Dodgers Star Clayton Kershaw's Many Ominous Signs of a Big Career Letdown

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 12, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 28:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts after allowing a sixth inning home run to Mookie Betts (not pictured) #50 of the Boston Red Sox in Game Five of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium on October 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Now is a good time to appreciate the greatness of Clayton Kershaw.

The Los Angeles Dodgers selected the left-hander with the No. 7 pick in the 2006 draft. Not even two years later, he jolted a "Holy mackerel!" out of Vin Scully with one of his trademark curveballs in a spring training game. He made his major league debut shortly thereafter on May 25, 2008, and what's followed is nothing short of legendary.

In 11 seasons with the Dodgers, Kershaw has been a National League All-Star seven times, a Cy Young Award winner three times and an MVP winner once. He came a fielding error away from a perfect game in 2014. He's led the NL in strikeouts three times and in ERA five times.

For that matter, Kershaw's 2.39 career ERA is the best of any pitcher over the last 90 years. With adjustments for ballparks and other factors, his 159 career ERA+ is the best of all time.

Such is the greatness of Clayton Kershaw: As of right now, he's arguably the best pitcher to ever come through Major League Baseball. 

But as they are wont to do, the passing of time and the ravages of age are changing things.

It's been a while since all was truly well with Kershaw, and his present status is no step in the right direction. The 30-year-old (31 on March 19) was sidelined by inflammation in his left shoulder in February. The Dodgers haven't yet ruled him out for Opening Day on March 28 against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium, but they're not committing to him being ready either.

"We want a good progression, but we're not going to rush this," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said Monday after Kershaw threw a 20-pitch bullpen session, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. "We've waited an amount of time for the medicine to work and he seems to be in a good place. He's at a point where he understands he had to do it the right way and when I get there, I'll be healthy and ready to go."

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Following problems with his back in 2014, 20162017 and 2018, Kershaw's shoulder malady is only the latest entry on an injury list that clearly signals that he's breaking down. Alas, such is life for a pitcher who's needed to work hard even as his durability has faded.

Kershaw averaged 201 innings per year through his age-27 season in 2015. Though he's slipped to an average of 162 innings over the last three years, he's been needed for 87.1 more in three deep postseason runs, the last two of which went all the way to the World Series. 

The southpaw may indeed be good to go by Opening Day, yet the Dodgers will almost certainly find ways around riding him as hard as they did when he was younger. This season figures to be his fifth out of the last six with fewer than 30 starts and 200 innings.

Even if such an effort proves successful in keeping Kershaw healthy, however, the Dodgers will still have his actual pitching to worry about.

Even as recently as 2017, Kershaw led the National League with a 2.31 ERA and struck out 172 more batters than he walked in 175 innings. But he "slumped" to a 2.73 ERA last year, in large part because a preexisting home run problem joined forces with a drastic strikeout shortage:

The most convenient explanation for Kershaw's sudden hittability is the decline of his average fastball velocity, which MLB director of research and development Daren Willman captured in a tweet last November:

Come October, Kershaw couldn't even hit 93 mph, which was his cruising speed as recently as 2016.

This naturally spelled trouble for his fastball, which yielded a career-worst .518 slugging percentage and 13 of the 21 homers he gave up between the regular season and postseason. But not to be overlooked is the trouble it created for his signature pitch.

No, not his curveball. It may be "Public Enemy No. 1," but it's been playing second fiddle to his slider ever since 2010. The pitch itself is typically so devastating that it's no wonder it's responsible for the bulk of Kershaw's career strikeouts.

But at this point, shockingly little differentiates Kershaw's slider from his fastball. Using Brooks Baseball data, the gaps between the two pitches in terms of velocity, vertical movement and horizontal movement are at all-time lows:

This has typically been a "no harm, no foul" situation, but not in 2018. Out of Kershaw's three primary pitches, only his slider sustained a drop-off in swing-and-miss rate. That's the reason his overall contact rate skyrocketed.

There are bright sides amid all this. The big one is how Kershaw is adapting to his new reality by altering his pitch mix. He was throwing more sliders than fastballs by the end of 2018, and it mostly worked. He finished the regular season with a 2.72 ERA over 18 starts, and the 4.20 ERA he posted in October actually denotes one of his better postseason performances.

Still, it never seemed like a given that Kershaw would opt out of the final two years of his record-setting seven-year, $215 million contract. Perhaps he only would if the Dodgers dared him to do better on the open market.

Instead, they effectively tacked another year onto Kershaw's deal in the form of a three-year, $93 million contract extension. If that didn't look risky before, it does now in a post-shoulder inflammation world.

And yet a finger-wagging hardly seems worth the trouble.

Had the Dodgers opted for, say, Patrick Corbin instead, they would have had to spend a lot more money on a pitcher who hasn't been as good as Kershaw even over the last two seasons.

In that context, their decision to gamble on a once-in-a-lifetime ace having three good years left in him doesn't sound so bad. And should the worst happen, well, a franchise valued by Forbes at $3 billion ought to be able to deal with a $93 million flop.

Kershaw himself, meanwhile, will always those 11 years when he pitched like few others ever have.

                  

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball.

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