Since 2011 Clayton Kershaw has finished in the top 5 Cy-Young voting every year, except for 2018. In that 8 year span, Clayton Kershaw has accumulated 3 Cy-Young awards, an MVP, 127 wins, and struck out 1778 batters.
In 2018 he had his lowest totals in wins and strikeouts, and his highest ERA in that period.
Clayton Kershaw’s Perception
The work ethic and determination of Clayton Kershaw is already the stuff of legends. His competitive edge is said to be unmatched. AJ Ellis spoke with Alden Gonzalez at ESPN about Kershaw last year.
“He’s addicted to winning, and he’s going to figure out a way. Even if it means throwing right-handed, he’s going to figure out a way to go out and help his team win. He has too much willpower and is too competitive not to.” -AJ Ellis
Ross Stripling added his thoughts.
“Relentless. No one else can do that. I’d like to think that I could, but there’s days when you just can’t. Like, I show up, and I just don’t have it in me. I’ve never really seen him have a day like that. I’m sure there are days when his kids are just crazy in the morning, got no sleep or whatever, but when he gets to the field, he knows. He kicks it into a gear that nobody else has.” -Ross Stripling
Find the full article, including these quotes here.
Those are just a few of the people who have marveled at Kershaw’s dedication to his craft. Nobody will ever question that. Unfortunately, mother nature never loses a battle.
Age Has Slowed Kershaw Down, At least Literally
I’ve touched on this in a previous article, but take a look at Clayton Kershaw’s average fastball velocity. It has dipped slightly over the years, gone up once, but the 1.7 MPH dip in his fastball average from 2017-2018 is alarming.
Has this dip affected his fastball’s effectiveness? Resoundingly, yes. Here’s “Fastball Wins Above Average.” Regardless of how you feel about sabremetric stats, comparing statistics to themselves always works as a controlled comparison.
From 22.0 in 2016, to -3.4 in 2018. That’s a monumental drop. That drop tells an entire story. Clayton Kershaw’s fastball velocity is a concern.
His slider usage and velocity is also curious. Take a look at his slider usage.
His slider usage has increased from from a 23.1% in 2012 to 41.9% in 2018. This is not in of itself an issue. His slider is a devastating pitch. The velocity on his slider hasn’t moved. It’s been an 88 mph pitch for 4 years. His fastball however, he also threw 41% of the time. When the fastball velocity has ticked down but the slider velocity hasn’t changed, it usually means the slider resembles a cutter. When you’re 4 seam fastball and your slider are only 2 mph different, it will invariably cause issues. The success that Clayton managed to have while throwing an 88 mph slider + 90 mph fastball 82% of the time, is actually kind of miraculous.
Clayton Himself Is Looking to Regain the Velo
In another article on ESPN.com linked here, Dave Roberts and Clayton Kershaw both touched on his offseason goals. One of those goals was definitely his fastball velocity.
“If anyone sets their mind to something that they want to sort of tap back into, it’s Clayton. If you look back at what Clayton did this year, still pretty good. There were a couple of mistakes with the slider, the fastball, but he can still pitch when he needs to pitch. But I do expect an uptick in velocity next year.” -Dave Roberts
Clayton Kershaw likes to avoid specific topics at times, but he didn’t avoid this topic. When the idea of getting his fastball closer to the mid 90’s was presented, Clayton was open.
“I’m not counting that out. It very well could. I have some ideas on maybe what I can do to improve on that, because there’s a lot of guys who are older than me, there’s a lot of guys with more innings in the big leagues, that are still maintaining their velocity. There’s some things for me definitely to look into that; there’s some things for me to work on in the offseason.” -Clayton Kershaw
What Can We Expect?
With all of that said, Clayton Kershaw still put up a good 2018. Hold your tomatoes, the numbers back up the statement. A 2.73 ERA in 161 innings, and a 1.041 WHIP are still well above average. When your name alone carries weight and legend, any performance less than god-like will appear to be poor. Tim McCarver once said in a World Series game, “sometimes you’re penalized by your own ability.”
If Clayton Kershaw can get his average fastball velocity back to even his 2016 average of 93.7, his effectiveness and overall performance would skyrocket back to elite levels. His location should remain top notch based on his dedication. Nobody is expecting or hoping Clayton Kershaw comes back like Justin Verlander, throwing fastballs at 96+ into his twilight years. It’s an unfair expectation, and he doesn’t have to.
If he isn’t able to find an uptick in fastball velocity — Clayton Kershaw can still be upper echelon. This isn’t abstract, it’s been done by many pitchers in MLB history. This hinges on Clayton Kershaw using his slider effectively, and throwing his curveball more. There’s a combination of ways a pitcher can get outs without velocity. Rich Hill throws a diet of high fastballs to complement his curve. Even still, Rich Hill doesn’t have the strikeout slider that Clayton Kershaw has.
The question will never Clayton Kershaw’s work ethic. It will never be his competitive edge, and it will never be the dedication to his craft. The question surrounding what Clayton Kershaw will provide in 2019 is a matter of his ability to adjust to age, his body, and x-factor adjustments.
In a battle of rigidity and adjustment, versus the will to win, Dodger fans know Clayton Kershaw will always choose the will to win.