Dodgers: Should Clayton Kershaw’s Start be Concerning?

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 01: Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on May 1, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 01: Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on May 1, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Dodgers are skidding, and it’s coming as a surprise not only to the fans of the team but to the collective nation of baseball fans, as well. Los Angeles is 14-17 and seven games back of the Diamondbacks in the National League West. It’s true that technically April baseball matters, but standings shouldn’t be regarded until around the All-Star break.

With that said, things haven’t gotten any easier for the Dodgers, either, after Corey Seager was forced to the disabled list, and must now undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery, and Hyun-jin Ryu is now out until after the All-Star break. It’s been a calamity of a first month in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers have struggled to hover around .500.

It’s now getting worse because it’s evident Clayton Kershaw isn’t what he once was, and may never be again.

Kershaw first broke into Major League Baseball in 2008 and has been a star of the game ever since. Now, in his age 30 season, Kershaw is seeing setbacks that are mostly unfamiliar to those that have followed him closely throughout his career.

Don’t let what I’m saying be misconstrued. A Clayton Kershaw who is performing at a less-than-expected rate is still one of the best pitchers in baseball, just maybe not the best pitcher in baseball. A second-rate Kershaw is still an ace on most staffs in Major League Baseball. There’s a case to be made for several seasons, but Kershaw’s best year was arguably in 2014, a year in which he won the Cy Young Award, going 21-3 over 27 games started with an ERA of 1.77, a SIERA of 2.04, and 239 strikeouts. Those are incredible numbers, a feat of sheer pitching dominance. But after 2014, and especially post-’15, Kershaw has been declining, not just in terms of ERA or SIERA, or a list of other metrics, but in velocity, movement, and swing and miss inducing ability.

In a Chad Moriyama article for The Athletic, he noted the decrease in Kershaw’s velocity over that span. In 2011, Kershaw’s average fastball velocity was 94 mph, but so far in 2018 has averaged three ticks slower, at 91 mph. This by itself is concerning, but it’s not a death sentence for a pitcher’s career. This is often the trajectory pitchers take as their career progresses. The body ages as time wears on, and it’s no more evident than in sports. But still, on the backside of what’s considered “peak performance” age, it may be time to take note of Kershaw’s moderate struggles.

Kershaw has never been a power pitcher in the classical sense, but a fastball with a higher velocity generally yields better results for a pitcher. When Kershaw is throwing 93 mph or higher on average, batters have significantly less success against him, resulting in a wOBA around .280; whereas when he throws at 90 mph and below, the opposition’s wOBA skyrockets to over .380.

For pitchers whose velocity begins to suffer, that generally means a pitcher will begin to rely more heavily on movement and location. That’s the kind of pitcher Kershaw has always been, so in theory, it shouldn’t be much of a problem. In practice, however, it hasn’t necessarily come easily for the lefty. According to Brooks Baseball, Kershaw’s movement has suffered. For example, his slider, which is one of his most prevalent pitches, has lost an inch of vertical movement, according to Pitchf/x data. Hitters are less frequently swinging at pitches outside the zone, and are beginning to swing more frequently at pitches inside the zone, which means he’s not as deceptive as he once was.

The changes aren’t anything absurd like a 10% decrease/increase (depending on the metric), but they are beginning to change in a way that’s large enough to be concerning. Kershaw’s O-Swing% (opponents’ swing percentage at pitches outside the zone) dropped from 35.4% in 2014 (or even as recently as last year) to 30.7% this year. His Z-Swing% (opponents’ swing percentage at pitches inside the zone) went up from 67.9% in 2014 to 71.4% in 2018. He’s also not eliciting swings and misses as often as he has in the past, getting his SwStr% as high as 15.9% in 2015, but down to 11.7% so far in 2018.

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Because of those metrics, some other stats have suffered because of it. For example, his K/9 is the lowest its been since 2013. During that season, it was 8.85. In 2018, it’s down to 9.82 but got as high as 11.64 in 2015. He also has the highest WHIP since 2012, when it was 1.02. Now, in 2018, it’s up to 1.14. His lowest WHIP was 0.72 in 2016, a year in which he started 21 games. All of these statistical rises and falls are unusual for the big lefty.

Again, don’t be deceived, Kershaw is still one of the very best. Currently, he commands an ERA of 2.86, a SIERA of 3.24, and he’s still one of the more difficult pitchers to face. It’s likely Kershaw will still have a dominant year, but it won’t be like what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. With that said, he’ll likely still be in the Cy Young race, and if the Dodgers are going to make a run at the division, Kershaw will probably be one of the main components moving forward.

Kershaw is still one of the very best pitchers of all-time. He’s arguably the best pitcher in Dodgers history, and perhaps the best lefty to ever take the bump in all of baseball. The devolvement of Kershaw will probably be a slow one, never completely nosediving. It is interesting, however, that Kershaw’s decline has become most evident at the same age Sandy Koufax was, the pitcher he’s most often compared to when he retired due to issues with pain.

Next: Q & A with Dodgers super sub Kyle Farmer

It’s always difficult to watch a great player’s decline, but the hope is that he’ll remain a formidable foe even as his talent regresses. Due to Kershaw’s repertoire and makeup, he’ll probably be able to maintain success into his late 30s. Kershaw might not be the same as he was three or four years ago, and the decline is present, but he’ll likely remain the Dodgers’ ace moving forward.