From “Kershaw Dealing” to “Dealing With Kershaw”

What to do when the ego of a superstar begins to outshine his talent…

By now, we all know about Clayon Kershaw’s incredible resume, but by The Internet Laws of Criticizing Beloved Superstars, I will be sure to repeat it here.  He is-

  • The best regular season pitcher of his generation.
  • A likely first ballot Hall of Famer.
  • A world class philanthropist.

So, now that I’ve acknowledged his undisputed greatness, let’s get to the matter at hand…

Players getting booed, or getting criticized when they don’t do well, comes with the territory.  But there is a certain type of player, a superstar among superstars, that achieves a sort of transcendent status, in terms of reputation.  Part of it is societal- how else can to explain Andrew Luck being applauded as a profile in courage for retiring right before the season, taking an extra $25 million with him on the way out the door?  Can anyone with a straight face say that Cam Newton would receive the same type of response, had he done the same thing under identical circumstances?  Similarly, how is it that Dodger Stadium reigns down with boos towards a struggling Kenley Jansen, the greatest closer in Dodger history, while giving Clayton Kershaw, still very good overall but past his best days, considerable slack?  That question alone can account for a blog post- not just for baseball but for human behavior in general.  But this post will deal with Clayton Kershaw specifically, and the need for the Dodgers (and Dave Roberts specifically) to do what’s right for the team first, regardless of who it upsets.

Only Vin Scully has enjoyed a higher standing in the Dodger universe this decade than Clayton Kershaw.  On the field, no one else has come close.  Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and a few others certainly had their moments, but it’s been Kershaw who has sat atop throughout.  For the most part, that’s been a good thing, but it hasn’t been as smooth as legend would have us believe.  We can go all the way back at least to 2012, still fairly early in Kershaw’s career but already achieving elite status, when he was having hip issues towards the end of the season.  There was speculation that he might need to have surgery.  Many thought that at the very least, he would have to be shut down for the remainder of the year.  Luckily, the problem wasn’t as bad as it initially seemed, and Kershaw continued to pitch effectively for the Wildcard-chasing Dodgers.  Some still criticized the Dodger organization, for putting the team’s short term aspiration ahead of their young star’s health.  That last point is critical, given what happened on the second to last game of the season, the night the Dodgers got eliminated.  Hanging on for dear life, the Dodgers had slated Kershaw to pitch the next day against the Giants, hoping that the last game of their season would mean something.  Ultimately, it didn’t, but that didn’t stop Kershaw from publicly declaring that he was determined to start the game- a game that meant little more than one in spring training, outside of individual stats.  The Dodgers ultimately won with a stellar performance from Kershaw, and no one made a peep about the unnecessary risk that Kershaw had taken.  Given that some had wagged their finger at the Dodgers for having him pitch when the games did matter, it seemed curious that no one would say anything about Kershaw, for pitching in one that didn’t.  A 24 year old making a public declaration, not to be questioned, was highly unusual.  In fairness, Kershaw didn’t suffer any further injury, and the whole thing was quickly forgotten about, to the extent it was ever acknowledged at all.  But it had become clear, even with “only” one Cy Young award at that point, that Clayton Kershaw was largely responsible for calling his own shots.

As the years went on and Kershaw continued to pile on the hardware- two more Cy Youngs and an MVP- his reputation grew, as did his control of it.  And while we all know about the subsequent postseason failings, Kershaw was almost as untouchable to the critics as he was to hitters, at least relative to other pro-athletes.  Don Mattingly, whose shortcomings as a manager have been well documented, took the brunt of the blame for Kershaw’s October performances, culminating in a 2015 New York Times headline that summed it all up- “Clayon Kershaw Takes The Loss, But Don Mattingly Takes The Criticism“- this site’s pleading earlier that day notwithstanding.  (For a trip down memory lane, click here.  In there is another recollection of Kershaw’s ultra-competitive nature, reaching levels that bordered on counterproductive.)  Mattingly certainly had his faults, but the way boos eventually reigned down for him and ONLY him, as Kershaw came up short, seemed excessively harsh.  Of course, that’s well in the past now, as Mattingly now finds himself managing the Marlins at the bottom end of the east coast- not to mention the bottom end of the NL East.  But as we find ourselves well into the Dave Roberts era now, Kershaw’s stubbornness, if not outright selfishness, might be a bigger issue than ever.

Each of the first three seasons of Dave Roberts’ season brought incredible regular season success- thanks largely to Kershaw- followed by decent but underwhelming postseason success- also thanks largely to Kershaw.  Particularly jarring was Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, when the Dodger Ace blew a four run lead, and couldn’t redeem himself when the Dodgers scored an additional three runs.  Finally, after nearly a decade of October performances that didn’t come close to his regular season ones- yes, 2009 counts, too- the narrative of Clayton Kershaw’s postseason failings went beyond Cardinal fans, Giant fans, and so-called “haters” at large, and started to seep into the mainstream.  Yet still, much of the baseball world wanted to somehow lay the primary share of blame at Dave Roberts’ feet.  Because Kershaw pitched so brilliantly in relief during Game 7 after Yu Darvish got shelled and the game was practically out of reach, Roberts got retroactively criticized for not lining up Kershaw to pitch Game 7.  Never mind there would have likely been no NEED for game 7, had he done his job in Game 5.  Never mind that Yu Darvish had been acquired, in part, because the Dodgers had been criticized for relying so heavily on Kershaw in the past.  Somehow, once again, the superstar among superstars had to be protected by a group of people that acted more like his own PR team, than impartial analysts.

After the Dodgers lost the World Series again in 2018, some speculated that Kershaw, who had been absolutely shelled in the World Series by the Red Sox, was on his way out of LA.  Many were resigned to the idea that he’d never be a postseason hero for the Dodgers, and perhaps it was time to go elsewhere.  Once he opted out of his contract, it seemed like the door was likely about to close on his Dodger career.  Not so, it would turn out.  Andrew Friedman’s front office, with a well-earned reputation about making cold, calculated decisions if it made sense for the Dodgers long term (Dee Gordon, AJ Ellis, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp twice, etc.), uncharacteristically offered Kershaw MORE guaranteed money than the contract option would have given.  Just to be clear, this might still BE the right baseball move- time will tell.  But it’s certainly a riskier one than Friedman normally makes.  (See: Greinke, Zack)

All this history brings us to Friday night, September 6th, with Clayton Kershaw pitching an uncharacteristically subpar game against the Giants.  Recall nearly seven years ago, and however many paragraphs ago in this blog post, how a potentially less-than-healthy Kershaw insisted on pitching against the Giants, during a game that meant nothing.  Some things, it seems, never change.  Friday night’s game didn’t quite mean nothing, but with the NL West wrapped up in all but name, and the Dodgers likely to be the highest seed in the National League, there wasn’t any extra pressure in the air, either.  Yet when Dave Roberts went to take Kershaw out, understandably, to preserve him for more critical situations, the pitcher, visibly annoyed, openly questioned his manager’s decision.  Nothing new there.  What was knew was after getting to the dugout, Kershaw threw a quick but unmistakable tantrum, pointlessly kicking the cooler as hard as he could, and risking a foot injury that he didn’t need, and one that his team couldn’t afford.

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What was the reaction to this outburst, which could have put him on the IL yet again?  Well, for starters, here’s what it wasn’t- no one in the public eye griped about an entitled baseball player, showing up his manager in public.  There was no lamenting of “today’s athletes”, making all the money without the accountability.  Nothing about selfish antics, putting his team at risk.  Nope- just a few jokes on the Internet about Kershaw getting into “postseason form” and a few additional laughs, on account of the cooler winning the battle.  (Dave Roberts wouldn’t even go THAT far, saying the cooler was going to be going on the IL.  He knows his players.)  And honestly, this might be less of a “Kershaw getting a pass” moment, than a “he was lucky he didn’t get hurt” moment.  But for someone who is constantly lauded as not just a great pitcher, but a great leader, and someone achieving an iconic status that even most stars with a championship seldom reach, he should be held to a higher standard.  But it seems like no one wants to have that discussion.  If anything, given that the Dodgers are STILL in search of their first title since Ronald Reagan was in office, he certainly should go out of his way to be as publicly supportive of Dave Roberts as possible.  If not?  It shouldn’t matter- the Dodgers need to do what’s right for the Dodgers first, even if that means risking the alienation of their franchise’s most recognizable player.

There may have been a time that Kershaw’s incredible stats gave him the “right” (for lack of a better word) to be given the benefit of the doubt.  But given all the postseason shortcomings, his less reliable performances lately and all the innings of wear and tear, those days should be over.  And if Clayton Kershaw pitches like the “real” Clayton Kershaw again?  Great.  But if not, Roberts should have no problem with using an early hook whenever he feels appropriate, regardless of what the media, the fans, and even Kershaw himself think.  Besides, if Kershaw is left in for too long, we all know who will be getting the blame for the decision.  But Dave Roberts should take comfort in knowing that Billy Martin famously benched Reggie Jackson in the middle of a game in 1977, much to Jackson’s chagrin, yet the Yankees were no less for it.  Also, between the Dodger superstar and the Dodger manager, only one of them has a World Series ring.  And it’s not Clayton Kershaw.

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