Clayton Kershaw's Return Everything Dodgers Could Have Hoped For

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Clayton Kershaw's Return Everything Dodgers Could Have Hoped For
Greg Fiurne/Getty Images

Allow me to tell you how Clayton Kershaw's return to action Tuesday night went.

Pretty much exactly how the Los Angeles Dodgers drew it up. There was no rusty stuff. There was no rusty command.

Nope. Nothing but vintage Kershaw.

Starting for the first time since he toed the rubber in Australia on March 22 after missing all of April with an injury to his upper back/shoulder area, the Dodgers' 26-year-old lefty squared off against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. In the end, the Dodgers rode his pitching, some shoddy Washington defense and home runs by Hanley Ramirez and Drew Butera to an 8-3 victory.

But especially Kershaw's pitching. He pitched seven shutout innings, allowing nine hits and no walks while striking out nine. 

"It's just good to be back," Kershaw told MLB.com. "Six weeks felt like a long time. I had fun and it's good to be back. It felt good tonight."

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The result was good, in part, because the Dodgers needed it. Though their 18-15 record looked fine, it wasn't the kind of record befitting of a reigning NL West champion with a $230 million payroll. The Dodgers had the look of a team that needed...well, something.

The result was also good because the matchup was a tough one. The Dodgers weren't easing Kershaw back into the mix by throwing him against, say, the Houston Astros. They were throwing him at a first-place Nationals team with an MLB-best .862 OPS against left-handed starters.

But enough about the result. Let's talk about the process. It's Kershaw's actual pitching against Washington that deserves the spotlight.

Remember when I mentioned there was nothing wrong with Kershaw's stuff? That was the truth, and it was clear early on that this would be the case just from looking at the lefty's fastball.

Kershaw had the thing humming at the start, and it kept humming all evening. In the end, the heater Kershaw was featuring looked a lot like the heater he featured in 2013.

Behold some good stuff from Brooks Baseball:

Clayton Kershaw's Fastball
Split Average Velocity Vertical Movement (In.)
2013 93.5 11.82
5/6/2014 94.0 11.41

Brooks Baseball

Note: The data for Kershaw's Tuesday start is raw MLB Advanced Media data that's likely not 100 percent accurate, but it's what we have for the time being.

I singled out velocity and vertical movement because these are the two defining characteristics of Kershaw's fastball. He throws hard, obviously, and Baseball Prospectus' PITCHf/x leaderboards can show that no other lefty starter got as much vertical run on his heater as Kershaw did in 2013.

Hence why what happened with said heater Tuesday night is so encouraging. It had both the velocity and the movement of a 2013 Kershaw fastball. Given that hitters hit just .227 against that pitch last year, this is a very good thing.

As for Kershaw's off-speed stuff, it was crystal clear that he brought his good slider with him when he did this to Anthony Rendon in the first inning:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

By Brooks Baseball's count, that's one of nine whiffs that Kershaw got on his slider, the most of any of his three pitches.

Which fits. As much as everyone geeks out over Kershaw's curveball, his slider was actually his whiffiest pitch in 2013. He got whiffs on 23.8 percent of his sliders, compared to 16.8 for his curve.

Oh, but don't worry. Kershaw's curveball had a dandy of a day Tuesday as well.

Brooks Baseball counted 15 of them. Seven were swung at. Four of those swings hit nothing. Three of those ended at-bats.

So yeah. What CBS Sports said.

Short version: You'd never know from watching Kershaw's stuff that it had been over a month since his last major league start. It was filthy.

And with this stuff, Kershaw threw 68 of his 89 pitches for strikes. That's 76.4 percent. Combine that with how he threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 28 hitters he faced, and you have a solid explanation for the whole "no walks" thing.

From here, I suppose I could raise a stink about how Kershaw gave up nine hits. But I won't because they were all singles and also because any guy who can dominate as thoroughly as he did despite a .474 batting average on balls in play (per FanGraphs) can drink from my canteen any day.

So, if you don't mind, I'll re-emphasize the general message of the lefty's return by saying "Holy Clayton Kershaw, Batman!" and we can then get on with what this means.

That part's simple. It may only be one start we're talking about, but it's a start in which Kershaw showed that he's not going to be a work in progress in his return from his injury. Provided he doesn't aggravate anything, he looks ready to be his usual self for 20-25 starts down the stretch.

Him being himself for that many starts is going to accomplish a couple things.

One: It's going to give Kershaw a fair shot at earning his third National League Cy Young in four years. It'll be tough to beat Jose Fernandez with the way he's pitching. But if ever there's a guy who could do it, why not Kershaw?

Two: It's going to make the NL West the Dodgers' to lose again. They were the best team in the division when the season began, in large part because they had a Kershaw and nobody else did. That he's back in time to give them 20-25 starts counts for a lot.

As he just spent a couple hours reminding everyone, he really is that good. 

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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