No way to treat your best player
Clayton Kershaw remains the Dodgers’ single most important player, his value to the franchise confirmed once again in a 2-1 victory over the Washington Nationals.
Without him, the Dodgers would have been swept this week at Dodger Stadium. And without him, they stand no chance of winning the World Series in October.
So why are they antagonizing him?
The Dodgers shouldn’t be picking fights with their players, much less their ace, but that’s what’s happening here.
They traded A.J. Ellis last season, separating Kershaw from the catcher of his choice. They are now
looking to modify how they use him, asking him to temper the instincts that have made him the best pitcher on the planet.
Though Kershaw has always prided himself on his inning count, he hasn’t complained about his reduced workload, saying he understood management wanted to preserve his arm for the postseason. There was only one stipulation.
“Now, if there’s a situation that dictates me staying in the game and I come out, I’ll have a problem there,” Kershaw said last month in an interview with Andy McCullough of The Times.
But that’s what happened Wednesday, when Kershaw was removed by manager Dave Roberts after delivering only 95 pitches.
The Dodgers’ 2-1 advantage at the time was almost entirely a product of Kershaw’s determination. He limited the postseasonbound Nationals to a solitary run over the first seven innings. He worked a ninepitch at-bat against Stephen Strasburg to set the stage for a two-run inning.
This was Kershaw’s game. This was his game to win or lose. Until it wasn’t. Kershaw had thrown fewer than 100 pitches in six of his previous 12 starts. Wasn’t that in part so he could pitch into the late innings of games like this?
The decision to replace him with Pedro Baez was upsetting enough. The timing made it worse, adding an element of surprise. Kershaw wasn’t informed of the plan until after he batted in the bottom of the seventh inning. Roberts later explained that he preferred Kershaw to any of the right-handed pinchhitting options that were available.
Kershaw was steaming on the bench when Baez served up a triple to Trea Turner to start the eighth inning. Baez miraculously escaped the jam, striking out Ryan Raburn and forcing Bryce Harper to hit a comebacker that allowed him to throw out Turner at the plate.
Kenley Jansen registered a four-out save to preserve the win, but that didn’t address the greater issue.
Kershaw and Roberts said little about the situation, inadvertently exposing the magnitude of the philosophical gulf that exists between the pitcher and the team.
“I’m going to say something cliche, but it is what it is,” Kershaw said. “So there you go.”
Kershaw wouldn’t even acknowledge he wanted to remain in the game, something he’s had no trouble doing in the past.
“I think I’ve kind of answered it as best as I’m going to,” he said.
Roberts was in a no-win position, caught between wanting to back his star player and listen to the guidance provided by an analytically driven front office.
The manager said he was set on staying with Kershaw in the eigthth inning until he reflected on the previous seven frames. He thought Kershaw wasn’t at his best, something Kershaw himself acknowledged.
“I think the easy thing for me to do was send him back out there,” Roberts said. “But I think the responsible thing, and for me, the right thing, either way it played out, was to go to the ’pen.”
Roberts emphasized that his responsibility was to the team, not to any individual. The problem with that line of thinking is that in this case, the individual has an oversized influence on the team.
Kershaw is a model professional, and it’s not as if he will suddenly stop trying because he’s upset with how he’s being used. But the Dodgers won’t only need Kershaw in October, they will need the best possible version of him. This won’t help.
And the ramifications could extend beyond this year. At the end of next season, Kershaw will have the option of becoming a free agent.