Clayton Kershaw’s Scoreless Spring Has Some Dreaming Of A Championship

21 1/3 innings.

0 earned runs.

23 strikeouts.

Only 12 hits and 4 walks allowed for a WHIP of 0.75 over the course of spring training.

Often times, Clayton Kershaw will use his spring starts as a time to experiment with different pitches, different grips, different locations.  The changeup, a pitch that Kershaw has had a love-hate relationship with over the years, but mostly hate, is a pitch that seems to make more appearances during the spring as number 22 looks for any method he can to develop even more of an edge against opponents than he already has.

A 2.36 career earned run average and a career WHIP that settled at exactly 1.00 at the end of last season shows that runs, hits and walks are not things that Kershaw gives up in tremendous amounts to begin with.  And after last season, a year in which Kershaw finished with a 2.31 ERA, still a tick below his career average but the highest number he has posted since the 2012 season when he posted a 2.53 ERA the year after winning the pitching triple crown (lowest ERA, most wins and most strikeouts,) it appears that there is no experimentation going on this spring.

Kershaw gave up a career-high 23 home runs during the 2017 season.  A pesky back didn’t help matters.  An overall spectacular season by most pitcher’s standards: a league-leading 18 wins, 202 strikeouts in 175 innings against only 30 walks, and that 2.31 ERA (which, while his worst in several seasons, still led the National League,) seemed very un-Kershaw-like to those who are used to his usual brand of excellence.  So it goes without saying that Spring Training 2018 was all about focusing on making what he already has in his arsenal better, as opposed to trying to develop what he doesn’t.

What Clayton Kershaw has is very, very good.  A fastball that usually clocks in around 93 miles an hour and tops out around 95 that he can throw to all parts of the strike zone.  A hard slider that comes across about 5 MPH slower and dances on, off and around the corners, freezing hitters at times, and having them swing through empty space at others.  Nothing tells you Clayton Kershaw’s slider is working better than a hitter walking back to the dugout with a look on his face that says he didn’t see that pitch coming or going.  And then of course is the curveball.  There are few sights in baseball prettier than Clayton Kershaw breaking off his curveball at a crucial moment.  It’s so beautiful that fans have made entire videos dedicated to nothing but Kershaw curveballs.  Like this one by Sporting Videos:

It could be argued that Kershaw’s off-speed pitches are so good that mixing in a changeup more than on rare occasion just to see if a hitter is paying attention isn’t necessary, and that Kershaw developing a quality changeup might not be fair to opposing hitters.

Of course, that changeup, when it does show up, is an enigma.  Eno Sarris dedicated an entire blog entry to the Kershaw changeup that showed up multiple times (as in more than twice!) on Opening Day last year against the Padres.  And we’re still not sure, after reading Mr. Sarris’s blog, if it was really a changeup we saw, or if Kershaw decided, with the score run up a little, to experiment with another pitch we rarely see from him: a two-seam fastball with less velocity and more break.

But where 2017 Kershaw experimented a little and wound up dealing with back issues and a high rate of home runs allowed, 2018 Kershaw seems to have settled in on working on what he knows works, making it better, and getting guys out.  There usually is an outing or two during the spring where Kershaw gives up a few runs experimenting with different grips, different locations, different pitches.  Trial-and-error.  Not so this spring.  2018 Kershaw seems to be focused on repeating his delivery and getting outs while working to put as little strain as possible on his back for the long season ahead.

Which leads to the question: is this the year that Clayton Kershaw finally puts together the perfect season?

A lot of fingers were pointed as to why the Dodgers lost the 2017 World Series in 7 games.  Yu Darvish faltered in his two starts.  The offense never got off the ground in Game 7.  The bullpen didn’t do its job in Game 2.  But Kershaw critics tend to look past all that and look squarely at Game 5.  It doesn’t matter that Clayton Kershaw was brilliant in Game 1, or that he stopped the bleeding and pitched several strong shutout innings in Game 7 to give the Dodgers a chance to come back.  No, people look at a 4-0 lead in Game 4 that was wiped out when Clayton Kershaw suddenly couldn’t keep runners off base or miss bats the way that fans believe that he needed to.  It didn’t matter that the Dodgers continuously regained the lead throughout the night and that the bullpen couldn’t keep the Astros off the board, either, or that from an offensive standpoint Game 5 was an absolute classic.  Kershaw critics point at that single bad Kershaw outing and say “see?  He chokes in the post season.  He can’t get the job done.”

Clayton Kershaw will tell you that his main focus is to win baseball games, that he goes out every night giving his team the best chance to win.  He’s an unapproachable beast on the field.  He hates coming out of games.  A late-season game in 2015 comes to mind.  Don Mattingly, who had already arguably lost the locker room, came out with two runners on and two out in the top of the 9th to take the ball from Kershaw and Kershaw essentially barked him back into the dugout, then retired the final hitter to complete the shutout.  But he will also heap praise on his teammates, crediting their efforts moreso than his own for winning games, while shouldering the blame for losses even when it hardly seems fair for him to do so.

It seems like the 2018 version of Clayton Kershaw doesn’t just want to not lose.

The way he’s come out and settled in, it doesn’t look like the 2018 version of Clayton Kershaw wants to give up so much as a single run.

At Age 30, Clayton Kershaw has 144 wins and likely will pass both 150 and 160 this season if his usual excellence holds up.  Even a trip to the Disabled List that held him to 175 inning and a balky back that at times affected his delivery to the plate didn’t prevent him from leading the league with 18 wins in 2017.  His 2,118 career strikeouts rank 68th all time and it seems feasible that, health permitting, he will surpass Rube Waddell‘s 2,316 carrer K’s to reach 50th all-time, and Bert Blyleven‘s 3,701 total strikeouts that rank 5th all time doesn’t look entirely out of reach.  His 2.36 career ERA is easily the best among active pitchers and ranks 23rd all time per Baseball Almanac (the 22 ahead of him all pitched in the Dead Ball era with the exception of Mariano Rivera, who almost his entire career as a closer.)

But after tasting the thrill of playing in a World Series last season, it would seem that none of those remarkable numbers matter so much to Kershaw as it would to finally reach the pinnacle and hoist a championship trophy.

The way that Clayton Kershaw has pitched this spring, it appears he is a man on a mission.  If he has his way, there will be no post-season blow-ups this year, and the Dodgers will finally have the victory parade through Los Angeles that fans have been waiting 30 years to see.


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