2008 National League Championship Series Preview
Part III : A Stacked Rotation
Derek Lowe – 14-11 / 3.24 ERA / 147 K / 45 BB
Chad Billingsley – 16-10 / 3.14 ERA / 201 K / 80 BB
Hiroki Kuroda – 9-10 / 3.73 ERA / 116 K / 42 BB
Clayton Kershaw – 5-5 / 4.26 ERA / 100 K / 52 BB
The Dodgers didn’t have the best staff ERA in baseball without having a good starting rotation. And the four guys lined up to face the Phillies in the NLCS all had pretty good seasons, each sporting an ERA+ over 100 (over the league average). Despite an injured and ineffective Brad Penny (who was staff ace, coming off his best season yet), the Dodgers received nice years from young and old.
The Lowe-End Theory
Game one starter Lowe has a nice history against the Phillies. The sinkerballer has a career 3.02 ERA in seven starts against the Phils. This season, however, he had a very normal start — three earned in 6.1 innings. Though he pitched well, he was taken out in the seventh because the Phils mounted a rally quickly. To wit, Lowe is at least hittable in the seventh inning, with an opponents average of .281. Of course, Lowe is at his most vulnerable in the first two innings (when most good pitchers are most vulnerable). In the first, opponents are hitting .292; in the second, .279. But the second time around is much harder.
It’s because Lowe may have a little early trouble finding the strike zone. If that’s the case, hit the first strike you get. In Lowe’s two worst starts of the season (against the Angels and Cardinals), he was victimized by hits early in counts, and runners got on base behind big hits. The goal, then, is to attack and find ways to get on base. Then disrupt him. Don’t let Lowe settle in and get to his sinker. If he does, it’ll be a tough climb up.
Chad Billingsley faced the Phillies once this season, and the Phils used situational hitting (and a Jimmy Rollins 3-for-3) to beat him in a 5-0 shutout. Billingsley is a power righty, a fastball-slider cat who can dial the No. 1 in at about 92-93, and the slider is devastating when it’s on. He has gathered a ton of strikeouts, and doesn’t seem to walk too many. He seems to have more trouble with home run hitters, hearts of batting orders. That means Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will be huge keys to a game two victory.
Billingsley won’t usually go more than seven innings. He’s very effective until he hits that seven-inning threshold, so the key is to raise his pitch count. While he won’t walk many hitters, battling the count and going after his fastball are the best ideas. And yes, he’s very, very good when ahead, but very, very bad when faced with a 2-1 (1.045 OPS) or 3-1 (1.291 OPS) count, as he tries to dial up a sure strike not to get behind. Typical strikeout pitcher. If a Phillie hitter finds himself at 2-1 or 3-1, he should go after the pitch almost automatically. If not, it’s slider time.
If you remember back to the offseason, the Phillies were in the running for Hiroki Kuroda, but the Japanese pitcher said yes to more money and a Dodgers contract. It has worked out — he’s been a very solid No. 3 for Los Angeles. The 33-year-old Kuroda, a righty, mixes a mid-90s fastball with a slider, a forkball and a hybrid Japanese pitch called the “shuuto” (a fastball/sinker/slider). He likes the fastball, and when it’s hitting its spots, he’s very good. The Phillies saw that both times they’ve faced him — 13 innings, two runs, four hits.
Why do the Phils have trouble against Kuroda? Because he’s a craft righty who throws a whole bunch of pitches … you know … Dave Bush? Same kind of guy. He’s deceptive, he’s a dancer, but he can also dial it up and flame you out of the box. In two very bad starts against the Mets, Kuroda had batters swinging and missing just five times, total. Against the Phillies, he had batters swinging and missing 19 times. What to know is Kuroda will throw strikes — the key to beating him is to lock in on a pitch, not to just go after everything that looks like a winner.
Clayton Kershaw is your classic, big-armed lefty. He has a mid-90s fastball, a big curve that falls in somewhere in the 70s, and a circle-change. In some ways he resembles Cole Hamels, but he’s much more raw and much more prone to having control issues. As you can see, he had worse than a 2:1 K:BB ratio this season. To his credit, however, he has curtailed the walks in the second half.
He had possibly his worst start yet against the Phils, giving up six runs on seven hits in four innings. In that game, the Phils chased him early, with Pat Burrell knocking a first-inning home run. And that’s your key. With an opponents’ .919 OPS against Kershaw in the first, the Phils have to pounce early in game four. That’s the game Charlie Manuel might want to think about moving Jayson Werth and Pat Burrell up in the order.
The Dodgers four-man rotation is good. Lowe and Kuroda pose big challenges for the Phils, but the team has seen a good lot of both of them, making it possible they could hit them well. Still, they’ve been very deceptive against a fastball-happy group of Phils, so the good guys will have to temper their bats and be a little more patient, looking for their pitches. The younger, inexperienced Billingsley and Kershaw will definitely be challenging, but the Phils will have better looks against them. It’s the truth — the Phils can just kill those kinds of pitchers.
Situational hitting will be a huge key in this series, especially early. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino need to reach base and play head games with Lowe and Co. These Dodger pitchers may not walk batters, but they could lose enough focus to possibly lay a fastball down the turnpike. And the Phils better be jumping all over those pitches.
Am I confident the Phils can hit this rotation? Well, situational hitting was a problem in the Division Series, so the outlook isn’t as rosy as I had hoped. But there’s something to be said for scouting reports, the homefield advantage and multiple looks. I’m not envisioning a lot of runs, but if the Phils can scrape together a couple runs in the first three games, they can win two of them. And that’s what they should be seeking.