April flowers for Clayton Kershaw
It's just like old times for, yes, the Dodgers' ace
I’m trying not to overload Slayed with baseball coverage, even though it is probably the topic my core audience likes more than any other. Ultimately, I write what I want to write, but I am conscious of serving the non-baseball fans in my audience.
However, The Baseball Sometimes Rings Twice in a weekend, and I can’t help but answer the door. And as you saw most recently when he won his 200th game April 18, the bell never rings louder than when Clayton Kershaw is ringing.
At age 35, in his 15th MLB season, Kershaw completed what might be the best April of his career by throwing seven innings of shutout baseball Saturday while allowing only two hits and no walks in a 1-0 victory for the Dodgers over the St. Louis Cardinals.
For the month, Kershaw has pitched a National League-best 38 innings with a 1.89 ERA, allowing a NL-high 0.76 walks and hits per inning pitched.
Not since 2013 has he had a lower ERA across multiple starts before April 30.
Never has he had a lower WHIP in April while pitching more than 20 innings.
His ballpark-adjusted ERA of 233 is third in the NL, behind the Cubs’ Justin Steele (whom I hadn’t heard of before this year) and rising Atlanta ace Spencer Strider.
Reflected by his Opening Day start this year, Julio Urías ascended to No. 1 status in the Dodger starting rotation, and more likely than not, that’s where he’ll end the year. But this month, Kershaw has been the best pitcher on the team, and it’s not close.
Looking forward, Kershaw is on pace for more than 200 innings this year, but he has spent time on the injured list each of the past seven seasons. As carefully as he is monitored — he hasn’t pitched a complete game since 2017 — there’s no way to prevent the arm and back issues that have plagued him since his 20s.
But is it unthinkable that Kershaw could pull a full season? That any advances in the understanding of his body and just some damn luck could buoy him through 30+ starts and 180+ innings? It’s the most tantalizing baseball thought I hold.
One more thing: Kershaw needs 152 strikeouts to reach 3,000 for his career. If he makes 25 starts over the remaining five months of the season, he would get there by averaging 6.1 strikeouts per start.
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The manager’s conundrum
I want to look at Dodger manager Dave Roberts’ decision to take Kershaw out after seven innings. Though Kershaw was averaging an efficient 12.6 pitches per inning and had thrown at least 100 pitches in two of his previous five starts, Roberts removed Kershaw on Saturday after 88.
“First off, Clayton is always going to say (he can continue), so I think we can put this to bed about every fifth day when I decide to take Clayton Kershaw out of a game,” Roberts said, per the Los Angeles Times. “The stuff started to tick down a little bit. The last few starts, we’ve ridden him. There’s a long way to go. Regardless of the outcome, it was the right decision.”
Another complicating factor is that the Dodgers had only that 1-0 lead, which means they couldn’t afford a single mistake. Therein lay the challenge for Roberts. Who would provide insurance: late-game Kershaw or an iffy bullpen?
I’d argue that neither option was reassuring, and so it made sense to defer to the health side and remove Kershaw. But it illustrates the quicksand that Roberts so often finds himself in. If the Dodgers give up a run, no matter the pitcher, nearly everyone blames Roberts. When the Dodgers hold the lead, nearly no one credits him.
How does a manager win over public opinion under those circumstances? Only by winning the final game in October, and sometimes (as we saw in 2020) not even then.
No doubt my memory is failing me, but I don’t think there’s been a manager truly celebrated for how he handles pitchers since Bruce Bochy of the Giants during his World Series titles of 2010, 2012 and 2014. Even with any other managers, I think I can guarantee that the average will come out to less than one skipper 30.
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