No part of a major league general manager’s job has changed more, or is now more important, than creating your major league pitching plan. Team’s pitching blueprints have changed. Plans have become extremely fluid, contingencies are built into those plans and everyone is trying to find the best way to keep pitchers healthy, while winning at the same time. GMs have to add new information from medical experts and the statistical analysts in their front office to what they know from experience and what their pitching coaches can tell them. The bottom line is that coming up with a total staff pitching program has become the single most important job for all 30 general managers in 2017.
You can start by looking at the size of pitching staffs. Five years ago, most teams had 11-man staffs to start the season, with a few going down to 10. Today no teams opened the year with a 10-man staff, but on Opening Day six National League teams (Reds, Marlins, Rockies, Dodgers, Brewers and Padres) carried 13 with eight-man bullpens, and not a single National League team carried less than seven initially.
It’s a fundamental change to how big league rosters are designed, and it’s another indication how organizations are changing the way they manage both their starters and relievers. You can also see the change in how teams handle rotation construction. GMs used to build their starting rotations with the knowledge that they needed a five-man rotation at the major league level, and they’d prepare for one or two injuries and make sure that they were seven deep. Now GMs try to have 10 or more starters ready to take the ball throughout the season. The Los Angeles Dodgers won the NL West while using 15 different starters. The Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati Reds used 15 as well, but the Atlanta Braves led the majors with 16.
As a reflection of last year’s experience, the Dodgers have done the best of any club in building up their starting pitch depth. Between the majors and the minors, they’re 11 deep. Led by Clayton Kershaw, the rest of the Dodgers’ rotation includes veterans Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood, last year’s rookie tandem of Julio Urias and Ross Stripling, plus prospects Yadier Alvarez and Brock Stewart. So while Hill has a blister and has joined Kazmir on the DL, and Urias is at extended spring because of pitch limits to keep him available for October, they still have Wood and Stripling to bring back into the rotation from the bullpen while Alvarez and Stewart are in the minor leagues waiting for a phone call. Having that kind of luxury in rotation depth is just one of the reasons the Dodgers are favorites to repeat as NL West champions this year.