despite posting a 4.87 record against the competition. The returns of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brett Anderson did not go as planned, with the former likely out for the year and the latter lasting only one inning in his return. Brandon McCarthy’s status is also troubling after an August 14 return to the disabled list for hip trouble. Yet Andersen and Bud Norris are expected to return in the series against Cincinnati, keeping the endless line moving. There are even a few bright spots here.

Why the Dodgers Have Surged Without Clayton Kershaw
Ross Stripling has been a valuable member of the Dodgers rotation during the endless shuffle in LA | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The worthy (if not stellar) contribution of rookie Ross Stripling (1-1, 3.71 ERA) and the consistency of Scott Kazmir (3-3, 4.11 ERA) and Kenta Maeda (4-1, 4.36 ERA) have been enough for the rotation to weather the storm without Kershaw. This trio, along with Norris, could be enough for the Dodgers to sustain the club’s run into September. Word of Kershaw’s potential return (by mid-September, the club hopes) has already been reverberating throughout Dodgerland, so there’s that potential, too.

In the playoffs, a manager would shudder to think of matching up against the Cubs or Nationals with Kazmir and Maeda at the top of the rotation, but LA will cross that bridge if and when it appears down the road. Anything can happen in the postseason, including the rise of an improbable legend (See: Daniel Murphy). A Kershaw-less Dodgers would need that type of magic — the sort the team’s been getting since the start of July.

LA’s offense: A great defense

There is nothing like a great offense to obscure problems with pitching, and Dodgers hitters finally started punishing the opposition in the second half. No NL club has hit for a higher average or slugged like LA since the All-Star Break, and while the entire club has flexed its muscles during this run, Justin Turner put up MVP numbers (.339, 10 HR, 28 RBI) in the 27 games following July 11.

Corey Seager (.350, 4 HR, 18 R) and Yasmani Grandal (.286, 8 HR, 16 RBI) have also pummeled opposing pitchers in that month of raking, and the team defense has made sure the runs stick on the scoreboard. (Only Miami and the Cubs sported a better defensive WAR in the second half.) 

Why the Dodgers Have Surged Without Clayton Kershaw
Justin Turner has been a key figure in the Dodgers’ second-half surge |  Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Compared to the first half, when LA was one of MLB’s worst on the offensive end, the turnaround has been remarkable, with Joc Pederson’s performance one of the more encouraging signs for the organization. In 2015, the opposite happened, resulting in a late-year tailspin for the young center fielder. The timing could not have been better following the demotion of Yasiel Puig, marking the second outfielder who left the mix since Opening Day.

Dodgers bullpen: The workhorses

With such a revolving door in the rotation and no starter carrying the club beyond the seventh inning, LA’s bullpen has been called into extended action almost every game. Its 124.0 IP are most by a long shot in the either league, and the group has been steady (3.99 ERA, 8 SV, 16 HLD) if not entirely stellar across all those frames.

While you can point to the organization’s deep pockets as to why these different parts of the club have not collapsed under the injury burden, you have to give rookie manager Dave Roberts credit for keeping the machine rolling. The bullpen consists of almost the same cast as when the season began, and the record number of injuries has not fazed him yet.

Finally, as with every great shift in the standings, the NL West story has been partially written in San Francisco, and the Giants’ tale could not be more different.

One Giant stumble

Why the Dodgers Have Surged Without Clayton Kershaw
During the Dodgers’ hot streak with Clayton Kershaw absent, San Francisco was hurting | Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

A quick check of the records since July 1 illustrates how LA took over leadership of the standings. While the Dodgers went 22-16 since that date, the Giants stumbled to a 16-23 record. The poor play by San Francisco erased the club’s six-game advantage in the standings it held over LA and put the Giants one game behind in the loss column.

It doesn’t take much analysis to see why the Giants switched places with LA: San Francisco starters rank 29th in baseball over the second half with a 6-15 record and 5.01 ERA. Only Madison Bumgarner has kept his ERA below 4.50 since the break, and Jeff Samardzija’s 5.35 mark over that time has to be unnerving for management. Between these two and Johnny Cueto, the trio has posted just three wins in 19 starts. New acquisition Matt Moore has yet to post a win in three starts with the Giants.

These clubs have nine games left head-to-head, including the final three-game set of the season at Dodger Stadium, so we don’t blame you for anticipating another great pennant race between two ancient rivals. Given the Giants’ pitching troubles and the patchwork nature of the LA rotation, it’s hard to pick a favorite. That is, unless Kershaw comes back healthy in September. Then you have to like the Dodgers’ chances of taking the West one more time.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.