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2021 Dodgers in review: Clayton Kershaw

MLB: NLDS-San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

There’s never been more uncertainty surrounding Clayton Kershaw than this offseason. The exceedingly meticulous franchise icon had a trying 2021, including an injury that casts doubt over his immediate future.

When Kershaw pitched, he continued to be effective, with the only demerits coming when compared to his own impossible standard. Kershaw’s 3.55 ERA was his worst since his rookie season (2008), but still ranked 40th among the 129 major league pitchers with at least 100 innings. His peripheral numbers were better.

Kershaw ranked 11th in the majors in xERA (3.17), was tied for 11th (with Kevin Gausman) with a 3.00 FIP, had the 13th-highest strikeout rate (29.5 percent, Kershaw’s best in four years) and third-best walk rate (4.3 percent, his best mark in five years).

During the season, Kershaw moved up 10 slots on the all-time strikeout list, starting the year 36th and ending at No. 26. Among the pitchers he passed in 2021 were Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, and Tom Glavine, plus Cole Hamels, who was at least nominally a teammate over the final two months of the season.

Kershaw didn’t miss a turn in the rotation through the first half of the year, but after his July 3 start felt soreness in his elbow area. At various points the injury was called forearm inflammation and sometimes it was referenced as elbow inflammation, but it was all in the same area, and prevented him from pitching.

At first it seemed like Kershaw might be ready to return a little over a month later, but renewed arm soreness halted that plan. By the time Kershaw did come back in September, he missed over 10 weeks. The timing was geared to give Kershaw some time to ramp up for the postseason, where he would have occupied one of four Dodgers rotation slots in October.

Kershaw’s first two starts back were effective, allowing only one run in each. He then had a subpar outing in Arizona, but in his final regular season tune-up, everything came to a cashing halt. On October 1 against Milwaukee, Kershaw was laboring on the mound, allowing three runs on four hits in the second inning alone. He did not finish the frame, instead walking off the mound with trainer Neil Rampe.

Kershaw was done for the year.

“Forearm, elbow. I don’t know what it is, but it’s kind of the same thing I’ve been dealing with, and it got bad enough where I couldn’t keep going tonight,” Kershaw said on October 1. “I just wanted to be a part of this team going into October. This team is special. I know we’re going to do something special this year, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Test results showed no ligament damage in Kershaw’s elbow, which manager Dave Roberts called “a huge sigh of relief.” Kershaw opted for an injection of platelet-rich plasma in his elbow, and lots of time off this offseason.

“We’re going to be cautious this time. I’ve never given it the rest it’s needed, for whatever reason, trying to get back for the postseason,” Kershaw said during the NLDS, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. “Really I just came back too soon the first time. So I’m going to be cautious this time. It’s going to be a while.”

Whether Kershaw is ready for the start of 2022 remains to be seen, but building in some downtime into his expectations is a wise move, regardless. Kershaw has qualified for the ERA title just twice in the last six seasons, and in the five full years during that span Kershaw averaged 25 starts and 157 innings.

Kershaw ended the year, his 14th major league season with the Dodgers, with 2,670 strikeouts. That’s 26 strikeouts behind Don Sutton for the all-time franchise lead.

2021 particulars

Age: 33

Stats: 10-8, 3.55 ERA, 3.17 xERA, 3.00 FIP, 144 K, 21 BB, 121⅔ IP, 3.4 fWAR, 2.1 bWAR

Salary: $31 million

Game of the year

Kershaw was at his best on June 27 against the Cubs. On an ESPN ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ game at Dodger Stadium, he allowed only one run on four hits in a season-high eight innings. Kershaw struck out 13, finishing off 10 strikeouts on the slider.

“As far as the sequencing, using every part of the strike zone,” manager Dave Roberts said after the game. “It’s hard to imagine him being any better.”

Kershaw threw the slider 47.6 percent of the time in 2021, his most frequent usage of what is now his best pitch. Opposing batters hit .198 with a .353 slugging percentage in at-bats that ended with Kershaw’s slider, with 108 strikeouts. His 34.6-percent put-away rate on the slider in 2021 (percentage of time he finished a strikeout after getting to two strikes) was his best rate on any single pitch in Kershaw’s career.

Roster status

For the first time in his career, Kershaw is a free agent. The Dodgers did not extend a qualifying offer to him. The ball appears to be in Kershaw’s court whether he returns to Los Angeles.