Back on September 27, 2011, Hiroki Kuroda made his final start for the Dodgers, pitching six scoreless innings on the road against the Diamondbacks. (He didn’t get the win, though; the game was a 1-1 tie before the Dodgers scored five runs in the top of the 10th… and then Blake Hawksworth & Javy Guerra promptly allowed Arizona to score six to take the win, ending it on a Ryan Roberts walkoff grand slam. And we thought this year’s Game #161 was bad.)
That was 163 games ago. It was also the last time the Dodgers sent a starting pitcher to the mound who wasn’t a white American.
As I went into detail about in late December, the shameful record of international spending during the Frank McCourt era has caused a variety of wide-reaching problems for the team over the last few years, as the team had simply stopped trying to compete for high-end talent outside America. Not only were there very few international players on the 40-man roster, but the likely 2012 starting rotation – Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, & Ted Lilly to begin and Nathan Eovaldi & John Ely in reserve – was entirely North American & Caucasian, a rarity in today’s game.
That’s exactly what happened. Rubby de la Rosa appeared briefly and only in relief as he recovered from injury before being traded, and while Ely never did start for the Dodgers in 2012, newcomers Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton, & Stephen Fife all did. Including Eovaldi’s time in the rotation, that means that all nine men who started a game for the club this year were indeed white Americans, making it the first time in more than 30 years (since Fernando Valenzuela‘s debut year of 1980, in which he pitched only in relief) that the Dodgers did not have a single start made by someone who was either non-white or not from North America. Considering the proud international & cultural history of the organization, it’s a pretty disappointing state of affairs.
When will that run end? With de la Rosa gone, the only pitchers on the entire 40-man roster who aren’t American are Kenley Jansen & Ronald Belisario, and they’re not starting any time soon; potential additions from the system like Matt Magill, Zach Lee, or Aaron Miller aren’t going to change that either. Obviously, it’s not that I care at all about the ethnic makeup of the team so much as I care that the widest possible pool be cast to draw talent from. Of the 10 teams to make the playoffs in 2012, only the Giants had fewer than 20 starts from international or non-white pitchers, and even they may have had more had they not been lucky enough to have their top five starters make 160 starts, requiring only two fill-ins all year.
Of the many sins of the McCourt era, the inability to compete internationally may simultaneously be the least regarded and the most damaging. Sure, it’s not as ridiculous as paying a Russian faith healer or absurd as blowing tens of thousands on hair dressers, but it’s far more hurtful as far as trying to put a quality product on the field.
Here we are less than a year later, and suddenly there’s a lot of hope here. When the Guggenheim group took over, Stan Kasten stated emphatically that one of his main goals was to improve the team’s standing internationally, and in a very short time he’s proven more than true to his word. They won the bidding on Korean lefty Hyun-jin Ryu, who arrived in California this week to begin negotiations on a contract. They made a huge splash with Cuban Yasiel Puig. They’ve been hard after Japanese teen Shohei Otani and countryman Kyuji Fujikawa. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve added Gerry Hunsicker, Bob Engle, and several other scouts with years of international experience to the front office.
So while the Dodgers already have six of the same American starters from last year under contract, maybe that streak is broken by Ryu, if he signs. Maybe it’s Kuroda himself, who I’m starting to believe more and more will be returning in 2013, despite my apprehension over losing a first-round pick to get him. Maybe it’ll even be both. (It could, of course, still be neither, too.) And while you can make an argument – a damn good one, really – that the team’s better off next year with Zack Greinke or James Shields than with Kuroda or Ryu, it seems like small potatoes compared to seeing just far this team has come internationally in such a short time. For that alone, we should all be thrilled with where things are as compared to where they were.