Clayton Kershaw reached a few milestones with the Dodgers in 2023, showing in the first half that he had gas left in the tank. But in the second half he was running on fumes, felled by a shoulder injury that was more serious than initially let on, and ended his season with the worst start of his major league career.
That’s a lot to process, which is why Kershaw plans to take his time before deciding his future this offseason. That, and possibly getting further examination on his shoulder before committing to anything.
But this isn’t necessarily about what Kershaw’s plans are for 2024. This is a look back at 2023, which despite the nightmare ending had plenty of highlights along the way.
By simply taking the mound this year, Kershaw tied Don Sutton as the only Dodgers to pitch in 16 seasons with the team. The only position players in franchise history to play longer are outfielder Zack Wheat and shortstop Pee Wee Reese, 18 seasons for each of those Hall of Famers.
Kershaw in April was incredibly good, with a 1.89 ERA in six starts, winning five of them with 41 strikeouts against only five walks in a league-leading 38 innings. That earned Kershaw his seventh National League pitcher of the month award, his first such honor in seven years.
On April 18 at Dodger Stadium against the Mets, Kershaw pitched seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and allowed only three hits to win his 200th career game, just the sixth pitcher in the modern era to do so before losing 100 games.
Kershaw’s mother Marianne died on May 13, and he missed a few days about a week later on bereavement leave.
“It’s been humbling to see how many people have reached out. I’m thankful for that,” Kershaw said. “She was a great lady, and thank you to everybody that reached out.”
On June 27 at Coors Field, Kershaw had one of his best-ever starts at Coors Field, allowing only a single and a walk in six scoreless innings. He faced the minimum number of batters, erasing his two runners with a double play and a pickoff. But Kershaw left that start at only 79 pitches, after pitching seven innings in three of his previous four starts.
Shoulder inflammation was the culprit, which required a cortisone shot at first, and a few days of rest afterward. This soon ballooned into weeks, after landing on the injured list on July 3.
At the time when his shoulder first sidelined him, at the end of June, Kershaw ranked fourth in the National League in ERA (2.55), fifth in strikeout rate (27.7 percent), third in strikeout-minus-walk rate (21.4 percent), and was in the top 10 in strikeouts (105), FIP (3.51), walk rate (6.3 percent), and fWAR (2.3).
While on the shelf, Kershaw made his 10th All-Star team, tying Reese for the most All-Star seasons in Dodgers history.
But Kershaw didn’t return from the injured list until August 10 after missing more than six weeks, and was not pushed hard after coming back. He went longer than five innings only once, getting one out in the sixth inning on the penultimate day of the regular season. Two of his final nine starts came on five days rest, and the others saw more time in between, including each of his last four starts coming on Saturday, on six days rest.
“It really messes up my college football watching,” Kershaw joked before the NLDS.
The kid gloves served a purpose, in not taxing Kershaw’s shoulder which was affecting him more than anyone with the team seemed willing to say publicly. And at least nominally, the plan worked, to a point.
Kershaw allowed zero or one run in six of his last eight regular season starts, never more than three. He had a 2.23 ERA, but with warning signs.
One of his 105 fastballs thrown in September touched 90 mph. His command waned more often than usual, and he walked 11.1 percent of his batters faced down the stretch, almost double his walk rate in the first three months (6.3 percent).
Eight of his nine runs allowed in those eight starts came on home runs — seven solo shots and a two-run job. Only one run scored otherwise against Kershaw, and it came in his final inning before Max Muncy botched a clear inning-ending double play ball at third base. In August and September, opposing hitters had just one infield single in 31 plate appearances with runners in scoring position against Kershaw, and that hit didn’t even bring home a run.
Expecting that to continue was unwise, though Kershaw was getting by with guile, and both he and the team were confident he would find a way to navigate choppy October waters.
Instead, everything came crashing down.
Kershaw’s 12th career Game 1 start was over only a matter of minutes after Keith Williams Jr. belted out the national anthem. Kershaw had nothing that night, and the Diamondbacks pounded him for six runs on six hits. He left the mound after only one out, in the worst start of his career.
“Disappointing, embarrassing. You just feel like you let everybody down — guys, the whole organization who looked to you to pitch well in Game 1,” Kershaw said after the game. “I just feel like I let everybody down. It’s a tough way to start the postseason.”
The Dodgers insisted Kershaw was healthy and would start Game 4, but that never came, as the NLDS ended in a stunning sweep in which the Dodgers never led, and trailed after 25 of the 27 innings.
That last start didn’t define Kershaw’s season, though it was an awful way to end things, whether that means 2023 or even more.
Despite missing all that time with a left shoulder injury, Kershaw had by far the healthiest and steadiest season of any of the top seven starting pitchers on the Dodgers’ depth chart to open the year. His 24 starts and 131⅔ innings both led the team, the most by Kershaw since 2019.
This was the eighth season in which Kershaw led the Dodgers in both starts and innings, passing Dead Ball Era Brooklyn right-hander Nap Rucker for most such seasons in franchise history.
Most seasons leading Dodgers in both starts and innings
|Clayton Kershaw||8||2010-13, '15, '17, '20, '23|
|Don Drysdale||6||1957, '59-60, '62-64|
|Don Sutton||6||1970, '72-73, '76-78|
|Burleigh Grimes||5||1918, '20-21, '22-24|
|Don Newcombe||5||1949-51, '55-56|
|Orel Hershiser||5||1987-89, '92-93|
In April, Kershaw got his career WHIP back under 1.000 for the first time since 2018, keeping it there for a couple of starts. At the end of the year, Kershaw’s WHIP is 1.00418 in 2,712⅔ innings, the former third all-time for pitchers with at least 1,500 innings, behind a pair of Dead Ball pitchers.
Not only did Kershaw reach 200 wins, but he also passed Don Drysdale for second-most wins in Dodgers history, ending the season with 210 career victories.
Much like in 2022, this season was another example of trying to appreciate Kershaw’s moments of brilliance while we still can. There were plenty of those moments in 2023, even if the ending didn’t go the way anyone wanted.
Stats: 13-5, 2.46 ERA, 3.82 xERA, 131⅔ IP, 137 K, 40 BB, 3.7 bWAR, 2.3 fWAR
Salary: $20 million
Game of the year
Two games stood out here — plus maybe a few more considering Kershaw had four different starts with seven scoreless innings — and since we talked about his 200th win above, we’ll go with a different early start here.
On April 29 against the Cardinals, Kershaw retired his first 13 batters faced and allowed only two singles in seven scoreless innings, with nine strikeouts.
“As far as stuff, start to finish, the fastball glove side, arm side. The curveball, the lateness of it, was as good as I’ve seen it. The slider, the way he tunneled tonight was exceptional,” manager Dave Roberts said after the game.
No Cardinals batter reached second base against Kershaw, who needed to be that stingy because the Dodgers only scored once in the game. The closeness of the game helped make this start Kershaw’s highest win probability added (.453) of any start in 2023. His 82 game score was also his best of the year, and the highest by any Dodger during the season.
Kershaw will be a free agent the morning after the World Series ends. He plans to take his time this offseason to decide his future.