The left-handed Dodgers to strikeout 200 or more batters in a season in the 127-year history of the franchise: Nap Rucker, Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, and Clayton Kershaw.
The 2009 NLCS gave us a glimpse of what was to come. After dispatching the Cardinals in three games, the Dodgers had the extra time to shuffle their rotation to whatever order they wished heading into their rematch against the hated Phillies. Joe Torre chose Clayton Kershaw to start game one. Even at 21, Kershaw gained the trust of his manager to open the biggest playoff series for the Dodgers in 21 years. That Kershaw didn't perform well that night -- he allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings, getting hung with the loss -- was ancillary to the bigger picture. This was Kobe Bryant throwing up air balls against Utah in 1997. Trust us, this kid will eventually come through in this situation.
|2011 Dodgers Player Profiles|
|Today marks the start of our series of 2011 player profiles, where we will analyze one player per day, between now and the end of March. This is also the spot for our community projections, so be sure to give us your predictions for each player for this season in the comments section.
Last spring training all signs were pointing toward Kershaw getting the opening day nod. The decision took a little bit longer than usual -- "we'll announce it tomorrow" became a few days, which became a week, etc -- but the prevailing thought was that Kershaw was going to get the start in Pittsburgh on April 5. The Dodger PR staff even sent out an email with a list of youngest opening day starters in both franchise and MLB history. That's why it was so surprising when Vicente Padilla got the opening day start.
One side effect of Padilla starting opening day on the road was that Kershaw got to start the home opener, which was an honor in itself. Kershaw won that day, which was his only win in the first month. Kershaw was pitching decently enough to start the season, but the problem of walks reared their ugly head again. Kershaw walked 4.79 batters per nine innings in 2009, which was 77th among 78 MLB starters who pitched at least 162 innings. After six starts in 2010, Kershaw walked 24 batters in 30 2/3 innings, which was a big reason why he was averaging only five innings per start.
Then, the promise started to become real.
Kershaw's next start was May 9, during what was probably the finest outing of his career to date. Kershaw pitched eight scoreless innings, hanging a loss on Ubaldo Jimenez (the "and one" of Ubaldo's 15-1 record heading into the All-Star break), and didn't allow a ball to be hit out of the infield in the first seven innings. From that point on, Kershaw was one of the best starters in baseball.
|May 9 through end of season
Kershaw dramatically decreased his walk rate, averaging two and a half unintentional walks per nine innings for the rest of the year. That allowed Kershaw to pitch deeper into games; he averaged 6.68 innings per start, pitching six innings or longer in 22 of 26 starts and seven innings or more 13 times. He reached both the 200-inning and 200-strikeout plateau last season, becoming just the sixth Los Angeles Dodger age 22 or younger to throw 200 innings.
This is Kershaw's time.
Clayton Kershaw is easily the ace of the Dodgers. He is the one player on the team without a ceiling. No matter what you think of the Dodger offense, with Kershaw on the mound you should feel comfortable that with Kershaw on the mound the Dodgers should win. If he continues to pitch like he did during the last five months of 2010, the Dodgers are in great shape. If, at 23 years old, Kershaw improves on his performance, we are in for a real treat.
Kershaw made $440,000 last season, and with just over two years of service time, is still under team control this season, so he will earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 in 2011. Some might even say now is the time to lock Kershaw up with a long-term contract. He has one year to go before earning arbitration eligibility, when the big money starts to roll in.
|2011 Projections - Age 23 Season|
All the projections seem pretty similar, with Kershaw putting up an ERA in the low threes, which makes sense because his ERA the last two seasons was 2.91 and 2.79, respectively. I think the walk improvement from last season was real, and that Kershaw won't approach anywhere close to walking four batters per nine innings. This is Kershaw's year to lead the staff, and I think he does just that, putting up a 2.93 ERA and 1.122 WHIP in 218 1/3 innings, leading the league with 231 strikeouts.
That's my half-baked guess for Kershaw's performance in 2011. What's yours? Give us your prediction for ERA, WHIP, and innings pitched in the comments, and feel free to add strikeouts or any other predictions you have as well.