Eight reasons why Dodgers’ decision to remove Clayton Kershaw from a perfect game was so complicated

In case you haven’t heard by now — which would be a major upset — Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw had a perfect game through seven innings on Wednesday afternoon in Minnesota. He had thrown just 80 pitches. He was removed from the game. 

Such a move in the Hot Take Era is the social media equivalent of lighting a stick of dynamite. For those fortunate enough to miss the explosion, it was every bit as fiery as you’d imagine. 

My emotional reaction was pushback with a slight hint of annoyance and probably laced with a little anger. I certainly understand where everyone who wanted to see Kershaw continue is coming from. 

Given the circumstances behind Kershaw, the Dodgers and the timing of the outing, it’s understandable to remove him from the game. 

As the night went on and I got some distance from the situation, the only thing I was actually annoyed about anymore was the people who are so sure they are right. 

This outing and whether or not to leave Kershaw in the game has so much more nuance involved than simply barking about how your “side” is right and the other is wrong. 

I’ll run through many of the key points and arguments here in hopes of balancing everything at hand. 

And, yes, I know. Everyone who agrees with you is right and everyone who disagrees is stupid. I’m well aware. I’ve had years of training here. 

1. Shortened spring training

This is now the third time this season a pitcher has been pulled with a no-hitter through at least six innings. The knee-jerk reaction for many is to mindlessly blame “analytics” and complain about “pitchers these days.” 

And, hey, some of that is absolutely fair. It’s a totally different game than it was decades ago and it’s reasonable to discuss the possibility that some of the changes have been for the worse. 

I’m not sure this is the best case to illustrate that point, though. Not right now. It’s a timing issue. That is, thanks to the owner-imposed lockout, spring training games started on March 17. Kershaw threw seven perfect innings on April 13. Starting pitchers usually aren’t full go for their first start or two in the regular season anyway, but in 2022, they had a fraction of the time to get ready. 

They just aren’t there yet and it is totally ignorant to the circumstances of what transpired this spring to discuss this outing the same way we would if Kershaw was pulled in July. 

2. It wasn’t a no-hitter; it was a perfect game

I got a bit of a chuckle with myself as I prepared to write this just a few lines of text after calling this the “Hot Take Era,” but, for my money, no-hitters are a bit overrated. Yes, they are great. An exceptional accomplishment, no doubt. It’s just that there were nine last season. The league batting average was .244. With pitchers and defenses and scouting being so good, it’s not that ridiculous an accomplishment, relatively speaking.

A perfect game, however, is another animal. In the entire history of Major League Baseball, there have only been 23. It is the peak of individual pitching excellence. This is the feat no-hitters wish they were. 

That is why this Kershaw game is such a bigger deal than the cases we’ve already seen with Yu Darvish and Sean Manaea. 

There hasn’t been a perfect game since 2012 (Aug. 15 that year by Félix Hernández). 

Even with my “no-hitters are overrated” statement dangling out there in the wind, I’m fully aware it’s a special event. A perfect game is exponentially more special. That’s what was going here. 

Knowing this is why it was so maddening when Kershaw was shown in the dugout heading down to the clubhouse with his jacket instead of back out to the mound with his glove in the middle of the eighth inning. 

3. Kershaw’s elbow

Kershaw was placed on the injured list due to left forearm inflammation last July. Though back issues had sidelined him before, this was the first time in his career he ran into an issue with his elbow, at least to the point that he had to miss starts. He didn’t return until the middle of September, but then experienced pain in the elbow in his last regular-season outing and missed the playoffs. He got a platelet-rich plasma injection and was forced to shutdown for a large portion of the offseason. 

Kershaw’s build up to Wednesday’s start — this was his first start of the season — included a simulated game last Thursday in which he threw 75 pitches. 

This wasn’t a matter of “analytics” telling Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to protect Kershaw from the lineup a third time or something like that. This was the Dodgers’ and Kershaw’s plan to build him up to full strength so he could have the most healthy season possible at age 34. 

To stray from that for an individual accomplishment in a team sport is hardly a move worth ridicule. 

4. The pitch count

It’s going to be a big discussion point no matter one’s point of view here. 

We still have the “pitchers nowadays are too coddled” crowd and I fear we always will. We also will have the “protect the arms” people and maybe it’s too much protection? 

Generally speaking, 80 pitches for the first start of the season isn’t that much. With the shortened spring training, perhaps it’s a bit more of a stretch than usual. It’s definitely not a huge workload, though. 

Heading into Wednesday, MLB had already seen — in less than a week, mind you — 42 outings where a pitcher threw at least 81 pitches. Justin Verlander threw exactly 80 in his return from Tommy John surgery. Carlos Rodón is coming off arm issues, pitches for a very thoughtful organization and threw 89 pitches. Hunter Greene is 22 years old, has had Tommy John surgery, averaged over 100 miles per hour with his fastball and threw 92 pitches. Freddy Peralta battled a shoulder injury last season and threw 88. 

As you can see, going over 80 pitches didn’t seem like some sort of danger zone across baseball. What might it have hurt to let Kershaw go see what happened in the eighth? 

Of course, not many went much further than 80. Only 18 pitchers threw more than 85 and only six topped 90. Robbie Ray, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, who led the AL in innings pitched last season, was the leader with 96 pitches. 

Having thrown 80 pitches in seven innings, Kershaw was on pace to throw 103 pitches in nine innings. 

Coming off an elbow injury at age 34, with a history of back injuries and a shortened spring training, did Kershaw really need to breach the upper levels of workload compared to what any starter has done so far this year in a start? Under this scenario, through one turn in everyone’s rotation, this would be the guy with the most pitches in a start by a pretty decent margin. Does that seem smart? 

5. The bigger picture for the team

The Dodgers are all in. They won the division eight straight years before last season, during which they won 106 games. They’ve won a World Series in there, but it was “just” the one and that one happened in a shortened and empty-ballparked 2020. Surely they want to get a full season title. 

It could be argued a major reason they didn’t take the crown last season was Kershaw’s injury. 

Rotation depth looks like it will be a concern this year. 

It’s mid-April. 

Aren’t the team goals a lot bigger than trying to shove Kershaw across the finish line on April 13? 

6. It’s still a spectator sport

Major League Baseball just went through most of an offseason with a bunch of rich people arguing about money. 

We could dig into the details and point out one side is much richer than the other and all that, but we just did that all offseason. It wasn’t fun. And fans don’t wanna hear about it. Fans just want to enjoy the sport of baseball instead of dealing with the optics of rich people talking about how much more money they deserve. 

And it was almost a perfect game! 

Fans love stuff like this. It’s one of the reasons we cover no-hitters so extensively. It’s one of the easiest ways to draw eyeballs of casual fans and die-hards alike. The second someone mentions the possibility of a no-hitter, any baseball fan immediately wants to tune in and either see the completion of it or how it’s broken up. Hell, I already called no-hitters overrated and I always change the channel there in the late innings. Everyone in the ballpark is on the edge of their seat. The offensive players want to break it up and the defensive players are ready to leave their feet to keep it intact. 

This one was a perfect game. It was on track to be the first perfect game in nearly 10 years.

It was Clayton Freaking Kershaw. The future Hall of Famer. He’s past his prime, but he still has enough in the tank to be the best player on the field on days like Wednesday. 

What a story it would have been. What a treat for baseball fans after a hellish offseason. 

There’s certainly something to be said for taking care of the fans here. 

7. The unknown and the case to leave him in

Knowing that, why not send Kershaw back out for the eighth inning just to see what happens? He could have given up a hit on his first pitch and then what was really the harm? His arm isn’t going to fall off after some warmup pitches and one real one. 

What if Kershaw pounded the strike zone, the Twins were hacking away and he finished the perfecto with 93 pitches? 

We can’t possibly know that an additional 13 pitches across two innings is going to be detrimental to the rest of Kershaw’s season and/or career. If it was, maybe he’s cooked anyway? And it’s not as if the Dodgers are counting on prime Kershaw to deliver them 220 innings or something like that. They could always push him back a few days or even skip a turn. 

Talk to any doctor who has dealt with arm injuries and the only thing they agree on is that they just can’t possibly pin down a certain pitch count in specific situations like this. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, especially with a 34-year-old like Kershaw who has so much mileage on his arm but also so much strength. 

Obviously, more workload brings more risk and fewer pitches lowers the risk. That’s about all anyone can pin down. 

I saw someone bring up Johan Santana’s no-hitter for the Mets. I don’t think it’s comparable at all. Santana had surgery on his shoulder in 2011 and that’s a much bigger deal than coming off elbow soreness that didn’t even require surgery. Not only that, but Santana threw 134 pitches on June 1, 2012, in his no-hitter. 

There’s an awful lot of work between 80 and 134. Even without specifics, we know that much. 

I can’t get past the feeling that nothing would be harmed by letting Kershaw go back out for the eighth to see what happens. It was a perfect game, after all. It’s not like he was going to stay on the mound after walking three hitters in a row or anything. If the first batter fouled off something ridiculous like 13 pitches, go take him out. 

There’s always the possibility there are three quick grounders and he’s at, say, 85 pitches with three outs to go. It seems a no-brainer from there to let him have the ninth. 

8. The unknown and the case for removal

Then again, there’s also the possibility that Kershaw takes the mound for the eighth, deviating from the Dodgers’ — and Kershaw’s — plan from before the start and then he suffers a season-ending injury. Maybe it’s just a season-altering inning or two. 

What if he extends well past the plan and throws around 105 pitches and completes the perfect game, but then he can’t get himself right in the coming weeks? For the rest of his season, the story is Kershaw not being able to get loose and he doesn’t even top 50 innings. Meanwhile, the Dodgers don’t quite have the starting pitching depth they’d prefer and are bounced before the World Series again. 

Would it have been worth it to not only push past the plan on April 13, but burst way through it? 

Nuance isn’t popular these days. So many of us dig in on just one side of an issue and love spewing venom toward the “other side.” 

As the game was progressing on Wednesday, I really, really wanted Clayton Kershaw to complete a perfect game. I was also worried that Roberts was going to take Kershaw out and prevent the baseball world from seeing it come to fruition. 

The more I sifted through everything at hand, though, the more I realized there were actually lots of good points on both sides of the fence. 

In fact, the biggest culprit here is actually the timing. If this happened a few months from now, we’d have gotten a proper conclusion. 

Maybe we will. Wouldn’t that be something. 


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