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Dodgers pitcher Dustin May gets outs through contact, but that could change

The Dodgers' Dustin May pitches against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 22.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Dodgers broke summer camp not expecting to need starting pitcher Dustin May as much as they have this season. He was optioned before he was recalled to make an emergency opening day start when Clayton Kershaw’s back flared up. Two months later, he is an important piece of the club’s World Series puzzle after spending the entire season in the rotation.

May oozes potential. He throws 99 mph. He went viral last month for making San Diego Padres star Manny Machado, an NL MVP contender, look foolish swinging at an eye-popping two-seam fastball. His numbers, however, don’t exactly match the profile. Pitchers with a repertoire that explosive usually strike out hitters at a high percentage. May doesn’t. He has gotten his outs differently.

May emerged from Tuesday’s start with an 18.6% strikeout rate, which ranks 53rd out of 65 pitchers that have logged at least 50 innings this season. The 23-year-old right-hander has instead relied on inducing groundballs; he has the 10th-highest groundball rate in the majors. Groundballs are the batted balls most likely to become outs. The Dodgers, in turn, have been the best in the league at converting balls put in play into outs.

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But strikeouts are the optimal result for a pitcher because they remove variables — defense and luck among them — from the equation. And in October, when a bloop single or an error can change the course of a series, strikeouts are gold. The Dodgers believe May, who will play a significant role in the postseason, could improve the output by optimizing his pitch selections with two strikes against right-handed hitters.

“Obviously the best thing would to punch guys,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But as long as he can continue to attack the strike zone, he has a good chance to get some outs.”

May’s strikeout numbers have improved in September. Not counting his one-inning, injury-shortened start against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sept. 10, May has recorded at least five strikeouts in three outings this month. On Tuesday, he compiled five strikeouts in five innings against the Oakland Athletics as the Dodgers clinched their eighth straight NL West title. May will get one final start before the playoffs in Sunday’s regular season finale.

For 30-some Dodgers minor leaguers serving as an insurance policy against injuries, staying positive through monotonous workouts at USC is a challenge.

“I like the way he started using the secondaries a little bit more,” Roberts said. “I thought there were some good cutters in there. The curveball was good. He threw more changeups than he has his last few starts. Obviously, the velocity’s always been there. Really good.”

May had only one outing with more than four strikeouts before September; he posted a career-high eight strikeouts against the San Diego Padres on Aug. 4. The Padres are a potential NLDS opponent. May would surely get a start in that series and Dodgers would want more of the same.


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