2013 in brief: All of the awesome. All of it.
2014 status: PLEASE SIGN THIS MAN TO A CONTRACT.
We started off the calendar year by dreaming about how many dollars Clayton Kershaw would get; by the end of March, it seemed that a long-term deal was potentially imminent. It didn’t happen, and it still hasn’t happened, and while we’ll certainly get back to that, he managed to do a great job keeping our attention on the field, not off.
Like, immediately. I know that the 2013 season was full of insanity for the Dodgers, and I know that between brawls and Yasiel Puig and everything else there’s probably about 15 different games that might have been considered “game of the year”. For my money, I’m not sure any of them tops what happened on Opening Day, with the defending champion Giants in town, with the most anticipated season of Dodger baseball in years ready to kick off. Before the injuries, before Puig, before the lows and the highs, there was Kershaw throwing darts… and not being supported by his offense, being tied 0-0 in the bottom of the eighth. (This is going to be a recurring theme.)
Kershaw stepped up against reliever George Kontos, swung at the first pitch… and absolutely destroyed a ball to center field — nothing cheap about it. It was the first time a Dodger pitcher had hit a homer on Opening Day since Don Drysdale in 1965, and it set the town for what would be a fantastic season, as you can see from the reaction:
Five days later, Kershaw tossed seven shutout innings against the Pirates, which he needed since the team only scored once for him. In two starts, he’d thrown 16 shutout innings, with a 16/1 K/BB, and even that one walk was immediately taken care of via pickoff.
Of course, even the immortal Kershaw isn’t perfect, because he was merely very good rather than elite over his next three starts as he struggled with his command somewhat. Then again, there were also starts like the one he had on April 28:
Kershaw struck out 12 hitters for the fifth time in his career (including his career-high of 13, back in 2009), and did so without a single walk. That 12/0 combination is something he’s done just once before, in 2010 against the Cubs. Only one Brewer reached third base, and at one point Kershaw retired 18 consecutive batters. For any other pitcher, this would be a phenomenal achievement. For Kershaw, it’s almost par for the course. He’s. Just. That. Good.
As team began to spiral early in the season, Kershaw continued to excel. In a span of six starts between April 23 and May 20, he allowed five earned runs, striking out 42 against only 10 walks, including striking out 11 Nationals over 8.2 shutout innings on May 14 and tossing a complete game in Milwaukee on May 20. When he had a tough start in St. Louis on May 26, we realized that it was the first time he’d allowed more than three earned runs since the previous July.
But it was just a bump in the road, really, because Kershaw was just dominant everywhere. At home, his OPS against was .525; on the road, it was .517. At home, his ERA was 1.54; on the road, it was 2.14. The worst ERA he had in any single month of the season was in June… at just 2.65. I’d like to say that we’re fully aware of the greatness we’re seeing, but no, I don’t think we are.
On July 2, he went into Colorado and pitched a complete game shutout, finally pulling the Dodgers out of the NL West basement. Then it was eight one-run innings in San Francisco, and 10 strikeouts at home against Colorado, and even though his July ended with a great pitching duel against Hiroki Kuroda that the team was unable to pull out, it was one of the best months a pitcher could possibly have — in 47 innings, he’d allowed seven earned runs with a 43/2 K/BB.
Yet despite his greatness, we were starting to worry that the lack of offensive support my cost him the recognition he deserved. For example, on August 6, after the team’s road winning streak was broken in St. Louis:
Kershaw was fine up until the fifth inning when he let two score on three hits and a groundout, but ultimately allowed two runs or fewer for the 18th time in 24 starts. He has just 10 wins in those 18, and those are actually his only 10 wins on the season against seven losses. That’s what happens when you get the fifth-lowest run support of any starter, as he did entering today, and I’m only even mentioning his 10-8 mark because we’ll need to remember it when he doesn’t win what really ought to be a third straight Cy Young award.
Dee Gordon struck out for the second out — more on him in a second, obviously — and up stepped Kershaw, as we all prepared our “how to turn two on, none out into zero runs in three easy steps” jokes. Kershaw, perhaps mindful of how little support his team has given him lately, took matters into his own hands with a smashed single through the right side, plating two. Carl Crawford singled through Ryan Roberts, then Kershaw came around when Mark Ellis doubled to deep left (one of his three hits, including a homer), and that was more than the mighty Kershaw would need. (He would score again in the fourth after reaching on a failed fielder’s choice, then coming around on an Adrian Gonzalez double.)
Of course, Kershaw gets paid for what he does on the mound, and he was once again magnificent in allowing just three hits and two runs (one earned) over eight. Kershaw didn’t even allow a hit until the fifth, and had his defense not failed him with four errors behind him, he might well have completed it himself. Each of the first two Rays to reach via error were immediately erased via double play, and he managed to drop his already spectacular ERA to 1.88. Pay this man all of the money, please.
By the middle of August, he was pitching so unbelievably well that we were seriously having conversations about him potentially winning the MVP:
It seems the conditions are there for Kershaw, the best player on the best team in the league, to do something rare. But if we’re going to ding other guys for stats I don’t care about, we have to do it for Kershaw, too. He’s not going to win 24 games like Clemens & Verlander did. He’s not going to win 20, either; with something like ~eight starts remaining, he could top out at 16 or 17. That’s enough to win him the Cy Young, because Harvey & Wainwright aren’t especially likely to do a whole lot better, but it’s going to make it hard to convince the “pitchers shouldn’t win MVP” crowd, no matter how much we talk about how little wins matter for pitchers.
So can Kershaw win the MVP? Sure, and I think he’ll probably get a few first-place ballots. Unfortunately, he’s probably not likely to win it, and I can’t really argue with that; if I had a vote, I’d probably go McCutchen. But the fact that we’re even having this conversation shows just how special this season has been for him.
It didn’t help that he then went out and had a mini-slump, allowing five earned runs in Colorado on September 2, then really not looking good at all in Cincinnati on September 8. But with the benefit of some extra rest, he allowed two earned runs over his final three starts of the season. (Again, losing one.) Before the final one was even over, with the team on its way to crushing Colorado 11-0 , we had to praise him once more:
That lowers Kershaw’s ERA to 1.83, the first pitcher to finish below 2 since Roger Clemens in 2005 and just the 19th such season since the mound was lowered in 1969. He’s the first pitcher to lead the bigs in ERA for three seasons in a row since Greg Maddux did so between 1993-95, and just the third overall. (Lefty Grove did it four years in a row, between 1929-1932.) He joins Sandy Koufax as the only Los Angeles Dodger pitcher with a sub-2 ERA; along with Koufax and long-forgotten Nap Rucker, he’s one of just three Dodgers with five straight sub-3 ERA seasons.
In 33 starts this year, Kershaw allowed zero or one earned runs a shocking 19 times, and two runs or fewer 25 times. Between pitching and batting — you remember the homer against San Francisco on Opening Day, right? — he’s been worth about seven wins, which makes him one of the five or so best players in baseball, and he’s not even playing every day.
Kershaw started twice against Atlanta in the NLDS, coming back on short rest for Game 4, striking out 18 in 14 innings while allowing just one earned run. He also made this Braves fan sadly shake his head in awe:
He was outstanding in Game 2 of the NLCS also, though the Dodgers still lost, with Don Mattingly controversially lifting Kershaw after only six innings and 72 pitches, and… well, the less said about Game 6 the better. The stat line is ugly, even accounting for the fact that many of those 10 hits were well-placed grounders or bloops; Kershaw didn’t have it, and even if he did, the offense only had two hits against Michael Wacha.
Still, a disappointing end to the season should in no way color what is, with no hyperbole, one of the greatest pitching seasons of all time. Kershaw easily won his second Cy Young, taking all but one first-place vote, and in case you haven’t noticed yet, he’s still not even 26. He’s the best pitcher in baseball. He’s completely living up to the absolutely unfair Sandy Koufax comparisons that were placed upon him. And until he’s signed to a long-term deal, none of us are going to be able to sleep easily.
Next! Aww, poor Chad Billingsley!