How Valuable is a No. 1 Starter Who Cannot Stay Healthy?
Baseball teams are built with a solid foundation. That solid foundation is the No. 1 starter. If you have a reliable No. 1 starter then you can work your way down the rotation filling holes as needed. Rare is the year when a team without a dominant No. 1 starter does anything productive come playoff time. The most pivotal thing teams ask of their No. 1 starter (besides actually pitching well) is “can you stay healthy?” For most of the past decade, the best No. 1 starter in all of baseball has been Clayton Kershaw and Kershaw has been healthy as an ox. We have discussed several times on this site the (mostly deserved) fanboying over Kershaw and his otherworldly ability. But have done so with an ear to the lack of realism in those arguments and why they fall short.
You have the Buster Olney article going ludicrously over the top saying how Kershaw might be the best pitcher of all time just ten years into his career. You also have the tenuous claim that Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball right now, despite… not being the best pitcher in baseball right now. The crux of my anti-Kershaw argument has been everyone projecting what Kershaw can possibly do, as opposed to what he is doing. Buster Olney wanted to take Kershaw’s current form and simply duplicate it to give him a Pedro Martinez length career, but with Pedro’s best seasons as the average. That is patently insane and has no basis in reality. Kershaw missed a healthy portion of 2016, only amassing 149 innings due to a herniated disc. This season Kershaw was pitching like the back issues were a thing of the past while leading the league in innings, wins, and ERA+.
However, Kershaw has now completely returned to his 2016 form… back injuries included. He went two innings in his most recent start before coming out as a result of back tightness. Kershaw did not sound too optimistic after the game, “A lot of frustration,” he said before returning to the field to take part in a picnic for the team’s family members. “I’ve done just countless, countless hours of back maintenance and rehab and everything, just trying to stay healthy. I felt really, really good up to this point. So, yeah, there’s definitely some frustration.” (Alden Gonzalez, ESPN article)
This is why I have been so adamantly against all the flowering praise of Kershaw; you never know how a career is going to turn out in the middle of that person’s career. Yes, Kershaw in top form is a specimen sent down to earth by the baseball gods to humble batters for their arrogance. Yes, Kershaw is in the midst of one of the best starts to any pitching career in baseball history. But he is only in his tenth year. Year No. 9 saw a pitcher in his prime, well on his way to a Cy Young… until he hot injured and did nothing productive after the injury. 10 innings shy of last year’s season total for innings pitched, Kershaw went out to the mound for his most recent start… and got through two innings before having to leave the game.
Back injuries are some of the worst things any athlete can endure. The balance of simultaneously strengthening the back while trying to keep it pliable is one of the most difficult things for a player (and his trainer) to figure out and execute. The back is finicky. Anybody with a back injury can tell you they almost never feel the same afterwards. As a baseball fan I hope and pray Kershaw can return to being the dominant pitcher he once was. Initial reports say that Kershaw is headed to the DL, but only the 10-Day DL. Maybe Kershaw simply misses three or four starts, comes back healthy and is his old self again. History though tells us that is overly optimistic thinking. We saw Kershaw go through something similar last year and it did not turn out well for him, nor for the Dodgers.
A No. 1 starter in baseball is one of the most important things a team can have. Clayton Kershaw is one of the most valuable things in all of baseball… when he is pitching. The issue though the last two seasons is Kershaw’s inability to stay healthy. This is a guy that went out their everyday for most of the past eight years without anybody questioning if he could stay healthy or not. It was a given that Kershaw could stay healthy. A healthy Kershaw is a win for his team. But now, none of those things are a given. Can Kershaw stay healthy is a real question the Dodgers have to ask themselves.
Yes, you have the best pitcher in baseball on your team, but how valuable is a pitcher that cannot pitch? This is now the second year in a row where Kershaw hovered around the 140 innings pitched mark and his back started to betray him. This is in no way blaming Kershaw. It is simply stating that recent history says Kershaw can only stay healthy for so long. While everyone is projecting just how good Kershaw can be in five to six years, I (and the Dodgers more than likely) are sitting here wondering if there is going to be such a thing as a completely healthy Clayton Kershaw in five to six years.
People love to make these arguments about how good somebody is going to be in the long run, but fail to look at the reality of the situation. The reality here is Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, but has broken down about two-thirds into the last two seasons. That is nowhere near as valuable of a pitcher as somebody like Max Scherzer or Chris Sale who are roughly a quarter of a step below Kershaw, but who can be relied upon to stay healthy and take the ball 30-35 times a year. Kershaw is amazing, nobody argues that. However, to be amazed you actually have to experience it. When it comes to Kershaw, there is nothing amazing about watching him sit on the bench as he tries to come back from yet another DL stint.