Clayton Kershaw Proves Even the Best Pitcher in the World Can Be Underrated

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2017

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 07:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches to the San Francisco Giants in the first inning during the spring training game at Camelback Ranch on March 7, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

It took four Cactus League starts for Clayton Kershaw's ERA to rise above 0.00.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander surrendered his first run of the spring, a solo homer off the bat of Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas.

His new exhibition ERA? A gaudy 0.90.

He's struck out nine in 10 innings, held opposing batters to an .063 average and looked, for the most part, like midseason Kerhsaw. Even his curveball, which can go flat in the desert air, has been characteristically devastating.

"I've said it before, [spring training] results really don't matter," Kershaw said in his usual understated fashion, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. "But I guess it's good to see how hitters react to pitches, and if you're not giving up hits, that's a good thing."

At this point, we're running out of adjectives to describe Kershaw: dominant, transcendent, unfair, otherworldly.

How about this one? Underrated.

It sounds absurd. How can a guy whose trophy case contains three National League Cy Young Awards and an NL MVP, among other prizes, possibly be underrated?

It depends how you define the term. No one who knows a rosin bag from a hole in the ground would argue Kershaw isn't a generational talent. Last season, though, his mortality reared its head.

Kershaw is having a great spring, but faced challenges in 2016.
Kershaw is having a great spring, but faced challenges in 2016.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Kershaw missed two full calendar months with a balky back in 2016. He returned to pitch well down the stretch and enjoyed some iconic postseason moments. The Dodgers, however, were eliminated in the National League Championship Series by the Chicago Cubs.

For the fourth straight season, they ascended to the October stage but fell shy of the World Series. 

It wasn't all, or even mostly, Kershaw's fault. But he surrendered 12 earned runs in 24.1 innings between the NL Division Series and NLCS and now owns a career 4.55 postseason ERA. 

The aftertaste of 2016 wasn't entirely sweet and bordered on bitter. For the first time since Kershaw burst on to the scene in 2008, a decline seemed plausible.

No one expected him to plummet off a cliff. But it was possible to imagine we'd witnessed peak Kershaw in his 2014 MVP season, and that he'd merely be very goodas opposed to mind-meltingly excellentgoing forward.

Here's a reality check: Even with his extended stint on the disabled list, Kershaw tied the New York Mets' Noah Syndergaard for the lead among pitchers with 6.5 WAR, according to FanGraphs.

As he prepares for his age-29 season, he looks like exactly what he is: an unmitigated stud at the apex of his prime.

Despite his back injury, Kershaw tied for the WAR lead among pitchers with New York Mets stud Noah Syndergaard.
Despite his back injury, Kershaw tied for the WAR lead among pitchers with New York Mets stud Noah Syndergaard.Harry How/Getty Images

As CBSSports.com's Mike Axisa noted: "The question isn't whether Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball at the moment. The question is whether he will go down as one of the 10 best pitchers of all time."

He may also be expanding his repertoire. Kershaw's changeup has always been a rarely used fourth pitch. He threw it just 13 times last season and has never thrown it more than 117 times in a single year. 

He's mixing it in this spring with promising returns, according to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. 

"What's neat is that he's starting to trust his changeup a little more, and he's getting good results with it," Honeycutt said, per MLB.com's Ken Gurnick.

Take note, opposing hittersKershaw might have yet another way to get you out. Because he totally needed one, right?

"I think we can all say we have never seen a player like Clayton, both physically and mentally," manager Dave Roberts said, per ESPN.com's Doug Padilla. "But I think there is something to staying ahead of things."

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts lost Kershaw for two months last season, but rode him down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts lost Kershaw for two months last season, but rode him down the stretch and in the playoffs.Harry How/Getty Images

Then again, as Beyond the Box Score's Evan J. Davis noted in February:

Kershaw might be such an extreme outlier that his stuff will never lose its bite. Kershaw is a fiercely intelligent pitcher, and one would be wise not to second-guess him. It is clear, however, that he doesn't need no stinking finesse in order to pile up strikeouts, never walk a guy, and never let batted balls hurt him. He is the special one.

The Dodgers have Japanese import Kenta Maeda, who impressed in his first MLB season in 2016. They re-signed Rich Hill, who posted a 1.83 ERA with Los Angeles after coming over in a trade deadline deal with the Oakland A's.

Young lefty Julio Urias, meanwhile, appears poised to be the next untouchable southpaw in Southern California.

On offense, sophomore shortstop Corey Seager is a legitimate MVP candidate and the lineup is well-stocked around him.

Yet it revolves around Kershaw. As he goes, so go the Dodgers. If the franchise breaks its 29-year championship drought, it'll be on the back of the world's best pitcher.

Underrate him at your peril. If his Cactus League showing is any indication, he may be getting better.

This is one instance in which a spring ERA might mean more than nothing—and could mean everything. 

       

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of FanGraphs and MLB.com unless otherwise noted.