2012 in brief: Reigning NL Cy Young winner followed up with a season nearly as good despite nagging foot and hip injuries.
2013 status: Signed for $13m ($2m of which is deferred to 2014), if he’s not inked to a long-term deal first.
You know, it’s funny. For part of the season there was this ongoing narrative that Clayton Kershaw was somehow failing to live up to the fantastic 2011 that earned him his first Cy Young Award. A few months later, we’re congratulating Kershaw on a second-place finish in this year’s Cy Young ballot, a contest he easily could have won.
But more on that in a moment. Kershaw pitched just three innings on Opening Day thanks to a severe case of the stomach flu, one bad enough that his fastball topped out at only 91 MPH. The Dodgers won anyway, and his next time out, he was much better, dominating the Pirates over seven innings. Thanks to a non-existent offense that day, he was left with a no-decision, and that spurred me to say this:
Kershaw, by the way, has now pitched 10 innings and has allowed just the one run on six hits, with a 10/1 K/BB. His record remains 0-0, and he’ll end up something like 14-11 with a 1.98 ERA. It’ll be fantastic.
Kershaw didn’t quite hit that unrealistic ERA, but no one else beat his 2.53 mark and his record did end up at 14-9, so yeah: that looks good in retrospect, if still infuriating. Fully recovered from his illness, he cruised through the rest of April, showing a lot in a Jackie Robinson Day start against the Padres where he clearly didn’t have his best stuff yet was effective anyway, and by the end of the month he’d struck out 28 in 30 innings while allowing just six earned runs.
That’s not to say it was entirely smooth sailing for the entire season, because he book-ended six May starts with two where he gave up five earned runs apiece, though some shoddy bullpen work didn’t help there either. The middle four starts were especially outstanding, allowing just four earned runs in 31 innings, with a particular highlight coming on May 19:
Kershaw, pitching in front of a roster that features basically as many Isotopes as Dodgers at this point, took matter into his own hands by allowing just two Cardinals to even reach second in pitching his third career shutout and sixth career complete game. Of the six CG’s, five have come in the last calendar year; it’s the third time he’s gone the distance without allowing a walk. I’d like to go on about his greatness tonight, but Kershaw was so effective, throwing strikes more on more than 70% of his career-high 117 pitches, that it makes any story relatively short – the Cardinals never seriously threatened or even were able to put more than one runner on in any inning. The Dodger ace now has 22 consecutive scoreless innings, pushing his ERA down to a miniscule 1.90.
Kershaw contributed at the plate as well, doubling in the seventh inning – okay, Matt Holliday contributed to that somewhat – and scoring on a Tony Gwynn single, but he wasn’t alone in abusing the Cardinal pitching staff. A.J. Ellis looked very much the part of an All-Star in smashing two of the five Dodger doubles, and Justin Sellers made a bid for more playing time during Dee Gordon‘s hiatus with his first homer of the year, a blast to left off a hanging Jake Westbrook curveball.
The Dodger ace continued to dominate in June – oh, hey, 39/8 K/BB in 34 innings, is that good? – but a small amount of worry popped up as it was reported he’d been suffering a bout of plantar fasciitis. Still, it didn’t seem to bother him too much, because he allowed one earned run or fewer in four out of six games over a span between June 21 & July 18.
Then, on July 24, disaster in St. Louis:
I saw The Dark Knight Rises tonight, so I won’t pretend I saw even a pitch of this 8-2 mess that included Clayton Kershaw allowing eight earned runs in just the fifth and sixth innings alone. Seems that the few hours I spent watching a terrifying tale of the darkest depths of humanity and fear were not the scariest way I could have spent my evening.
If we were worried, we shouldn’t have been. His next time out, he shut out the Giants on five hits – remember, this was the series where Kershaw & Chad Billingsley tossed back-to-back shutouts against San Francisco, one of the high points of the year – and he never looked back. He made 12 more starts after that game in St. Louis, and the stats are just inconceivable: 87.1 IP. 93/25 K/BB. 1.55 ERA, including one start where he allowed more than two earned runs. Considering that’s the run he put up despite the hip injury that marred his September, it’s beyond impressive.
For example, August 15 against the Pirates:
Two of those hits belonged to Clayton Kershaw, and like Chad Billingsley last night, the offensive breakout should not overshadow an excellent pitching performance. For the first few years of his career, we watched the undeniably talented but still raw Kershaw mix high walk totals and pitch counts with strikeout stuff, and dreamed of the day where he’d walk fewer than three guys each time out. This is now the 13th start in his career in which he’s not walked a single man, and it’s amazing to think that greatness is basically expected of him. We don’t praise it as much as we should, I think, but the man has just been fantastic, especially lately. This brings his FIP down to 2.90, which is good for fifth in all of baseball – and just an eyelash behind Justin Verlander & R.A. Dickey, tied for third. Almost makes you laugh to think people were accusing him of not living up to his Cy Young Award, right? He might yet win another.
But then on September 9, as the Dodgers went into Sunday Night Baseball against the Giants looking to avoid a sweep, the worst-case scenario hit: Kershaw was scratched due to soreness in his hip. Without Kershaw, Joe Blanton was unable to fend off the surging Giants, and the Dodgers were never close in the division race again. When he pitched, he was fantastic, allowing only three earned runs in the month, but we were mainly focused on reports that hip surgery could put him out until May 2013.
Kershaw insisted on pitching through it, throwing his best game of the season on September 28 against Colorado, striking out 10 over eight shutout innings – even as we worried that letting him start in the meaningless final game of the season was an unnecessary risk. It didn’t appear to have bothered him, however, and we later found out that though there is damage to the hip, surgery, thankfully, won’t be necessary and he’s expected to be fully healthy to start 2013.
Kershaw’s season actually ended up being so productive that he finished second in the Cy Young voting behind the Dickey narrative, even though there was a good case to be made that he should have won. For a pitcher who had to battle the perception that he wasn’t able to live up to the award in the first place and then through multiple injuries as well, the season can’t be considered anything but a fantastic success.
Oh, and he’s still not even 25 yet. I think this kid might just be a keeper.
Next up! Chris Capuano runs out of steam!