It’s Amazing What Pitching Will Do For You

I’ve seen a few times, here and there across the internet in the last week, that the return of Manny Ramirez is what really got the Dodgers kicked off on their winning streak. With Manny in the lineup, the reasoning goes, you’ll A) see less of Garret Anderson and Reed Johnson (true) and B) not put pressure on Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to carry the team. I’m not so sure I buy into that last part, since Ethier was doing just fine no matter who is in the lineup, and Kemp’s slump didn’t exactly correspond with Manny’s DL stint anyway. Besides, Manny’s hitting just .261 with one extra-base hit (granted, it was a bases-loaded double when Arizona intentionally walked Ethier to get to him) since returning from injury, so it’s not exactly like his return has led to an offensive explosion.

No, what’s really turned around is the pitching, as we all knew it would have to be. The Dodger bats haven’t really changed that much over the course of the young season; in April, the team put up a line of .272/.343/.424 (.767), while in May it’s been nearly identical, with a line of .270/.344/.420 (.764). Despite the varied absences of Ethier, Manny, and Rafael Furcal, the hot streak to start April and the cold streak to end it, the bats are what the bats are.

But the pitching… good lord, the pitching. In April, the arms “supported” that offense by allowing 4.79 runs per game and a 1.51 WHIP, a large part of how the team ended the month at 9-14. In May, the Dodgers are 11-3, despite basically the exact same offensive output, because the pitching staff is down to 3.79 runs per game – that’s right, the ERA has dropped an entire run – and they’re allowing a WHIP of just 1.23.

Of course, it’s even better than that, since “May 1″ is such an arbitary date. Even despite the improvement in May, the month has seen Charlie Haeger’s zero-out disasterpiece on the 8th and Clayton Kershaw not getting out of the 2nd inning on the 4th. If you look even over just the last week, the staff is holding opponents to a .180 batting average and just 12 earned runs in 54 innings, a perfect 2.00 ERA.

Now sure, we’re looking at some different guys this month. Russ Ortiz is long gone. Vicente Padilla never made it to May, and Jon Link’s stay was short. In their places, we have guys who made it to LA at the end of April and struggled at first (Ronald Belisario, Hong-Chih Kuo, John Ely) before turning it around once the calendar changed. It’s more than that, though, because the guys we were counting on have started to step up. Guys like…

Chad Billingsley, who for all the hand-wringing has allowed just one or two earned runs in four of his seven starts this year. Hong-Chih Kuo, who missed most of April and allowed two earned runs in his only 1.2 innings that month, and has put up five scoreless and nearly perfect innings since. Clayton Kershaw… well, look. Kershaw was always good. We thought it was ridiculous at the time when people started freaking out over his one terrible start, and that’s been proven time and again. Other than the one disaster against Milwaukee, he’s given up two earned runs or less in six of his other seven starts (and even the other one was just three). Ronald Belisario has been untouched in five of his six May appearances (the ERA inflated a bit by one bad 3 ER outing in that terrible Milwaukee series), and then you’ve got the rare guys like Jonathan Broxton and Hiroki Kuroda who’ve been solid basically all year long.

The point is, things were never as bad as they seemed when the season was at its lowest, late in April when they were getting swept in New York and early in May when the pitching was abused by the Brewers. Kershaw wasn’t going to get knocked out in the 2nd inning every time, Billingsley’s “7th inning curse” was more a function of Joe Torre than anything, and they did what they had to with Charlie Haeger. With the amount of talent on the staff, it was going to get turned around one way or another. The pitching won’t be as good as it is right now all year, either, and they still could stand to add someone to put them over the top, but the old baseball saw remains the same: pitching and defense wins games.

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This is just a little thing, unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and I realize that it was just probably just some ESPN intern who set this poll up on the right side of Tony Jackson’s story about Andre Ethier’s injured finger. Still, I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that Matt Kemp isn’t even included in the top five in the poll for the “Dodgers’ best player”. Looks like someone’s been taking those clubhouse rumors seriously, eh? Ethier, to no one’s surprise, is winning handly with 61% at the time of this writing.

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Finally, I got accused of being overly negative in the comments of the last post, and I’ll admit that pointing out Casey Blake’s failings in the middle of the winning streak may have seemed like odd timing. Still, as I mentioned there, I didn’t do it to just be the stick in the mud, but because I hadn’t seen his weird backwards splits pointed out anywhere else, and if i can’t point out things like that, what’s the point of the blog? Besides, I don’t care if the team goes 80-4 over the next four months, you’ll never convince me that Garret Anderson’s “veteran leadership” is worth his horrendous performance.

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One more “finally”: Jonathan Broxton has pitched three nights in a row, so he’s likely unavailable tonight. Hong-Chih Kuo pitched last night as well and we all know how fragile he is… so are we looking at a Troncoso/Sherrill situation should the Dodgers have a small lead in the 9th tonight?

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