Injuries to Dustin May and Julio Urías Leave Dodgers’ Rotation in Tatters

Dustin May
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

No sooner had the Dodgers surged to the NL’s best record with a 14–2 run keyed by the return of Will Smith than the wheels started falling off their rotation. Over a seven-game span that began on May 15, their starters eked out just 25.2 innings, only twice lasting five frames. Not only was the bullpen tapped to the extreme, but Clayton Kershaw also made dubious personal history with a pair of early exits, and both Dustin May and Julio Urías landed on the injured list. The whole mess is forcing the organization to test its depth at a less-than-optimal time.

For starters, this isn’t what you want:

Dodgers Rotation’s Week From Hell
Pitcher Date Opponent IP H R HR BB SO Pitches
Noah Syndergaard May 15 MIN 4.0 4 2 1 0 5 59
Clayton Kershaw May 16 MIN 4.0 7 2 0 1 7 90
Dustin May* May 17 MIN 1.0 1 0 0 0 2 16
Julio Urías* May 18 STL 3.0 6 6 4 2 1 68
Tony Gonsolin May 19 STL 5.0 1 0 0 3 3 94
Noah Syndergaard May 20 STL 5.0 4 3 0 1 4 80
Clayton Kershaw May 21 STL 3.2 5 4 0 3 6 95
* = placed on 15-day injured list after start.

For the week, Los Angeles starters were cuffed for a 5.96 ERA and 5.05 FIP in those 25.2 innings, and the team’s overtaxed relievers were lit up for a 6.99 ERA and 5.73 FIP in 29 appearances totaling 37.1 innings. Because the Dodgers’ league-best offense bashed out 40 runs in those seven games, they managed to go 3–4, but their three-game division lead over the Diamondbacks was cut in half, and at 29–19, they fell behind the Braves (29–17), whom they’ll face for three games in Atlanta starting on Monday, for the NL’s best record.

The more serious of the two injuries is May’s. The 25-year-old righty left Wednesday’s start after just one inning and a velocity drop; both his four-seam fastball and sinker were 1.9 mph below his seasonal averages (97.3 mph and 96.6 mph, respectively), with his fastest pitch topping out at 95.8. The Dodgers didn’t offer any sugarcoating, saying he departed due to “right elbow pain.” Not “discomfort,” “tightness,” or “soreness,” but pain — no small concern given that May was making just his 15th start since returning from May 2021 Tommy John surgery. By the end of the game, he had undergone an MRI and been diagnosed with a flexor pronator strain. Via The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya:

May had been pitching through some degree of soreness throughout his rehab, a league source told The Athletic, but figured it was a normal part of his recovery from surgery. Tests on Wednesday showed a Grade 1 strain of the flexor tendon, which had not healed properly during his rehab, leading to some of the discomfort.

Per the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike DiGiovanna, May’s ulnar collateral ligament remains intact and “looks good,” according to a source familiar with his test results but not authorized to speak publicly about them. Even so, season-ending surgery is a possibility. May will receive an injection of platelet-rich plasma into the tendon to promote healing and, hopefully, avoid the operating table again. If the PRP works, the injury is expected to sideline him for about six weeks; the Dodgers have said four to six weeks, but who’s kidding who here?

The injury has interrupted a campaign that had begun in promising fashion for a pitcher who in parts of five major league seasons has yet to top the 10 starts and 56 innings he threw in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. In 48 innings thus far, May has pitched to a 2.62 ERA and 3.36 FIP, and while he’s struck out just 18.2% of hitters, he’s offset that by minimizing hard contact, as his 3.32 xERA attests. He’s allowed just one home run, for an NL-low 0.19 homers per nine, and a 5.2% barrel rate, the latter of which places him in the 78th percentile. His nine runs prevented via his sinker ranks third in the majors behind only Yennier Cano and Chris Bassitt.

As for Urías, he labored through a pair of scoreless innings against the Cardinals before his performance really went downhill in the third, when he served up a three-run homer to Willson Contreras; one out later, he gave up three straight solo homers to Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman, and Paul DeJong. It was only the second time he’s allowed four homers in a game, having done so just over a year ago on May 14, 2022 against the Phillies.

Despite his already thin bullpen, manager Dave Roberts pulled Urías after 68 pitches, and in the immediate aftermath, the talk was of the recent struggles of the 26-year-old lefty, who has pitched to a 4.39 ERA and 5.32 FIP with a gaudy 2.28 homers per nine in 55.1 innings, that after garnering NL Cy Young votes in each of the past two seasons. He finished third last year after posting a 2.16 ERA and 3.71 FIP in 175 innings, though his performance was arguably stronger in 2021 (2.96 ERA and 3.13 FIP in 185.2 innings). Via the Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett: “It’s obviously worrisome,” Urías said through an interpreter after the game. “It’s one of those things where, I’m not hiding from it, I’ve got to do a better job.”

Neither Roberts nor any reporter mentioned a hamstring at the time; in fact, the former said he expected Urias to make his next start against the Braves. On Saturday, however, Roberts revealed that Urías’ hamstring had bothered him during the start, and an MRI revealed the strain. The good news is that the Dodgers believe he’ll be ready to return after his 15 days on the IL are up, but that still leaves a whole lot of innings to fill.

Unfortunately, Kershaw, who time and again has stepped up when the bullpen needed a breather — as recently as May 10, he went seven innings the night after Syndergaard departed after one due to a cut on his finger — has only added to the burden lately. To be fair, the pitcher’s mother, Marianne Tombaugh, died on May 13, and so he’s been pitching with a heavy heart. Roberts mentioned that the 35-year-old lefty had also felt some “body fatigue” after his May 16 start and saw signs of that again on Sunday. Via Statcast, Kershaw’s average fastball velocity on Sunday was 0.5 mph below his season average of 91.2 mph, and in both starts, his average velos on all of his offerings were below his season averages.

With a 2.52 ERA and 3.37 FIP, Kershaw has been the Dodgers’ best starter, but his early exits, including one after 4.2 innings against the Cardinals on May 5, remain jarring. This past week’s abbreviated starts mark the first time in his 14-year major league career that he’s been unable to reach the fifth inning in back-to-back outings. He did have a stretch during his 2008 rookie season in which he went four-plus innings against the Phillies on August 23 and then 2.1 innings against the Nationals on August 28, but in the recent pair, Roberts wouldn’t even let him take the mound for the fifth after so much wheel-spinning. On May 16, Kershaw threw at least 23 pitches in three out of his four innings; on Sunday, he went to 33 pitches in both the second and fourth.

As for where the Dodgers will find innings in the near term, they’ll turn to Gavin Stone to fill May’s spot and Bobby Miller to take Urías’ place. The pair entered the season as the team’s top two pitching prospects, with Miller second on our Dodgers list and 33rd on the Top 100 as a 55 FV prospect, and Stone seventh on the team list and 59th in the Top 100 as a 50 FV prospect. Neither has pitched well enough at Triple-A Oklahoma City to be getting these calls solely on merit, but with Ryan Pepiot, who made seven starts for the Dodgers last year, out until mid-July due to a strained oblique and Michael Grove, who’s made 10 starts for them in 2022–23, out due to a groin strain, the Dodgers have to dig deeper. They already burned through Dylan Covey, whose reward for solid work at Oklahoma City after two seasons in the Chinese Professional Baseball League was a call-up to make his first major league appearance since September 24, 2020, and his first for the team for which he grew up rooting. After throwing four innings and allowing two runs in relief of May in a game the Dodgers won, 7–3, the 31-year-old righty was designated for assignment in favor of a fresh arm and claimed by the Phillies on waivers.

The 24-year-old Stone, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound righty, was the team’s fifth-round pick in 2020 out of Central Arkansas. He’s known for his plus-plus changeup, which he throws off his 93–96 mph fastball, but that’s his only truly plus pitch. He’s pitched to a 4.04 ERA and 5.11 FIP at Triple-A Oklahoma City and made a spot start for the Dodgers on May 3 against the Phillies; in four innings he was touched up for eight hits and two walks leading to five runs (four earned). The 24-year-old Miller, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound righty, was the team’s first-round pick in 2020 out of the University of Louisville. He’s got an upper-90s fastball and three above-average or better secondary pitches, headlined by a plus slider. After splitting last season between Double-A Tulsa and OKC, he was sidelined by shoulder soreness this spring and didn’t make his season debut until April 29. After allowing eight earned runs in 8.1 innings over his firsts three starts, he put it together in his most recent outing on Wednesday against the Sugar Land Space Cowboys, throwing six innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts, two hits, and one walk. He averaged 99.5 mph with the heater, topping out at 101.2, though he did give up five hard-hit balls.

While it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for those two prospects, the Dodgers have to hope that Kershaw, Gonsolin and Syndergaard can at least continue to take the ball every fifth day. Gonsolin suffered a left ankle sprain on March 6, didn’t make his season debut until April 26, and didn’t reach 90 pitches in an outing until May 19. He’s posted a 1.13 ERA in 24 innings, but his 3.44 xERA and 4.05 FIP confirm he hasn’t been quite so dominant; he’s striking out just 20% of all hitters, down from last year’s 23.9%. Syndergaard, whom the team signed to a one-year, $13 million contract to replace the departed Tyler Anderson, has been a disappointment so far, pitching to a 5.88 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 41.1 innings. Despite high hopes that his velocity and ability to miss bats would rebound with another year of distance from his March 2020 Tommy John surgery, that hasn’t been the case. His 92.4 mph average four-seam fastball velocity is 5.4 mph below his 2019 average and 1.7 below last year, with his sinker making a similar descent, and the days of his 90-mph slider and changeup are long gone; and he’s striking out just 16.9% of hitters this year, up 0.1% from last year. He recently acknowledged that he’s working with a mental skills coach to overcome subconscious issues that he believes are keeping him from recapturing his velocity.

As for the bullpen, of the 12 relievers the Dodgers have used in the past week, only Covey, A-listers Evan Phillips, Brusdar Graterol and Caleb Ferguson, and recent arrival Tyler Cyr have ERAs below 5.00 within the small sample; five of the 12 have ERAs of 7.71 or higher in that span. The unit as a whole ranks second in the NL in appearances (164) and fifth in innings (178) but has a 4.70 ERA for the season, the NL’s second-worst mark, and its 4.16 FIP is seventh. Suffice it to say the team will need better work from the bullpen to prop up the fragile rotation.

None of the Dodgers’ NL opponents are likely to have much sympathy for their current plight — certainly not the Braves, who are down both Max Fried and Kyle Wright for at least the next two months and who already lost Ian Anderson to Tommy John surgery. Based on the cost-cutting roster decisions they made this past offseason, this is the year the Dodgers are going to see what they have in their homegrown talent and incoming reclamation projects. They just didn’t expect so much of it to be under the spotlight so soon.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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9 months ago

Rays have lost Glasnow, Springs and Rasmussen. Yankees Severino and Rodon. Mets Verlander, Quintana and Diaz. All for big chunks or the whole season. You can never have enough pitching

9 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

His utility certainly could be questioned but the Mets also lost Carrasco for a while too.

9 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

The Braves are down both Kyle Wright and Max Fried (and Soroka hasn’t pitched since 2020, and Ian Anderson is broken in multiple ways, but I don’t think anyone was counting on them).

The Brewers have both Brandon Woodruff and Aaron Ashby on the 60-day DL, and Wade Miley on the 15.

The Astros are missing all of Lance McCullers, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy.

And those are just the guys anyone’s heard of!

Who has had good rotation health at this point? The Twins? Blue Jays? D-Backs? Phillies? Cubs?

South Detroitmember
9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The Angels too…but it seems some of the teams with reasonable rotation health don’t benefit as much as expected because their rotations aren’t significantly better than other teams 6, 7, and 8 starters.

9 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It’s 2023. A combination of higher velo and not letting guys pitch through minor injuries = tons of guys on the IL at any given time. As a PT guy, I understand being conservative and not letting guys exacerbate their current injury, but damn… the sheer amount of guys that miss significant time is my least favorite thing about the modern game. The most frustrating aspect, to me, is that it only seems to be getting worse. We’ve made so much progress in player dev, but we cannot figure out how to keep pitchers healthy! I’m hoping the next “Moneyball” revolution is somehow learning how to keep pitchers healthy. I’ll hold my breath.

9 months ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Limiting workloads certainly doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps the new training methods (weighted balls, etc.) to increase velo and spin are not good for the shoulder and elbow.

9 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Yankees lost Montas too. They’ve also lost a bunch of relievers too. They legit lost 3/5 of a rotation before the season started.