After a historic four-year stretch in which he won 3 Cy Young Awards, an MVP, and turned himself into the best pitcher of his generation, Clayton Kershaw entered 2015 leading a loaded Dodgers team and in search of extending this unprecedented peak. Even as pitcher wins no longer carry the weight they used to, they still represent a good milestone tracker when it comes to big round numbers. With 98 wins entering the season, Kershaw was supposed to quickly get 100 out of the way in his way to another huge year. Instead, we are in the middle of May and the lefty ace is stuck at 99, looking mostly mortal in his outings.
To wit, Kershaw has started 7 games in 2015, but only has a 1-2 record and 4.26 ERA to show for his work. The Dodgers are a combined 3-4 in the games he's started, while the team has managed to go 18-6 in all of their other games, which include a large number of spot starts and less-than-ideal pitchers following the barrage of injuries to the rotation. After allowing a grand total of 39 earned runs in 27 starts in 2014, Kershaw is at 21 in his 7 outings in 2015.
Making matters worse, he has had four starts against lineups in the bottom half of the league in terms of offensive production, as he's failed to beat the Giants in two occasions, while also struggling against the Padres and Brewers. His walk rate has climbed above 2 per 9 innings, and Baseball Reference has him listed at -0.2 WAR, which is a far cry from the 7+ he was projected to have in preseason systems.
So, that's all that gone wrong in a nutshell. But if we take a deeper look, has Kershaw really been this middling? Is there something to worry about? Or, will things rebound naturally? Today we try to answer all these questions on the eve of win #100 in Kershaw's ledger. While that feat is inevitable, the more important questions reside in his potential to bounce back fully and get back to his talent level.
While conventional wisdom holds that the early months are when offense is depressed and the pitchers take over, Kershaw has been a contrarian to this notion. Over his career, he has been a pedestrian 10-10 in March/April, with a 3.17 ERA. While that is not terrible by any means, it is short in comparison to how he performs as the season goes along. As a whole, every other calendar month has seen him win at least 14 games and post a sub-3 ERA, with the strongest numbers appearing in July and September.
It may be hard to remember now, but 2014 saw Kershaw have a slow start after coming back from an early-season injury. His ERA ballooned to 4.43 after a rough 7-run outing in Arizona, but he never allowed more than 3 in his final 23 outings (playoffs aside), finishing with a 1.77 ERA that earned him the MVP-Cy Young combo. Even the best pitchers can have rough stretches, but talent tends out to win in the end.
Mechanics and Velocity
When a quality pitchers suddenly goes through a rough stretch, the first thoughts have a lot to do with potential injuries and/or a drop in velocity. However, Kershaw has started the season on the same note of 2014. Using the invaluable Brooks Baseball, here are the average pitch velocities he's had starting with the 2011 campaign.
So, yeah, that is freak-level consistency. In this span, Kershaw's average fastball velocity has always oscillated between 93 and 95 miles per hour, while his deadly curve has stayed in the 73-75 range. Kershaw's work ethic has always been the focus of his success, and this kind of results show just how high talent can go when it is paired with hard work.
Regarding his mechanics, it seems as if they are also pretty much consistent with what he's always done. Again using Brooks tools, here is Kershaw's average release point (from the catcher's perspective) since 2011.
So, if the speed and mechanics are the same as always, why haven't the results been there?
The Positive Side
As it tends to happen with early-season surprises, there are some underlying stats that paint a different picture from the actual results. Even with Kershaw's pedestrian numbers, he still has managed to lead the league in strikeouts with 56 in 44.1 innings, which would be his highest K/9 number for his career at 11.4; also, his ERA is nearly 2 full runs higher than his FIP (4.26 vs 2.90), and the gap is even wider when we consider his xFIP, which seats at 2.22, the third-best mark in the league.
Considering the numbers of the things under his control, Kershaw is almost the same pitcher he has proven to be in the past half-decade, and probably even a better one. If we use Fangraph's version of WAR, he has already been valued at +1 wins above replacement, which places him among the top 15 pitchers in the league, and well on pace to again be near the top by the end of the year.
Kershaw is not only striking out more people than ever before, he has also increased his ground ball percentage to a healthy 53.5%, which is 19th among qualified starters. Two key numbers have aided to his undoing, as he is allowing a .357 BABIP, and only stranding 66% of baserunners, which would represent career lows by a wide margin, while also being outliers when we compare them to league averages. Kershaw is also allowing 1 homerun per 9 innings, while his career mark is a more manageable 0.6 HR/9.
In the end, Kershaw's peripherals, arsenal, and the team around him should be enough to overcome this shaky start. Even if he has already reached his peak, the drop-off just can't be so severe, and so his 2015 turn-around is bound to come sooner rather than later. ZIPS and Steamer are still bullish on Kershaw, as they both like him to garner a 5.1 WAR from here to the end of the season, with an ERA around 2.30, and close to 15 wins.
Sometimes when once-in-a-generation talents spoil us with their feats, we become very surprised when they falter just a little bit. More than any other slow starter in 2015, Clayton Kershaw has the tools and track record to bounce back in a smooth transition. As we await his hundredth win, it's important to remember that he is still human.