Clayton Kershaw looks like a completely different pitcher than he did several years and hundreds of innings ago, but the results are pretty much the same. With a two-hitter win against the Marlins on Wednesday, the Dodgers starter improved to 12-2 on the year with a 2.63 ERA, efficiently striking out 10 Miami hitters in seven innings by continually going to breaking pitches that dropped out of the bottom of the zone just as hitters start to swing. (There’s also a brilliant caught-looking K in the video down below, for his sixth strikeout, on a low fastball where you just know Harold Ramirez was looking slider.)
Kershaw started out blisteringly hot, striking out eight of the first nine Marlins hitters, and then in the later innings he turned his slider into groundouts when he needed them. The Dodgers have now won six straight when he starts, and since July 5, his ERA is 1.40.
The story of the latter act of Kershaw’s career is the decline in his fastball velocity, which has been caused by wear and tear on his shoulder and a series of back injuries. According to Statcast, Kershaw’s fastball has sunk from an average velocity of 95 mph in 2008 to 90.2 mph in 2019, putting him in just the 15th percentile of Major League pitchers.
But with that decline in speed also came a decline in usage. Kershaw’s fastball, once called upon for 71.5 percent of his pitches, now only leaves his hand 42.9 percent of the time, making it near-even with a slider that was completely undeveloped a decade ago. With that transformation, Kershaw may not be maintaining the heights of his all-time great 2014 MVP year, but his 3.7 fWAR and 3.22 FIP still make him a crucial player on the best team in the National League.
“People talk about velocity all the time because it’s an easy measuring stat,” Kershaw said back in June. “People are throwing harder, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re pitching better.”
Looking at the radar gun, Kershaw seems immensely hittable, but at 31 years old he could still be the ace on at least half of all MLB teams. What makes Kershaw’s presence on the Dodgers so frightening, however, is that he doesn’t have to be. Kershaw is merely one weapon in an arsenal that also features Hyun-Jin Ryu and Walker Buehler, forming a daunting potential postseason trio that could all shut out their opponents on any night. When a revitalized version of perhaps the best pitcher of his generation is playing what basically amounts to a supporting role, you know there must be something special happening at Dodger Stadium.