I didn’t notice when Clayton Kershaw jogged onto the field on Sunday afternoon in Seattle. I knew it was going to be my last MLB game of the season, so I’d spent some extra money on a 100-level seat—out in right-center field, about six rows up from the wall, mostly sheltered from what sun was getting through the layer of red-grey smoke that hung over the ballpark. It was a nice vantage point, with only the right field corner obscured from sight.
I watched the groundskeepers spray water on the infield, and I watched the gatherings of fans beside the dugouts clamor for autographs. Roenis Elias, the Mariners’ unlucky starter for the day, walked in front of us and gave a stern-faced nod of acknowledgement. I had woken up at 4:00 in the morning and taken a bus almost 160 miles for the sole purpose of seeing Clayton Kershaw pitch, and I didn’t notice that he was standing on the grass not far away from me until I heard someone say, “Look, there’s Kershaw!”
And indeed, there he was: his back turned, hands on his hip. Facing him was the crush of Dodgers fans gathered on the left field side, pressed against the barrier in anticipation. The KERSHAW 22 emblazoned on his jersey was at least the 20th I’d seen in the hour I’d been at the ballpark. Kershaw took a few steps forward, then set off running.
Clayton Kershaw made his MLB debut on May 25, 2008, at the age of 20. He was the third-youngest pitcher to debut since 2000, after Félix Hernández, who made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2005, and Edwin Jackson, who debuted at 19 in 2003. There was a lot of discussion in the weeks prior to his debut about how excited Dodgers fans should be about him. How heavily they should pin their hopes on the big lefty, the 12 strikeouts per nine innings in the minor leagues, the fastball at 96 mph, and, of course, the curveball.
He was undoubtedly the most-hyped prospect the Dodgers had called up in a long time: the winner of a sturdy mantlepiece-worth of high school baseball awards, the seventh overall pick in the 2006 draft, and a quick learner in the minor leagues, rising to Double-A within two seasons of his debut. Even before then, one only had to watch footage of his 15-out, 15-strikeout perfect game in the state championships as a high school senior to understand the excitement. No amount of camera graininess can conceal the singularity of what is unfolding. He hit a home run, too, just as relish.
But with the potential for greatness, of course, comes the potential for great disappointment. Everyone has been burned by a supposedly can’t-miss pitching prospect before. They fail to adjust, or fail to develop their pitches, or, in the worst sort of heartbreak, get injured and never fully recover. You could see the lofty height of Kershaw’s ceiling from the time he was a teenager. You could also see how far the ceiling might fall should it crumble.
The caveat, then, as always, was “if everything goes right.” If everything goes right, he should be a top-five starter in baseball. If everything goes right, he should be an ace. When it comes to pitching prospects, that’s a big “if.” In the comments section of an article announcing his call-up, there was this warning: “No matter how good Kershaw appears to be, the odds are simply against him to win 50 games in his career.”
It’s been a few years now since the collective realization that, in watching Clayton Kershaw, we were watching one of the best pitching careers of all time. No one wants to be the person who jumps to declare someone a Hall of Famer only to see their career fizzle. When you’re watching greatness unfold in the moment, right before your eyes, it can be hard to imagine it ever fading; it’s easy to forget just how fleeting greatness can be, what a rare combination of skill, resilience, and luck it requires to sustain that greatness over seasons and decades. Predicting the future—even an average, boring future—is difficult enough; predicting a superlative is foolhardy. One incredible season definitely isn’t adequate to form a judgment. Neither is two, or even three, really.
This article from mid-2011, Kershaw’s fourth season, and one in which won the pitching Triple Crown and received the first of his three consecutive Cy Young awards, describes him as underappreciated. I don’t know how much weight one can really give to these invocations of under-recognition. People still seem to think that Mike Trout is under-recognized, even though, as far as I can tell, everyone talks about how under-recognized Trout is on a regular basis. What I do know is that from what I can tell, in 2011, there were no articles questioning whether Kershaw might be able to hang along with Sandy Koufax as one of the best pitchers of all time. He was merely a young pitcher with staggering talent, establishing himself as a reliable ace.
By 2013, there were a few; by 2016, it was becoming a relatively commonplace discussion, and in 2017, his reputation was firmly cemented. Even last season, though, and more recently, the tone of the Kershaw conversation has changed. Kershaw is only 30, only a few years removed from those three consecutive Cy Youngs—but also only two seasons removed from 2016, when he pitched just 149 innings due to a tandem of back and shoulder injuries. The injuries recurred last season, and then again this season. His fastball velocity has taken a significant hit. He has shown an uncharacteristic degree of mortality with uncharacteristic frequency.
There is no longer any debate about whether Kershaw is historically great. The debate now more surrounds how much longer we will be able to watch his historic greatness. Whether he has a bad start or a good one, it seems to herald the coming of the end. The bad starts are harbingers of the inevitable, painful decline. The good ones—the ones Kershaw doesn’t want you to describe as “vintage”—are nervously clung to, tallied up against Hall of Famers and against Kershaw’s own career. Dodgers fans have reason to worry that this might be Kershaw’s last year in blue—with every quality start, the likelihood that he opts out of the last two years of his contract looms larger. So much of his peak was spent wondering if he was really this good; now that we know that to be true, we can only look back.
By the time I got an MLB.tv subscription, Kershaw was already the undisputed best pitcher in baseball. I wasn’t watching him in any of the Cy Young years; I didn’t see the no-hitter when it happened. I started watching him in 2016, the year when things started going really wrong injury-wise, and there’s only so much time you can spend watching archived games. My experience of the GOAT-level Clayton Kershaw, then, is more of a myth than anything else. The outline is drawn from what I’ve seen, watching him when he’s dominated over the past several seasons, but the full picture is shaded with what I have heard and read and watched of the past, the old games and articles and stat lines. Even though Kershaw’s career is ongoing, contemporaneous with my own baseball fandom, he exists almost as a figure of the past, in constant and inescapable conversation with his own history.
Almost all the suspense was taken out of the game on Sunday when the Dodgers batted around in the top of the first inning. Barring a completely unexpected disaster, it seemed unlikely that the Mariners would be making a comeback. This was not going to be an edge-of-your-seat pitchers’ duel, nothing that was likely to end in a walk-off balk. So while Kershaw ended up pitching very well, worthy of a much closer game, the stakes attached to the quality of his start were dramatically lowered. From my outfield vantage point, everyone except Yasiel Puig looked rather small and distant, and the smoke in the air gave the environment a weird, washed-out quality. This was not the place to be appreciating the finer qualities of a pitching performance.
Still, while it might just have been due to fatigue, I found myself wishing during that bat-around first inning that the Dodgers lineup would hurry it up a little bit. I wanted to spend as much time with Kershaw as possible. The Dodgers last came to Safeco Field six years ago. Who’s to say, when they next come up to the Northwest, that Kershaw will still be there? And if he is, who’s to say what additions will have been made to his story, what turns it might take? A decade ago, when Kershaw debuted, even a few years of consistently good pitching was a tall order. That we’ve been able to witness as much of his greatness as we have—that we get to continue to watch it today, in whatever form it takes—shouldn’t be taken for granted.
People talk about intent, sometimes, when it comes to pitching. They talked about it when Kershaw was still a prospect. The intent in each of his pitches was striking in person, even through the haze, in a way that I didn’t expect: the predictable raising of the hands, high above his head, the pause, the sheer power driving to the plate.
More so than anything else, though, in that easy blowout victory, what struck me was the way in which he walked off the mound. It’s not something you really notice watching on television—why would the cameras bother tracking something so inconsequential to the game? But from where I sat, after every inning-ending pitch, the motion became immediately recognizable. A silent, seamless turn, his back to where I was; the same path every time, brisk and straight, eyes downcast, before he disappeared again.
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