Dodgers: Just a Reminder That Clayton Kershaw Is Still an Ace

The demise of Clayton Kershaw’s status as a top-flight pitcher has been of such focus that it’s overshadowing the fact that the Dodgers’ lefty is still an MLB ace.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Clayton Kershaw is no longer the Clayton Kershaw that we saw mow down hitters with ease from 2011-2017. The Dodgers’ longtime ace has no doubt seen a decline since the start of 2018, with diminished fastball velocity, a drop in strikeouts, and an increase in hard contact. But his demise has been a bit overstated, not to mention the lefty still has his elite curveball, slider, command, and IQ.

After another strong start against the Philadelphia Phillies Monday night, Kershaw has allowed just two earned runs over his last two starts (13 innings- 1.38 ERA) with 16 strikeouts. And on the season, he has a 3.00 ERA (140 ERA+), 1.048 WHIP, and 98 strikeouts in 16 starts (105 innings).

Take his name away, and those are impressive numbers- career-bests for many guys. But tag in Clayton Kershaw and they look a lot worse because of the high standard the 31-year-old has set this past decade.

It’s reminiscent of 2015 when he started the first half of the season slow but still made the All-Star team (albeit as an injury replacement). However, he was viewed as an unworthy selection to many fans who thought he got in solely on his name.

But Kershaw had a 2.85 ERA, 1.024 WHIP, 160 strikeouts, and an opponent’s .602 OPS in 123 innings at the break, placing him tenth in the National League in ERA, second in FIP, seventh in WHIP, first in strikeouts, third in innings pitched, and second in fWAR.

His numbers would have been on track to be career-bests for almost every starter that year, which would no doubt have made any other guy with those stats more All-Star-worthy. And perhaps more of an “ace.”

Ahh, the old term, “ace.” It’s been thrown around so much- just like “elite” with quarterbacks- that we forget just how good you have to be to earn that title.

In the big picture, an ace is someone who can lead your starting rotation because of his talent plus track record of excellent run prevention, limiting hits and walks, and getting you innings, while getting elevated for racking up the strikeouts.

Some teams have them, some don’t, and some are fortunate to have two or three of them. The Dodgers’ superstar checks all the boxes there; it’s just that he’s not as good as he’s been at his peak. Thus the stain on his 2019 season.

Remember, this is a guy who had a 2.73 ERA and 1.041 WHIP last year and the world was falling. But it’s as simple as this: a declining Clayton Kershaw is not the same as your ordinary good pitcher declining. At worst, he’s still better than 80-90% of the league.

Among qualified starting pitchers, the southpaw is 11th in ERA, 10th in WHIP, 10th in strikeouts-per-walk, and seventh in walk rate while being 40% better than the average person at limiting runs. And considering there have been at least 526 different pitchers to start on the mound this year, Kershaw has been in the top two percentile.

In fact, the veteran is having a similar, or better, season to that of Chris Sale in 2015 and 2016, David Price in 2014, and Cole Hamels in 2015. Sale had a 3.34 ERA, 1.037 WHIP, and 121 ERA+ in 2015 and 3.41 ERA, 1.088 WHIP, and 114 ERA+ the following season. Price had a 3.26 ERA, 1.079 WHIP and 115 ERA+ in 2014. And Hamels had a 3.64 ERA, 1.181 WHIP, and 106 ERA+ with the Phillies before being traded and posting a 3.66 ERA, 1.195 WHIP, and 116 ERA+ with the Texas Rangers.

But the difference between those three and Kershaw? They were highly-regarded “aces” and the top trade targets from 2014-2016 that required significant assets to acquire. And even this year, Justin Verlander, the American League’s Cy Young-frontrunner, has been somewhat comparable to Kershaw.

So what differentiates these guys from Kershaw then? The strikeouts, innings, and of course the stigma of a decline.

Again, strikeouts really just raise your status in many eyes because they’re “sexy.” Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Roy Halladay (RIP) are all-time greats that were below-average or just about average at missing bats. Kershaw used to be elite at it, but people tend to forget that from 2012-2013, he was about league-average at it. Thus, it shouldn’t be that much of an impediment, considering he’s all about soft contact and keeping it on the ground.

But if you want to penalize the man for his multiple IL stints since 2016, that’s fair. He hasn’t cracked 200 innings since 2015, and that seems unlikely this year because he’s missed four starts. But in the age of bullpenning, the 200-inning workhorses are becoming less and less of a priority-although this year has been an anomaly. And this season, since he’s been healthy, Kershaw has been a workhorse.

His 105 innings come in 16 starts- a 6.56 innings/start mark that is among the best in the game- and he’s gone at least six innings in all of his appearances, with six of them being 7+ innings of two runs or less.

He’s been consistent and gives the bullpen breathers when he takes the mound. At his best, Kershaw’ll dominate and toss a vintage performance that will remind us he’s still got it, while at his worst, leave each game in pole position for the offense to extend a lead or come-from-behind.

Will he be a Cy-Young contender this year? Chances are likely not. In the future? Maybe, maybe not. But does that mean he isn’t an elite starting pitcher who can lead an MLB rotation? Absolutely not.

Clayton Kershaw hasn’t been the best starting pitcher for the Dodgers this year, but he makes them one of the rare teams that can say they have multiple ace-level starters.

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Featured Image via Flickr/Smashdown Sports News

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