This is going to come across like a love letter to Clayton Kershaw. Mostly because it’s basically a love letter to Clayton Kershaw.
On Saturday, September 24, the Los Angeles Dodgers played the Colorado Rockies. I watched the game from my seat about two-thirds of the way down the first-base line, along with about 53,000 of my closest friends who had also come to get a free Vin Scully commemorative coin. In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Rockies intentionally walked Joc Pederson with a runner on second and two outs. Pederson bats eighth, so the Dodgers had the pitcher (Kershaw) coming up next. Rockies starter Chad Bettis had allowed six runs (four earned) through 4.2 innings on 95 pitches, and the thinking was that they could walk Pederson, get Kershaw out, and let Bettis leave on a high note with five innings pitched.
Instead, Kershaw worked the count to 2-2, then drove a low slider to left-center for an RBI single that knocked Bettis out of the game.
At that point, I felt the need to tweet, so I did. A few minutes later, someone watching the game on Root Sports Rocky Mountain texted me a photo:
Apparently the Rockies channel agrees with me. pic.twitter.com/gM4kNi5JSM
— Jeff J. Snider (@snidog) September 25, 2016
Do I actually believe that Kershaw is the best ever at everything? Don’t tell anyone I said this, but no, I don’t. Here is what I do believe, though: Kershaw is the best he can possibly be at everything he does in the game of baseball.
Earlier in the game, Kershaw had laid down two perfect sacrifice bunts. Sac bunts from pitchers don’t get a lot of attention, for good reason. Bunting is an expected skill for pitchers to have, and sac bunts in general have gotten a pretty bad reputation lately (also for good reason). But even the most ardent sabermetricians are generally, basically on board with a pitcher laying down a sacrifice bunt instead of hitting into a double play, and that was what Kershaw was asked to do in both the second inning (runners on first and second, no outs) and fourth inning (runner on first, no outs).
This is easier said than done. The Rockies have Nolan Arenado at third base, and no one in baseball fields that position better. Catching for the Rockies in this game was Tony Wolters, a very good defensive catcher who was a shortstop until a few years ago. A bad bunt could easily be converted into a force out, or possibly even a double play. But Kershaw doesn’t do bad bunts, because bunting is part of his job, and he believes in being the best he can be at his job. So he laid down perfect sacrifice bunts both times — I’d show you video proof, but no one puts videos of sac bunts from pitchers on the internet, duh. It should be noted, though, that all three runners Kershaw advanced with his bunts ended up scoring.
When Kershaw came up in the fifth, there were two outs, so a sac bunt was not an option. Luckily, Kershaw is a pretty good hitter for a pitcher. (I’ve made my feelings clear before that any time you’re discussing a good-hitting pitcher, there is an implicit “for a pitcher” at the end of the sentence. No pitcher in baseball is actually a good hitter, no matter how many Madison Bumgarner fans you’ve talked to.) Kershaw tends to put the bat on the ball — his 22.9-percent strikeout rate is better than 35 professional hitters who have gotten enough MLB at-bats this season to qualify for the batting title — and with a runner in scoring position and two outs, if you put the bat on the ball, good things can happen.
So the good thing happened, and I tweeted that Kershaw is the best ever at everything, and the Dodgers ended up scoring seven more runs and they won in a blowout.
Oh yeah, and Kershaw faced two batters over the minimum in seven shutout innings, lowering his season ERA to 1.65 and increasing his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 16.8-to-1.
I was reminded of my hyperbolic Kershaw analysis this morning, when TimeHop reminded me that one year ago today, Kershaw clinched the National League West title for the Dodgers by throwing a one-hit, 13-K shutout to outduel Bumgarner. But it wasn’t just Kershaw’s pitching that made the highlight reels that night. When Kershaw came to the plate with one out and nobody on base in the fifth inning, the Dodgers had a 2-0 lead and had already made Bumgarner throw 76 pitches. But Bumgarner is a horse, and he seemed like he was bound for one of those tough, eight-inning, 115-pitch outings that make him so good.
Then Kershaw did this:
Orel Hershiser‘s summary at the end of that video says it all: “Madison Bumgarner is not going to complete this game, because of that man going back into the dugout.” Instead, the Dodgers got to a wearied Bumgarner for two more runs in the sixth, and his night was over after 112 pitches in 5.2 innings. They tacked on four more against Giants relievers, and the division was won.
Kershaw’s explanation after the game: “I started the at-bat with a big leg kick, trying to take a big swing and realized I no chance. So I tried to spread out and be as annoying as possible. I put a long at-bat on him and that helped definitely. My approach was not to strike out. When I got two strikes I knew I wouldn’t get a hit, so I just tried to be annoying.”
So no, Clayton Kershaw isn’t the best ever at everything. But he is the best pitcher alive today, and by the time he’s done he might be in the conversation for best ever at that. At everything else that is part of his job, he is the best he can be. It’s a simple philosophy: if something is part of his job, he works at it. That means knowing how to lay down a perfect sacrifice bunt when the situation calls for it. It means being able to line a slider up the middle for an RBI single once in a while. And it means being able to “spread out” and “be annoying” and drive up a great pitcher’s pitch count in a big spot in a big game.
Kershaw is the best he can possibly be. And if history is any indication, he’ll be even better next year.