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2022 Dodgers in review: Clayton Kershaw

Washington Nationals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Clayton Kershaw’s 2022 season was one that served as a reminder to take time to appreciate the ride while it’s still going. That journey provided plenty of enjoyment this season, and a little relief.

An elbow injury at the end of 2021 for Kershaw brought uncertainty for the left-hander heading into the offseason, but also brought to the forefront that the end of his Dodgers career is looming. His first trip in free agency took a long time, both with Kershaw resting and waiting to get healthy and the MLB lockout prolonging the decision until March.

That his hometown Rangers were strongly pursuing Kershaw so he could pitch at home nearer his wife and four kids made the end of his incredible Dodgers tenure more possible than ever before.

The lure of championship contention brought Kershaw back to Los Angeles for 2022, and his pitching invoked a deeper appreciation of his craft, both from us and from Kershaw.

Kershaw’s first start of the season was perfect, literally, immediately putting to rest any concerns over his elbow. During that start against the Twins, Kershaw was noticeably chipper and communicative in the dugout between innings, a change from his early days. He even smiled after getting removed after seven perfect innings, understanding the circumstances of the situation.

“The longer you’re around, the more you appreciate things and the more you realize that this doesn’t happen every day,” Kershaw said in April. “Getting to pitch, starting for the Los Angeles Dodgers doesn’t get to happen every day. So I do think as you get older you realize, we put in perspective a little bit more what it means to pitch and be able to do it, and that it’s not going to last forever.”

Adversity was still prevalent in 2022 for Kershaw, who spent two extended stints on the injured list with lower back pain, missing four weeks in May and June and another 3½ weeks in August. But when Kershaw was on the mound, he was incredible.

Kershaw had a 2.28 ERA and 2.51 xERA, both his best over a full season in six years. Among major league pitchers with at least 120 innings, Kershaw ranked third in xERA, and sixth in both ERA and FIP (2.57).

He made his ninth All-Star team and, with the game at Dodger Stadium for the first time 1980, Kershaw was tabbed to start the midsummer classic for the first time. In a pregame interview with Ken Rosenthal on Fox just before he took the mound, Kershaw said, “I’m gonna throw as hard as I can, and it’s going to be 91, and we’ll see what happens.”

Right on cue, Kershaw’s first pitch was 90.9 mph. That’s right in line with Kershaw’s 90.7-mph average fastball during the season, but he makes it work with incredible precision and a devastating slider and the occasional curveball, once dubbed “Public enemy number one.”

The All-Star Game was another in the long line of memorable moments for Kershaw, who has faced over 10,000 batters in his career.

On April 30, Kershaw struck out Spencer Torkelson of the Tigers to pass Don Sutton for the most strikeouts in Dodgers history. Kershaw ended the season with 2,807 strikeouts, 24th on MLB’s all-time list.

In addition to his seven perfect innings in April against the Twins, Kershaw also retired his first 21 batters against the Angels on July 15 en route to eight scoreless innings.

Kershaw even flirted with getting his career WHIP below 1.000, something that hasn’t happened since September 1, 2018. At the end of the season, Kershaw has 2,584 walks plus hits in 2,581 innings, giving us something potentially to watch next season.

Kershaw isn’t the same pitcher who won three Cy Young Awards, an MVP, and led the league in ERA four years running. But who is? Kershaw is still a very good and sometimes excellent pitcher, and both he and us can continue to cherish the occasional bits of brilliance while we still can.

2022 particulars

Age: 34

Stats: 12-2, 2.28 ERA, 2.57 FIP, 2.51 xERA, 126⅓ IP, 137 K, 3.8 bWAR, 3.8 fWAR

Salary: $17 million, plus another $3 million in bonuses ($1 million for each of 16, 20, and 22 starts)

Game of the year

It’s not often one can mention seven perfect innings and you’re not sure exactly which start this refers to. But that was the case for Clayton Kershaw in 2022, who pulled off something that hadn’t been done in at least six decades.

On one hand, Kershaw’s start on July 15 against the Angels in Anaheim was better, in that he completed eight innings, allowing only a double to near-old friend Luis Rengifo to open the frame.

However, the clear choice for game of the year for Kershaw has to be his April 13 start in Minnesota. For one, Kershaw struck out 13 batters in that start compared to only six in his July flirtation with perfection. This one was far more dominant. But what sets it apart for me is how it set the tone for the season.

April 13 was Kershaw’s first start of the regular season, after the most uncertain offseason of his storied career, following an elbow injury that prevented him from pitching in the 2021 playoffs. Kershaw spent a good chunk of his offseason simply resting, which coupled with the lockout-truncated spring training meant he was in no way near fully built up by the time his regular season debut rolled around.

Along with the question of Kershaw’s health came the wondering if he’d be diminished at all after his elbow injury. But instead, Kershaw was at his absolute best. The first time through the lineup he struck out five Twins, and the second time through he struck out seven. He got through the seventh cleanly as well, adding one more strikeout to give him 13 on the day. For someone whose upper limit that day was five innings and 75 pitches, Kershaw was perfect through seven innings and at only 80 pitches.

Kershaw that day had one of only eight starts in the majors in 2022 with a game score of at least 90, and he was the only one to do so in under eight innings. Retiring all 21 batters while striking out 13 has its benefits.

In an ideal setting, Kershaw gets a chance to finish that game, without question. But this was not a perfect situation, except for Kershaw’s pitching. It certainly wasn’t Dave Roberts’ first time pulling a pitcher from a no-hitter, as he did with Ross Stripling in the eighth inning of his major league debut in 2016, and with a blistery Rich Hill after seven perfect innings later that September. Any consternation that could have come with Roberts pulling Kershaw out of this game vanished for me when I saw Kershaw’s reaction, both in the dugout (watching on SportsNet LA) and in Kershaw’s comments both after that game and the next day in Los Angeles.

“You think about what if and what could be, but at the end of the day, in the moment, it felt like the right decision,” Kershaw said.

Kershaw was all smiles after this masterpiece of a start, which served as a perfect opener to his season, both literally and figuratively.

Roster status

Kershaw is still technically a free agent but is reportedly “closing in” on a one-year deal to return to the Dodgers in 2023. The team has not yet announced the pact, but presumably that could happen this week.