Clayton Kershaw is almost unanimously hailed as the best pitcher of our era, and an all-time great who’s certainly headed to Cooperstown. He has been the undisputed ace of the Dodgers almost his entire career, and were it not for his October shortcomings, would be an eminent choice for the best starting pitcher in the franchise’s 135-year history. He has eight consecutive Opening Day starts, with a ninth likely in the bag this year.
With little competition to his status across baseball, let alone on the Dodgers, Kershaw has arguably never needed it to be the best pitcher on the planet this decade. Nonetheless, a healthy dose of it arrived last year in the form of Walker Buehler.
The 24 year old Buehler carried the rotation for much of his rookie season, and has Cy Young Award expectations in 2019. After years at the top, Kershaw’s truncated 2018 season has many whispering talks of decline, and thus losing his spot at the top of the rotation to Buehler. This makes for the first time Kershaw has had an internal challenge to his seemingly undisputed status as the ace.
And by every measure, that’s a good thing.
The Greinke Era
To start, this competition recalls the one he had with Zack Greinke from 2013-2015. While Kershaw’s dominance both preceded Greinke’s arrival and continued after his departure, his most elite work happened with Zack slotted right behind him in the rotation.
In 2015, Kershaw was the first pitcher to reach 300 strikeouts in a season in 13 years, yet wasn’t the undisputed best on the staff in a year where Greinke posted a 1.66 ERA and league-leading WHIP and stranded runner totals. Having someone to challenge his #1 status even nominally brought out the best in him then, and could do so again.
Enter Walker Buehler
Two years after Greinke left for Arizona, Buehler makes for a similar right-handed co-pilot. Yet unlike the famously withdrawn Greinke, Buehler is much more brash. In terms of demeanor and appearance, he makes for a perfect contrast to #22.
Kershaw, now into his thirties, is humble and plain-spoken. Buehler is cocky, youthful and unrepentantly foul-mouthed on air. Kershaw is a family man who married his high school sweetheart and has two adorable kids. Buehler’s countenance, complete with a thin moustache, makes him just look like a cocky upstart. If there’s a mutual feeling of one-upmanship between the two this year, they have the difference in image to accentuate it.
The Koufax / Drysdale Connection
Another satisfying element to the Kershaw/Buehler tandem is its potential to rival that of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the ‘60s. Kershaw and Koufax are routinely mentioned in the same sentence as standalone aces, but Koufax was complemented perfectly by the burly right hander every step of the way. Where the lefty Koufax was reticent and graceful, the righty Drysdale was imposing and unafraid to treat any batter to a little chin music. Kershaw revamping his Sandy-level talents to meet or exceed Buehler would make Los Angeles the team to beat.
Making it count
Where this competition can really make a difference, however, is the postseason. As we know all too well, Kershaw, despite some heroics, has struggled mightily in October. 2018 did nothing to alleviate that narrative, culminating with two dismal outings in the World Series against Boston.
In his first ever postseason, Buehler started with a couple of rough starts, but pitched brilliantly when he absolutely had to in NLCS game seven and game three of the World Series. Some might point out we can’t conclusively judge Buehler’s October mettle on a small sample size, and that is correct. Yet his ability to get better as the stakes increased with each start, something Kershaw hasn’t done yet in many tries, does stand out.
With all this in mind, the question is: how does Kershaw feel about it, and how will he respond? If he has any qualms about Buehler’s threat to his title as team ace, he obviously can’t say it. Yet I think it’s safe to surmise he takes it personally. Recall his barely concealed frustration when Dave Roberts elected to start Hyun-Jin Ryu in game one of the NLDS against Atlanta. Despite the clear logic behind it, he no doubt took it personally.
A reiteration of that scenario could even happen right on Opening Day, as Roberts was strangely non-committal about Kershaw being the starter yet again, something usually never in doubt before the season.
Been wanting to bring this up, I think this is the longest time into camp that Kersh hasn't been named opening day starter…
Still 99% chance he will be, but wondering if Walker can sneak one in. https://t.co/hTiM3aASPE
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) February 15, 2019
Some find it presumptuous to declare Buehler the new Dodgers ace. Given Kershaw was far from bad in 2018, and has a ripe chance to stave off decline like Justin Verlander did, this is true. Yet it’s precisely the fact that the Kentucky kid has so quickly forced that consideration that will ultimately be to Kershaw’s benefit. He now has to prove he hasn’t lost his touch, lest he cede his title as ace (and perhaps more) to Walker Buehler.
If their friendly rivalry yields a World Series championship, just like Koufax and Drysdale, all the better.
[button link=”http://dodgersnation.com/dodgers-dave-roberts-hints-that-clayton-kershaw-will-start-opening-day/2019/02/17/” type=”big” color=”red”] Dodgers: Dave Roberts Hints That Clayton Kershaw Will Start Opening Day[/button]