The Dodgers are off to a slow start in 2018, as is their best player, Clayton Kershaw.
Three earned runs in 12 innings are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, that equates to a 2.25 ERA, which is excellent. But for a player of Clayton Kershaw’s caliber, that is a bit disappointing when you see how the results came about.
He has given up nine hits and three walks, coming out to a 1.25 WHIP. That is around average, but he is a guy who religiously has one under one. He is a guy who hardly allows any contact, let alone get hit off. Two players that he has historically owned, Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence, had success against him opening day. Pence actually had multiple hits off the ace.
And the one run he allowed was to left-hander Joe Panik. Then during his second start, he allowed two more home runs, and another one to a left-handed hitter.
Granted, it has only been one game, but, after watching almost every start, his performance seems to have altered his performance a slight bit. One aspect of his game that has undoubtedly declined is his ability to limit home runs. The long ball plagued him last season when he allowed a career-high 23 of them in just 175 innings. His career-high before that was 16 in 227.2 innings.
This is most likely due to the quality of contact he is allowing and the speculated ‘juiced’ baseballs. Compared to ‘peak Kershaw,’ he is allowing harder contact than usual and fewer groundballs. With his increased line drive rate combined with the possibility that the balls may be ‘juiced’, it is a reasonable assumption, however, that some of the home runs are balls that would not be leaving the yard a few seasons ago.
However, if this trend continues, then maybe it will finally be a weakness that we can apply to the 30-year-old’s game.
Another part of his game that has gone a step down is his ability to miss bats. Yes, he is still striking out more than one batter per inning, but to truly see someone’s swing-and-miss ability, strikeout percentage is the better number to use when judging that skill.
His strikeout percentage is “down” to 25.5%, which is still elite. But remember, this is Clayton Kershaw, so we have high expectations. That number is similar to his pre-2015 ones, but it is a bit down from some from his 2015 and 2016 seasons; ones that I believe to be his most dominant.
And he is not putting away batters with the ease that he used to. This has caused his pitch counts to increase, a reason why he is not going into games as deep as he used to, as consistently. His innings-per-game was down to 6.84 last year which is under the 7+ he averaged in five of his six previous seasons.
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It is a subtle decrease, but again, this is Clayton freaking Kershaw, and what makes him so special is how much more dominant he is to his counterparts. He is not a human when he pitches. He makes life hard for the best hitters while absolutely toying with the lesser ones. There is a reason he is considered a generational pitcher and arguably the best of all time.
And ultimately, to the eye test, he does not look as dominant as years past. He is spiking more balls into the ground, missing his spots more often, having a little more of a hard time putting batters away, is letting hitters make more contact than usual, and his fastball velocity is down. Not to mention, he had just one complete game in 2017, and it was not a shutout. We expect at least two to three shutouts a season.
So it would be a fair assumption that he may be declining just a little bit. He may be coming closer to the pack, which is not bad because he would still be one of the best three pitchers in baseball. But his days of absolute dominance may be over. He may be trending down to an average human ace. His back injuries prove that is fair to think so.
To play devil’s advocate to this argument, he has hit 30 years of age and is coming off two back injuries, so it is normal to expect some rust and ‘down production,’ compared to his previous seasons. And, it has only been two starts this season (although his velocity is down). Not to mention, his HR/FB of 27.3% this season is unsustainable, and his 15.3% from last year may be a fluke. Keep in mind his career rate is below 8%.
He deserves the benefit of the doubt; he has earned that much. It would be fairer to judge him if his subtle decline plays up deeper into the season, so we just have to wait and see. But the subtle signs of him becoming a common ace.