Why the Dodgers will Start Kershaw for Game 4

This was supposed to be a post about Ricky Nolasco and the Dodgers’ bullpen, but right after I started it I found out the Dodgers will start Clayton Kershaw on short rest in Game 4 against the Braves. Don Mattingly’s decision is curious for a couple of reasons. One, if this move works, Kershaw can’t pitch until Game 2 of the NLCS. Two, the only other time Kershaw has pitched on three days’ rest was a relief appearance in his rookie season. Yes, Kershaw is the best pitcher alive, but any number of things from his inexperience pitching on short rest to defensive miscues to gnats from Lake Erie could conspire against him tonight. Then the Dodgers will face elimination two days from now with someone other than the best pitcher alive.

But this would be a shallow article, and I a shallow writer, if all I did was disagree with Don Mattingly. Managers are rightfully secretive about many of their tactical choices, so I’ll do my best to find a good reason why Mattingly would think this is the best decision. It’s not like Nolasco has been bad. In 87 innings for Los Angeles he’s posted an ERA of 3.52 and a FIP of 3.15. Including his time with the Marlins, his 2013 numbers are only slightly worse at 3.70 and 3.34. Unless Nolasco kicked Mattingly’s dog, it’s hard to believe that Mattingly benched him because of something he did wrong.

Nolasco cannot help his own limitations as a pitcher, however. If he could, he probably would have by now, because he’s a good capitalist. Alas, Ricky struggles to pitch deep into games. In his 15 starts for the Dodgers, he’s pitched more than seven innings only three times. More than half the time (eight starts), he hasn’t gotten out of the sixth inning. This flaw doesn’t make Nolasco a bad pitcher, it just keeps him from being one of the very good ones. And tonight, Nolasco’s potential early exit would have exposed the Dodgers’ great weakness.

Here is the Los Angeles bullpen in nerd-table form. There isn’t much to like outside of Kenley Jansen. He is great, and has earned the whispered comparisons to Mariano Rivera with that cutter of his. But everyone else, bleh. Mattingly is understandably wary of finding three serviceable innings there between the end of the fifth and the beginning of the ninth. Especially since Atlanta used this lineup against Zack Greinke, a righty like Nolasco, in Game 2:

  1. Jason Heyward, bats L
  2. Justin Upton, bats R
  3. Freddie Freeman, L
  4. Evan Gattis, R
  5. Brian McCann, L
  6. Chris Johnson, R
  7. Andrelton Simmons, R
  8. Elliot Johnson, S

The six most dangerous hitters are arranged for maximum bullpen hell. The Dodgers named five relievers besides Jansen to their postseason roster. (Chris Capuano, and now Nolasco it seems, are nominal starters who can work long relief.) J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez are lefty specialists. Against righties, Ronald Belisario has been a slight disappointment. Chris Withrow has performed well, but it’s harder to trust rookies, isn’t it? Brian Wilson is a wild card, coming off Tommy John surgery but having pitched well in an extremely brief sample. Getting six-to-nine outs from those five pitchers, when platoon advantages are turning into disadvantages after just one batter, sounds like risky business, doesn’t it? Perhaps Mattingly is thinking: if Kershaw demonstrates that he doesn’t have his good stuff, there is at least Nolasco, good for five innings, waiting in the wings.

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