No team this year has been more beset by injuries than the Los Angeles Dodgers, and no one injury has weighed on the team more heavily than that of their ace Clayton Kershaw. His latest setback, coming immediately after his first start back from the disabled list, is a sorry indication that the era of Kershaw greatness may be drawing to a close – and a timely reminder that we should appreciate him while we still can.
For us fans in the UK, following the Dodgers can be particularly arduous with the time differences, meaning that for many of us, Kershaw’s reputation is more based on hearsay and stats rather than dedicated watching. For some context, here’s how good he’s been over his (relatively) young career thus far.
- NL MVP once
- Three-time Cy Young winner (and three more times in the top three)
- Led the league in:
- ERA five times
- WHIP four times
- Strikeouts three times
- Wins three times
- ERA+ four times
In short, he’s been pretty good. However, even this gaudy list of accolades doesn’t quite do him justice. Last year was the ninth straight year that he lowered his career ERA, a feat all the more impressive considering he didn’t have a massively inflated number to begin with (he posted a 4.26 in his first year, followed by a 2.79).
Historically, Kershaw’s numbers stack up as well. By career ERA+, which takes into account the era in which players pitched, Kershaw is the best starter of all time. His career ERA has him 24th all time, but those outranking him are predominantly relievers (like Mariano Rivera) or dead-ball era stars. The next qualified active player is Chris Sale, who is down at 167th on the list. Sandy Koufax, with whom Kershaw is compared relentlessly thanks to their shared affiliation with the Dodgers, is 95th.
The comparison with Koufax is salient given Kershaw’s injury troubles. Koufax famously retired aged 30, citing fears that the damage he was doing to his arm during his four-year spell of utter dominance would leave him permanently disabled. Kershaw has been dogged by back injuries for some time, but the reoccurrence of the problem this year so soon after being under evaluation for bicep tendonitis is a real cause for concern. For the first time, those in the know are beginning to wonder out loud if Kershaw will ever be able to stay on the mound long enough to put in the sort of supreme performances we’ve come to expect from him.
The way in which Kershaw’s pitch mix has manifested itself in light of these injuries is instructive of his trajectory as a pitcher. Per FanGraphs, he’s been able to rely less and less on his fastball, which this year has averaged just 91.8 MPH. Batters have hit the fastball for an .861 OPS this year, a huge leap from Kershaw’s career average on the pitch, which sits at .682.
Kershaw’s growing use of his slider – and his masterful command – mean that if he can stave off the injuries, he can still be a highly effective pitcher, even if his bad back continues to hamper his velocity. Many pitchers have reinvented themselves with great success in the past, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped to adapt than Kershaw.
However, the equation isn’t quite the same as with other pitchers. For other pitchers who have had to alter their game, it’s been akin to a session guitarist switching from rock to jazz; it takes a bit of getting used to, but nobody’s paying that much attention. For Kershaw, it’s like asking Eric Clapton to take up the oboe; you don’t doubt he has the skill to do it, but you really wish he didn’t have to.