A smile crossed Dave Roberts’ face as he sauntered through the visitors’ clubhouse at Coors Field in Denver last Thursday. Roberts thrives on intimacy, on the cultivation of kinship among his players, so he clapped his hand across the back of his starting pitcher from the night before.
“Hi Kenta!” Roberts said. “How’s the hamstring?”
Kenta Maeda looked up at his manager and shrugged. A few minutes earlier, the Dodgers had placed Maeda on the disabled list because of tightness in his left hamstring. Maeda would say later that he had felt no discomfort while logging 8 1/3 innings less than 24 hours earlier. Roberts indicated that Maeda felt something in the area weeks earlier, and the team wanted to be cautious. The decision afforded Maeda 10 days of rest — and solved, at least temporarily, an ongoing quest to fit seven starting pitchers into a five-man rotation.
Six weeks into the season, the Dodgers have settled upon a strategy designed to maximize the effectiveness of their starters while mitigating the risk of injury. The team does not expect any pitcher other than Clayton Kershaw to start every fifth day or pitch 200 innings. In order to juggle the others, a group packed with survivors of arm surgery, the team has made liberal use of the disabled list, which was shortened from a 15-day stopover in the newest collective bargaining agreement.
Maeda is the fourth member of the rotation to be sidelined. The severity of the injury depends on the individual. Rich Hill has grappled with blisters. Hyun-Jin Ryu was sidelined for 10 days because of a minor hip bruise. Brandon McCarthy sat out after suffering a dislocated non-throwing shoulder, an ailment he said didn’t need to keep him out. The carousel will spin again this week, with both McCarthy and Hill rejoining the team.
Despite the interchangeable parts, the Dodgers rotation ranks fourth in the major leagues with a 3.53 earned-run average and second in FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement. The strategy is not fool-proof. Ryu looked rusty in a 10-run torching in his return against the Colorado Rockies last week. And the Dodgers could invite scrutiny from Major League Baseball.
The commissioner’s office reviewed the Maeda situation, according to a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to discuss it publicly. The Dodgers are not expected to face any repercussions, in part because the team holds minor-league options on Maeda, and did not need to find an injury to remove him from the 25-man roster.
There was some consternation over Roberts’ explanation that the injury occurred weeks before the team shut Maeda down. It has become increasingly routine for the league office to review disabled-list placements. Although a team’s medical staff must certify an injury in order for a player to go on the disabled list, the league’s medical director and baseball operations department can review that certification and ask the team’s medical staff for more information.
It was unclear whether the league conducted the Maeda review on its own or did so upon the request of another team, although it is not uncommon for teams to complain that rivals are using the disabled list inappropriately. Speaking generally, MLB’s chief baseball officer Joe Torre indicated that manipulation of the rule is “something we certainly would be interested in.”
“At the end of the day, Major League Baseball has oversight on this,” he said. “When guys get put on the D.L., they often request medical records. They see that a doctor has said this player is not 100%, not at his fully accustomed level.”
In the past, shutting down a pitcher for 15 days meant missing at least two starts and often required a minor-league rehabilitation start. By removing five days from the equation, a pitcher may miss only one outing. McCarthy got ready for his start Monday by throwing a simulated game last Wednesday.
Zaidi downplayed the suggestion that the Dodgers came into the season expecting to rotate seven pitchers through the rotation. The math became more complicated when Ryu, for the first time in two years, was sound at the conclusion of spring training. And Alex Wood, moved from the bullpen to the rotation after Hill’s blister returned, has emerged as the team’s best starter other than Kershaw.
“It’s created a different dynamic than we expected to have at this time of year,” Zaidi said.
Yet the Dodgers also harbor realistic expectations for the group. Julio Urias is working under an innings restriction. Wood underwent elbow surgery last summer. McCarthy sat out most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons after elbow ligament replacement surgery; Ryu made one start during those two seasons after shoulder surgery. Hill has undergone an elbow reconstruction and shoulder surgery, and his blisters are well-documented. Maeda faded in the second half of 2016, and his physical examination reportedly showed irregularities in his elbow and shoulder.
“Most of us come with a checkered injury history,” McCarthy said. “If you feel something coming up, or there’s a chance to get a breather, then I think you have to give that a shot.”
“With the way we’re built and the depth that we have, it makes sense to figure out creative ways to give guys [time off],” Kershaw said. “Or, if they do have something ailing, to utilize the 10-day D.L.”
For Roberts, the situation requires communication and self-awareness. The team must remain open with the pitchers about their plans. The players must understand their own limitations. The milestone of 200 innings, McCarthy reasoned, might become “reserved for real horses, guys who can do it. And with everybody else, it’s like ‘Let’s get what we can,’ but also avoid major injury.”
Roberts said he has promised the players that no one will lose a job after suffering an injury. He hoped the group would remain forthcoming about any minor dings and dents. “It’s almost like, don’t be stupid, really,” Hill said. “If something is bothering you, speak up.”
On Monday, Wood was named National League player of the week. He struck out 21 batters over 11 innings in two outings. It was good enough, a reporter joked with him after his outing in Colorado, to avoid the 10-day disabled list. Wood chuckled in response.
“I’m trying not to think about that right now,” he said. “I’m just waiting for them to tell me I get to start in five more days.”