ANAHEIM, Calif. — It was late, the score was tied, the Angels were threatening and the Dodgers — losers of three straight and 18 of their previous 30, uncommonly hampered by a shorthanded rotation and an unreliable bullpen — needed their enduring ace to bail them out again. Clayton Kershaw centered his thoughts on a simple message.
Next pitch. Next pitch. Next pitch.
Kershaw has built a Hall of Fame career, a legacy, out of ignoring context and channeling his energy on the task directly in front of him. Out of focusing solely on “next pitch,” whatever that represents at a given time, again and again. On this Tuesday night, in the seventh inning of a scoreless game from Angel Stadium, he stacked enough of those pitches together to escape a two-on, none-out jam, leading his Dodgers to another much-needed victory and leaving his teammates in awe once more.
“He just continues to do it year in and year out,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “It’s absolutely incredible. And when we needed him the most, he did it again. He’s been doing that for the Los Angeles Dodgers since 2008, and we needed him 15 years later to do it again.”
The Dodgers, perhaps, have never needed Kershaw more. A franchise that boasted MLB’s lowest ERA each of the past four years — and provided three of the seven best adjusted-ERA seasons in baseball history during that stretch — possess a 4.50 ERA despite allowing only two runs over the last three games, the highest in the Dodgers’ 66-year history in Los Angeles. Their bullpen has a higher ERA than all but three last-place teams; the rotation is without Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, Dustin May and Noah Syndergaard, the latter of whom has pitched to a 7.16 ERA in 55⅓ innings.
Key high-leverage relievers have struggled and developing starting-pitching prospects have been counted on more heavily than expected. Kershaw has acted as one of few constants, making every start while trending toward his 10th All-Star Game.
“He’s the only one standing from Opening Day,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, referencing a rotation that has seen four-fifths of its initial members land on the injured list. “For him to obviously realize that but accept the responsibility, but not add pressure to himself — it’s a skill that’s certainly been tested and learned. The way he goes about things, man, he’s so consistent. I just can’t imagine where we’d be without him.”
Kershaw’s seven scoreless innings against the Angels dropped his ERA to 2.72, a mark topped by only six qualified pitchers. It represented the sixth time he had recorded 21 outs this season. The rest of the Dodgers’ staff has combined for only three such outings. He’s 35, midway through his 16th season with a franchise that has turned over multiple times since he started, and yet he’s anchoring a staff that is barely hanging on around him.
“This is what we’re supposed to do,” Kershaw said. “This is what I get paid to do is to pitch, and to pitch every fifth day or sixth day or whatever it is. Those years in the past I feel like are aberrations. This is what it’s supposed to look like is to be healthy and pitch.”
It has been eight years since Kershaw made at least 30 starts and accumulated at least 180 innings in a regular season. In the time since, from 2016 to 2022, he made 10 trips to the IL, half of them related to his back, and slowly realized changes were necessary. To persist, one of the most famously intense, routine-oriented pitchers in recent memory needed to alter and reduce his workload between starts. It wasn’t easy.
“I’m not one who sits passively well,” Kershaw said. “I’m not one that’s just like, ‘Go take an off-day.’ I’m not good at that.”
Over these past couple of years, though, Kershaw has begun to throw fewer pitches in his bullpen sessions and throw less weight around in his workouts. Under the guidance of the Dodgers’ training staff, he has also focused on creating more range of motion with his hips to take pressure off his troublesome back. Kershaw said his hips are “moving better than they have in a long time.”
“When you land you have to be able to hold the load in your leg, and when you push off you have to be able to push off well,” he explained. “And if you don’t do either of those things well, it creeps up to your back. Being able to accept the load to the ground, being able to push off well, and then being able to reset it in-between starts, being able to reinforce it with your workouts — all those things I probably was stubborn, like, ‘I’m not going to change anything.’ And then over time, as you get hurt more, you start listening more.”
Kershaw’s fastball is averaging 91.2 mph, his highest since 2017 if you ignore the COVID-19-shortened season of 2020. But the increase is nonetheless marginal. At a time when triple-digit radar-gun readings are commonplace, Kershaw excels by mastering the basics, such as getting ahead in counts (his 68.8% first-pitch strike percentage ranks fifth this season), commanding glove side (opposing right-handed hitters are slashing just .236/.281/.398 against him) and tunneling his slider and curveball perfectly with his fastball (he has recorded a major league-leading 83 strikeouts on breaking balls).
Kershaw established himself as the dominant pitcher of his era from 2011 to ’19, during which he won three Cy Young Awards and an MVP and accumulated 54.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement, more than anybody not named Mike Trout. His demise since has been greatly exaggerated. Among pitchers who have logged at least 350 innings since 2020, Kershaw ranks third in ERA (2.75), first in WHIP (0.99) and first in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.95). In short: When he steps onto the mound, he remains one of the best in the world.
The prevailing question is: When will he step off it for good?
Kershaw has signed back-to-back one-year contracts and is committed to going year-to-year for what remains of his career. He hates the attention that comes with it but has found it necessary to reassess after every season and weigh the opinions of his wife and his children. The 2024 season, therefore, is not promised, no matter what his numbers look like by the end of 2023. And as soon as his production begins to slip, Kershaw is adamant that he’ll walk away.
“Yeah,” he said, “I don’t want to be average.”