Dodgers 2016 Season Previews: Clayton Kershaw

Oct 4, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) throws his 300th career strikeout in the third inning of the game against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 4, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) throws his 300th career strikeout in the third inning of the game against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

To start off our series previewing individual Dodgers, we’ll take a look at ace Clayton Kershaw.

Clayton Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball for at least the last five seasons. He will be 28 in a couple weeks and could theoretically just be entering his prime, which has to be a terrifying proposition for hitters elsewhere.

2015 recap

Kershaw had a strange 2015 season. Coming off an MVP 2014 campaign, Kershaw struggled (by Kershaw standards) out of the gate. In his first nine starts, Kershaw went 2-3 and allowed 56 hits in 58 1/3 innings. He allowed six home runs in his first nine starts, after allowing nine total homers in 2014. Most stats pointed to everything being normal (2.89 FIP, 2.32 xFIP, 11.26 K/9), but a .342 BABIP and a 20 percent home run-fly ball rate gave Kershaw a 4.32 ERA through nine starts.

Kershaw started that night (May 26) and held the Braves to four hits in seven innings while striking out 10. From May 26 until his final start, Kershaw went 14-4. In those 174 1/3 innings, Kershaw struck out 228 batters, allowed 107 hits, 26 walks and 31 total runs, four of which were unearned. Over his final 24 starts, Kershaw posted a 1.39 ERA, 1.69 FIP and 2.02 xFIP. His home run-fly ball rate normalized and he finished the season with a 2.13 ERA, 1.99 FIP and 2.09 xFIP. He became the first pitcher since 2002 to record over 300 strikeouts, but finished in third place in Cy Young voting behind winner Jake Arrieta and former teammate Zack Greinke.

2016 Role and Steamers projections

Kershaw is the ace of all aces and was named the Dodgers’ opening day starter for the sixth consecutive year. That should surprise no one. For the first time in three years, he’s the only true ace on the team, so there might be a little added pressure. He won’t have Greinke backing him up this year so if Kershaw struggles, the Dodgers won’t have a stopper starting the next game.

However, Steamers doesn’t think that will be the case. Steamers is actually a bit more conservative than ZiPS with their Kershaw projections, but Steamers has Kershaw pegged for a 17-7 record in 32 starts, 266 strikeouts, 44 walks and a 2.09 ERA/2.35 FIP combo and 7.3 WAR, which is the second-highest projected WAR among all players, only behind Mike Trout.

What Could Go Wrong?

With pitchers, injuries are always the worst-case scenario. Kershaw has had a fairly clean injury history throughout his career. He had a start pushed back with a sore hip last season, and missed the first month of 2014 after a sore back following the teams’ trip to Australia. Injuries are seemingly the only thing that could go wrong with Kershaw. There’s no reason to believe he’ll begin to decline at age 28, even with over 1,600 innings under his belt already.

A Kershaw injury would be undoubtably worse this season, as it would leave the Dodgers without an ace. The Dodgers’ rotation is much deeper than it has been in years past, but it’s still important to have the alpha at the head of the pitching staff.

I think it’s time to stop talking about a Kershaw injury. That is truly the darkest timeline. The other worst-case scenario would involve Kershaw’s chemistry with his backstop. He and A.J. Ellis are very close, and Ellis caught 21 of Kershaw’s 33 starts last season. According to J.P. Hoornstra, manager Dave Roberts expects Yasmani Grandal to catch more of Kershaw’s starts this season. It was obviously small sample sizes and an imperfect comparison, but Kershaw fared better last season with Grandal behind the plate (1.62 ERA, 8.54 strikeout/walk rate) than he did with Ellis (2.44 ERA, 6.55 strikeout/walk rate).

Next: Josh Ravin injured in auto accident

What Could Go Right?

To me, the most remarkable aspect of Kershaw’s final 24 starts last season is that it didn’t seem very surprising. He struck out double-digit batters in 11 of those 24 starts and it became routine. As fun as he is to watch pitch, I sort of hate watching him pitch. If he gives up three runs and strikes out fewer than 10 batters, it seems like he had a really off night.

Kershaw’s last five seasons have pretty much gone right. Pitching to an elite pitch framer could somehow increase his strikeout numbers. There’s the overused expression that the sky is the limit, but would anything Kershaw does really surprise anyone? Over 24 starts, he posted a 1.39 ERA. Is it truly unrealistic to think he could do that over eight or nine more starts?

The only aspect in which Kershaw really needs to prove himself is in the postseason. His postseason struggles are wildly overblown, but a ring would go a long way in solidifying his legacy as one of the best pitchers to ever pick up a baseball.