Prime Clayton Kershaw is Back, and It Could Make Dodgers' Juggernaut Invincible

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2019

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw throws during the fourth inning of the team's baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

As it turns out, rumors of Clayton Kershaw's demise were greatly exaggerated.

Yes, he is 31 years old, hasn't eclipsed 200 innings since 2015 and has had various injuries in recent years. But watch your back, 2019 World Series contenders: It appears vintage Kershaw is back, and he might vault the Los Angeles Dodgers from obvious World Series hopefuls to unstoppable juggernaut.

Since the All-Star break, Kershaw has a 1.42 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 38 innings and has held opposing hitters to a .160 average.

After posting a 1.44 ERA in July, he's got a 1.35 ERA in August. On Wednesday, he twirled seven scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins, fanned eight in his first three frames and matched Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax for fifth on the franchise's all-time wins list with 165.

He's been swimming in Koufax-depth waters for a while. Both Dodgers southpaws have three Cy Young Awards and an MVP. Both have eclipsed 2,000 strikeouts.

The biggest difference? Koufax won four rings⁠—in 1955, 1959, 1963 and 1965. Kershaw has won zero. This might be the year that changes.

At 82-44 entering play Monday, the Dodgers have a 100 percent chance to win the National League West, per FanGraphs. They also have an 18.6 percent chance to win the Fall Classic, behind only the Houston Astros (29.7 percent).

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Kershaw doing Kershaw things could tilt that calculus in L.A.'s direction.

Not so long ago, Kershaw was unequivocally the best pitcher in baseball. He's had hiccups in the postseason, but he's authored memorable moments as well.

Here's what he's never done: shepherded the Dodgers to their first title since 1988. If he wants to make that a reality, he's got more than a puncher's chance with this deep supporting cast.

Entering play Monday, Los Angeles led the NL in runs (693) and OPS (.817) and paced baseball with a 3.35 ERA.

Slugger Cody Bellinger (42 HR, .317 AVG, 1.086 OPS) is an MVP candidate. Hyun-Jin Ryu leads both leagues with a 1.64 ERA. Hard-throwing sophomore Walker Buehler is an emerging ace with a 3.31 ERA and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

Beyond that, the Dodgers boast enviable depth with shortstop and 2016 NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, star third baseman Justin Turner, underrated slugger Max Muncy (31 homers and counting) and more.

Their bullpen has been occasionally bumpy, and closer Kenley Jansen owns a career-worst 3.59 ERA. Overall, however, Dodgers relievers rank seventh with a respectable 4.09 ERA.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Then there's Kershaw, reminding us all why he's the preeminent pitcher of his generation, injury concerns aside.

Since 2018, he's had biceps, back and shoulder troubles. That's not ideal for a hurler on the wrong side of 30, to put it mildly.

His average fastball has dipped to 90.5 mph from a career high of 94.4 mph in 2008 and 2009. He's also throwing his fastball 43.0 percent of the time compared to a career average of 58.8 percent, meaning he's leaning more heavily on his slider and curveball.

Yet the results have been there.

"You're always searching for what you were at your peak. You're always thinking, 'Hey, I did it before. I can do it again.' In my head, I still believe that," Kershaw said, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. "But at the same time, that doesn't mean you can't go pitch and be thinking about what you've got."

He doesn't have what he used to have, at least in terms of velocity. But the pitcher who's won a trophy case-straining haul of hardware is alive and well.

"I just see a gentleman that just continues to be impressive with whatever he has," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said, per Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times. "He's always going to be a battler. He's a warrior. I mean, he goes out there and keeps you in the game when he doesn't have his good stuff. If he has his stuff, it's pretty much lights out."

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Clayton Kershaw looks like Clayton Kershaw, or maybe Clayton Kershaw 2.0. He's got a stout supporting cast. Challengers lurk in the NL, such as the upstart Atlanta Braves, and there are powerhouses, including the 'Stros and New York Yankees, in the American League if the Dodgers make it to the World Series.

Above all, this seems like Kershaw's moment to finally hoist a Commissioner's Trophy. And he's throwing like a man who wants to do exactly that.

        

All statistics accurate as of Monday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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