A different version of Kershaw is still key to Dodgers' success

Los Angeles needs lefty more than ever entering playoffs

October 3rd, 2023

Clayton Kershaw is, inarguably, in the conversation for the greatest pitcher of all time. His 2.48 ERA is the best among all pitchers with at least 1,500 innings pitched in the Live Ball Era (since 1920), as are his 1.00 WHIP and .585 OPS allowed. He’s the only pitcher ever to lead both leagues in ERA in four straight seasons (2011-14), and he’s the only pitcher to lead the AL or NL in ERA in four straight years since fellow Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax from 1962-66. He owns five NL ERA titles, three NL Cy Young Awards, and remains the last pitcher outside of Shohei Ohtani to win MVP (doing so in 2014).

Kershaw also is, inarguably, on the decline. After having seven straight top-five Cy Young finishes from 2011-17, he hasn’t finished higher than eighth since. He threw at least 198 innings in every season from 2010-15, and hasn’t hit the 180 mark since. He has a 3.36 FIP since 2018, which, while still strong, is a far cry from his stellar 2.36 value from 2011-17.

What happens when you take perhaps the most dominant pitcher in the history of the sport down by a notch? You still have one of the best pitchers in the current game -- and the Dodgers' likely NLDS Game 1 starter -- who is perhaps the biggest key to Los Angeles' chances of earning its second World Series title this decade.

An extremely graceful decline

When you’re at the top of the world, the only direction to go is down. But Kershaw really hasn’t fallen as far as you might think. His past performance set an incredibly high bar, but if we evaluate the Kershaw of the past several years in a nutshell, without holding him to the impossible standards of his prime, we find ourselves with a pitcher as good as almost any in the world.

Let’s start with a cutoff point of 2018, convenient because he turned 30 just before that season started, and because that was the season that snapped his aforementioned top-five Cy Young finish streak. Since the start of the 2018 season, among 101 pitchers with at least 500 innings, here’s the ERA leaderboard:

  • Jacob deGrom: 2.08
  • Justin Verlander: 2.51
  • Clayton Kershaw: 2.77
  • Max Scherzer: 2.84

That’s some excellent company. Using the same parameters, Kershaw ranks fifth with a 1.01 WHIP, trailing only deGrom, Verlander, Scherzer and Gerrit Cole. And with 18.3 WAR (via Baseball Reference), despite missing time with various injuries, he still ranks a very respectable 11th among all pitchers since 2018.

If we take a more historical lens, Kershaw’s recent years still rank among the best of the best. In the Live Ball Era, there have been 392 pitchers to throw at least 750 innings from their age-30 through age-35 seasons (which, for Kershaw, are the 2018-23 seasons). Among that group of 392, Kershaw ranks seventh with a 149 ERA+, trailing only Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Greg Maddux, Lefty Grove, Roger Clemens and Scherzer. (ERA+ was used here to give a more fair comparison across different eras, as rules have changed over time.) His 1.01 WHIP ranks second among the same group of 392, behind only Scherzer.

What if we look at this season specifically, rather than the past several years for Kershaw? In some ways, the 2023 season has indeed seen Kershaw regress. His 4.03 FIP is his worst since his rookie season of 2008 (4.08), while his 1.3 HR/9 IP is the second-highest total of his career (1.4 in 2019). His WHIP, BB/9 IP, and K/BB numbers are all his worst since 2010. And on the analytics side, his expected wOBA (.302) is his worst total in the Statcast era (since 2015), as are his 9.0% barrel rate and 39.1% hard-hit rate.

But again, when we compare Kershaw to his peers rather than to the Kershaw of the past, the results are still largely positive. His 2.46 ERA this season ranks second among 127 pitchers with at least 100 innings, trailing only NL Cy Young favorite Blake Snell. His 1.06 WHIP ranks tied for sixth among the same 127 pitchers. And there’s no pitcher in baseball with at least as many bWAR as Kershaw’s 3.7 to have done it in fewer innings than his 131 2/3.

How is he staying at this level?

A predictable byproduct of Kershaw’s aging has been a drop-off in his fastball velocity. While his M.O. was never necessarily to blow by batters with sheer power even in his prime, he had an average four-seamer velocity of 95.0 mph as a rookie, and it was as high as 94.3 mph as recently as 2015. But that has gradually declined year-by-year, to the point where it’s at 90.7 this season -- tied for the seventh-lowest among 152 pitchers to throw at least 500 four-seamers. Consequently, his performance on four-seamers has dropped, as his .281 batting average and .451 slugging percentage allowed are both the worst of any of his pitch types in 2023. (It’s also worth noting that his four-seamer velocity has dipped even further since returning from an IL stint in August, with an average speed of 89.4 mph in eight starts since then).

The solution? An increased reliance on the filthy stuff. While Kershaw has done some experimenting with a “split-change” this season, he still predominantly uses the same three-pitch combo he has throughout the majority of his career, as four-seamers, sliders and curveballs have accounted for all but 45 of his pitches in 2023. But it’s how he utilizes those three pitches that have allowed him to continue to excel.

As a rookie in 2008, Kershaw threw a four-seamer on 71.5% of his pitches, as the slider wasn’t part of his repertoire yet (0.4%). By 2011, the time of his first Cy Young Award, his slider usage had jumped to 25.9%, still far off his four-seamer usage of 65.3%. But the following chart shows just how sharply Kershaw’s pitch allocation has changed in recent years (note that his curveball usage has hovered in the 14-18% range for most of the past decade).

  • 2015: 53.5% four-seamers, 27.9% sliders
  • 2017: 46.4% four-seamers, 34.7% sliders
  • 2020: 40.8% four-seamers, 40.2% sliders
  • 2023: 36.9% four-seamers, 43.4% sliders

It doesn’t take an advanced degree to diagnose the trend there. And Kershaw’s slider usage isn’t just noteworthy when we compare it to his own past. Among 110 pitchers with at least 1,500 pitches thrown this season, Kershaw’s 43.4% slider usage rate is the second-highest, trailing only Anthony DeSclafani.

The good news for Kershaw is that an increase in usage has not brought along a decrease in efficiency. His slider is still arguably as good as it’s ever been, as his .167 batting average allowed on such pitches is his lowest since 2016 (.138). And if we consider all breaking pitches rather than just sliders, Kershaw’s “Run Value” -- a Statcast metric that estimates the run impact of any given pitch based on the runners on base, outs, ball and strike count -- is a stellar +21, fifth-highest in MLB this season.

Why he’s needed more than ever

Kershaw’s prowess isn’t just impressive for an older player. It’s also necessary for this Dodgers team.

While Los Angeles has its usual embarrassment of riches on the offensive side, the starting rotation, which was supposed to be a strength entering the year, has not been so lucky. Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May are all out for the year due to injury, Julio Urías is on administrative leave and offseason acquisition Noah Syndergaard was shipped to Cleveland in July. Deadline acquisition Lance Lynn is healthy, but has allowed 15 homers in 10 starts as a Dodger, and an MLB-high 43 for the entire season.

Add it all up, and Kershaw and 24-year-old rookie Bobby Miller are the only pitchers clearly ticketed for a start in the NL Division Series. As such, even though Kershaw hasn’t pitched more than five innings in a game since returning from the IL in August, Los Angeles is relying on him more than ever in a different way: being the steady hand in a starting rotation that has been anything but.

The Dodgers have impressively wrapped up a first-round bye, with yet another 100-win season, despite this rotation instability. But history suggests that Los Angeles still has an uphill battle. Every World Series champion has had at least one pitcher with 25 or more starts and 150-plus innings, with the exception of the COVID-shortened 2020 season (which, coincidentally, was won by Kershaw’s Dodgers).

As a matter of fact, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau, there has never been a team in a 162-game season to even finish with a .500 record despite having no players with 25 starts, nor has there ever been such a team without a player to pitch 150 innings. This year’s Dodgers will not have a player to meet either threshold, as Kershaw leads the team in both starts (24) and innings (131 2/3).

Consequently, it would not be a stretch to call it unprecedented if a team with a pitching staff as worn down as the 2023 Dodgers managed to go all the way. But doing the unprecedented has been Kershaw’s bread and butter throughout his career, ranging from his Triple Crown season in 2011 all the way up to nearly leading MLB in ERA as a 35-year-old. And if the 16-year veteran can be at his best when the lights are brightest, the Dodgers have as good a chance as anybody to make it back to the pinnacle of the sport.