The Dark, Existential Reality of Pitching Is Here For Clayton Kershaw. And He's Still Effective
If you want to get really dark and existential about the whole thing, sports are fundamentally just a reminder of death. They’re all physical performance, which is intimately linked to youth, which is really only a warning toward old age. We anxiously count down toward a player’s projected peak, at which point the clock resets, and the process begins again to forecast his decline. It can quickly begin to feel personal, even when it isn’t. Remember when he was a rookie? when you were his age? when we were still younger than some of these guys? when watching didn’t have to be about remembering? An aging player is a living reminder of where he used to be, where he will finish, where we all will finish someday.
There’s no better display for this than pitching. Oh, sure, there are other features of other sports that are more viscerally and punishingly physical, but, for most people, the experience of aging is not going as hard as possible for a relatively brief time before flaming out altogether. For most people, the experience is one of gradual diminuendo, small bargains with yourself. It’s one of feeling fine, feeling invincible, until suddenly, you don’t—suddenly, your back starts to hurt every once in a while; suddenly, you get a hangover after just two beers. You don’t quit, of course. You just make necessary adjustments. (And some people make them better than others.) A pitcher loses velocity. We measure, in excruciating detail, just how much of himself he isn’t. He adjusts—until, finally, one day, there are no more adjustments left for him to make.
Clayton Kershaw is 31. His 2018, by just about any other pitcher’s standards, was excellent. A 2.73 ERA, 142 ERA+, 5.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 161 innings pitched, which, while certainly indicative of some time missed with injury, is still perfectly solid. For the vast majority of active pitchers, this would have been a great season, if not a career one. For Kershaw, though, it was a depressing hint toward getting older. It was his third consecutive season with fewer than 180 IP, the result of a recurring struggle to stay healthy. It was his worst statistical season since he was a 22-year-old in 2010, back when he was simply a promising young pitcher, back before he was Clayton Kershaw. For the first time in eight years, Kershaw didn’t receive a single vote for Cy Young. It was, again, a great season. (2.73 ERA!) It just wasn’t the great expected of Kershaw—seasonal, rather than historical, greatness. It was a different Kershaw. It was an older Kershaw.
It was, then, easy to be concerned about the shoulder soreness that kicked him to the injured list to begin 2019. Maybe this was a new normal. Maybe Kershaw would never again be Kershaw. Maybe it was greedy to ask for anything more—really, how could you, after seven seasons like those seven seasons, 2.10 ERA, 179 ERA+, 207 IP per year (in this era!), the sort of stretch that keeps company only with names like Walter Johnson and Pedro Martinez and Christy Mathewson—and maybe there was nothing more to ask for. This wasn’t the end, of course. But, you might fear, maybe it was the beginning of the end. And isn’t that just as bad?
Kershaw’s first start of 2019, against the Reds on Monday, did not initially look too promising. After starting with an easy groundout, he gave up a single, followed by a home run (to prodigal outfielder Yasiel Puig, no less, in his first time back in Dodger Stadium). It was easy to imagine this first inning as the start of a short night—a bad night—with little to build off of.
It wasn’t. Kershaw pitched seven innings; he did not allow another run, he did not walk a single batter, he gave up only three more hits. He looked older, sure. His fastball sat at 90 mph, and it topped out at 91 mph. That certainly isn’t what it used to be. Maybe it doesn’t have to be, though. Because the curveball? It doesn’t look any different; it still drops in a way that is vicious enough to evoke the terror of falling off a cliff and graceful enough to bring the sweetness of rolling down a hill. Kershaw threw it 18 times in 84 pitches, a higher rate than he ever has in all but a handful of his previous games. It’s an adjustment. It sure looked like a beautiful one, though, and perhaps that’s all you can ask for.