There are worse things in baseball than being called the “Enrique Hernandez of the pitching staff” or being an All Star-caliber starter who is unable to crack the rotation of a perennial World Series-contending team.
That’s why Ross Stripling, the 29-year-old right-hander who is entering his fourth season in the majors, will continue to take the ball with a smile whenever the Dodgers call on him this season.
“I understand that’s what gives me value and that Andrew [Friedman] loves having those kinds of swing guys who can give them length out of the bullpen, get one out in the eighth inning and then make a start two days later,” Stripling said, referring to the team’s president of baseball operations. “And I’ve accepted that. I don’t get caught up in roles like I did maybe a year or two ago.”
Stripling spent virtually all of 2017 in the bullpen, going 3-5 with a 3.75 earned-run average in 49 games, striking out 74 and walking 19 in 74 1/3 innings and allowing no runs and four hits in three innings of five postseason games.
His first 10 appearances of 2018 came in relief, but with injuries sidelining four of five season-opening starters in three months, Stripling moved to the rotation in late April.
With excellent command of a four-pitch mix — fastball, slider, curve, changeup — Stripling went 8-2 with 2.08 ERA in 25 first-half games, 14 of them starts, striking out 108 and walking 14 in 95 1/3 innings. He was added to the National League All-Star team as an injury replacement.
But fatigue and a toe injury that limited him to one game in August led to a brutal second half in which Stripling went 0-4 with a 6.41 ERA in eight games. He was left off the roster in all three playoff rounds and watched as the Dodgers lost their second consecutive World Series, this one to the Boston Red Sox in five games.
“I was really proud of what I was able to do in the first half, how I helped the team stay in it when guys got hurt and things were going south as far as the starting pitching,” Stripling said. “And then to get really fatigued and not be able to find myself after the All-Star break was tough.
“It was frustrating to feel like you were a big part of the reason we got to the postseason and then not be able to help in October. But I understood the decision. I didn’t make a very good case to be on the postseason roster. I’m not upset. I’m just out to prove myself again and show that the first half was what I can do, not the second half.”
Stripling, who gave up two hits and struck out three in two scoreless innings of a split-squad game against Cleveland on Friday night, will probably have to do that out of the bullpen.
Barring injury, manager Dave Roberts will have to tell a player good enough to make the All-Star team last season that there isn’t enough room in the rotation for him this spring.
“It’s a tough conversation,” Roberts said. “It makes it a lot easier when you have a player who understands his value to our team, who is versatile and has the head to sustain and manage the frustrations that might come with that.”
Stripling said there could be a time in the near future when he’s not as accepting of a relief role, particularly if he excels as a starter and continues to get demoted to the bullpen. He is not at that point.
“While you know you could be a No. 3 or 4 starter on some other teams, it’s also fun to win a lot of ballgames and make deep runs into October,” Stripling said. “I certainly don’t regret anything. I love it here. I’m not unhappy. Even though the dream is to start and all that, it’s hard to complain about being here.”