Clayton Kershaw Is Back, and He's Still Really Good
They say a herniated disc in your back is painful. I've never been afflicted with that particular ailment, but as I turn 40 this month and, on more than one occasion recently, I have rolled out of bed with some kind of pain my lower back simply from sleeping.
I assume it's basically the same thing, right?
Clayton Kershaw knows my pain. The best pitcher of his generation missed more than two months of action as he dealt with a herniated disc. It was assumed the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have had enough pitching injuries this year to blot out the sun, would struggle in his absence. Because baseball is baseball, they somehow managed to overtake the San Francisco Giants in the National League West while there ace was on the shelf.
Well, Kershaw is back, and it appears as if he hasn't missed a beat.
On His Game
Were it not for two rain delays that added up to about an hour, Kershaw may have had one of his very special outings in his second start back from the disabled list. He was masterful against the New York Yankees in the Bronx, giving up just one hit and no walks with five strikeouts in five innings, helping the Dodgers to a 2-0 victory. The win increased their lead in the NL West to five games.
Kershaw was perfect through his first four innings, and one can be sure manager Dave Roberts, who removed the oft-injured Rich Hill in the middle of a perfect game last week, was having nightmares of having to repeat that decision. Instead, the raindrops got him off the hook.
In fact, it was kind of surprising Kershaw went back out after the second delay, which lasted about 45 minutes.
It was the star southpaw's second start since returning from the disabled list and this was even better than his first start against the Miami Marlins. In that one, he went three innings and gave up two runs on five hits and one walk with five strikeouts.
Kershaw must have needed one outing to shake off some rust, because he was back to his filthy self against New York. He averaged 93.4 miles per hour (MPH) on his fastball against the Yankees, right in line with his season average (93.0 MPH), and he threw his curveball and slider frequently, proving his back was just fine.
He now has a 1.81 ERA and 1.70 FIP, striking out 10.81 batters per nine innings while walking 0.63 per nine. In 129 innings, he has struck out 155 humans and walked 9.
Again -- that's 155 strikeouts and 9 walks. No pitcher in Major League history has ever reached 150 or more strikeouts in a season while walking less than 10.
A Cy of Relief
Kershaw's return to form makes the Dodgers an even more dangerous team heading into October, but does it also put him back at the top of the NL Cy Young discussion?
He has made just 17 starts and does not currently have enough innings to qualify for the NL ERA title. And yet he's still tied for 2nd in fWAR (5.7), per Fangraphs, with Miami's Jose Fernandez, trailing only New York's Noah Syndergaard (6.2). In terms of Baseball Reference's WAR (rWAR), he's a bit further behind with a mark of 4.6 rWAR, which is tied for 4th with three other starters. He is behind Tanner Roark (4.7), Syndergaard (5.1) and Max Scherzer (5.9) in that metric. According to Baseball Prospectus' version of WAR, known as WARP, he is at 5.2, 5th in the National League.
Among pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched this year, Kershaw has the best ERA and FIP, and he has allowed the lowest opponents' OPS (.491). The next closest starter is Jake Arrieta (.561), and it isn't even close. Kershaw's strikeout-to-walk ratio is an insane 17.22 strikeouts per walk, dwarfing baseball's next closest hurler, Rick Porcello, at 5.76. That 17.22 strikeout-to-walk rate would shatter the record set in 2014 by Phil Hughes (11.63).
Kershaw probably has another four starts to help him catch up in WAR, and his reputation will help make him a candidate. There is an excellent argument to be made that he should be the Cy Young winner, even though he missed more than two months of the season.
Whether he wins the Cy Young or not, Kershaw's return to the mound has both electrified the Dodgers and made them even more dangerous come October. Not only was Los Angeles able to keep their heads above water during his absence, but the boys in blue actually thrived thanks to a red-hot offense. The Dodgers' 107 wRC+ over the second half is tied for the second-best mark in baseball while their bullpen SIERA of 3.45 is the sixth-best mark in the second half.
The rotation was the Dodgers' only soft spot. They already got Rich Hill and his 29.3% strikeout rate back off the disabled list, and now they can send out one of the best pitchers in the history of the game every fifth day.
That should make the rest of the National League -- even the vaunted Chicago Cubs -- terrified of the Dodgers.