By Jon Weisman
The 1916 National League champion Brooklyn Superbas used 10 pitchers to throw their 1,427 1/3 innings.
The 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers used 15 pitchers to throw 54 innings last week.
Some people — even those under the age of 100, have noticed the difference.
So we ask our best pitcher to retire as many batters as he can, as quickly as possible, and when that pitcher’s done, we put in another.
In 1916, after Jeff Pfeffer’s 328 2/3 innings with a 1.92 ERA, there were nine others. In 2016, after Clayton Kershaw’s 121 innings with a 1.79 ERA, there have been 28 others.
We can debate whether this is an evolution or a devolution, but here’s the deal: You just need to get the outs.
It’s certainly simpler to use 10 pitchers rather than 29. But if 29 do the job, all that matters is that the job got done.
Starting today in Philadelphia, the Dodgers play 16 days in a row to finish the month of August. They’ll play approximately 140 innings.
Without Kershaw, the Dodgers are carrying 13 pitchers on their active roster. With the potential returns of Rich Hill, Casey Fien, Adam Liberatore and Bud Norris from the disabled list, they have 17 that they can rotate through, in and out of uniform, in and out of games.
You just need to get the outs.
Sometimes you get a clunker. In their comebacks from injuries, despite their best efforts, Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy each stumbled badly this weekend.
But guess what: There were clunkers in the good ol’ days, too. You just had fewer alternatives to turn to when one happened. (Also, it didn’t hurt to pitch in the Dead Ball era.)
Partly by design, partly as a response to injuries, partly as a consequence of market forces, the 2016 Dodgers operate differently from classic Dodger teams of years past. They’re not the 1916 Superbas. They’re not the 1966 Dodgers, whose Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen, Don Sutton and Phil Regan got 81 percent of the team’s outs that year. They’re not even the 2015 Dodgers, with Kershaw and Zack Greinke and a healthy Brett Anderson. (All three of those pitchers have lost time to the disabled list this year; Greinke’s ERA this season has ballooned, however temporarily, to 4.31).
The 2016 Dodgers do it with volume. It’s not conventional — it’s disturbingly easy to mock — but they do it.
Their ERA is fourth in the NL. Their fielding-independent ERA is third. Their WHIP is second. So is their strikeout-walk ratio. And that’s with 28 pitchers not named Clayton Kershaw throwing 936 1/3 innings so far.
And just watch out when September 1 arrives, rosters expand, and every pitcher is just there, no transaction magic necessary. Maybe Kershaw will even be one of them.
You just need to get the outs.
If you’re waiting for this approach to implode, consider that logically, it really might not. When a Dodger pitcher gets tired, or gets hurt, there’s another one to turn to. If that one can’t do it, go to the next. If that one gets hurt, go to the next. That doesn’t stop being true, not when you have the numbers.
There’s nothing inherently flawed about the approach. Weird it may be, but weirdness is a description, not a demerit.
Who says an innings-eater has to be one guy? Why can’t it be Johnny Wholestaff?
In fact, if you were designing a baseball team from scratch — if this were Year One and no tradition or historical records existed — and aces were at a premium, and your skill is in amassing volume, you’d probably find that there’s sense in volume. In the absence of four 1966-style studs (boy, that reserve clause came in handy, didn’t it?), get what you can from a host of pitchers, and use the DL and the minors to shuttle them around.
By the postseason, should the Dodgers get that far, things will be different. Short series, tough opponents, rigid rosters. The Dodgers will have had six months to figure out who their best and healthiest pitchers are, and they’ll live or die with them.
Even then, though, there’s similarity to the challenge. In a five-game series, they’ll have 12 or 13 pitchers to handle about 43 innings over seven days. In a seven-game series, they’ll need to handle about 61 innings over nine days.
Will they do it? No idea.
Can they do it? Just because it’s different doesn’t mean the answer is no.