Tuesday night was a prime example of the business of baseball getting in the way of the entertainment value of baseball.
Yesterday afternoon (or evening, depending on where they lived) baseball fans across the country received a breaking news alert. Future Hall of Famer, Clayton Kershaw was throwing a perfect game through five innings. Then it was six innings. Then, it was seven innings. The deeper he went, the more pronounced and persistent the notifications became. Not only was Clayton Kershaw throwing a perfect game, he was cruising along, doing it in highlight reel style. Many fans of the game were convinced to tune in when they finally received Kershaw’s pitching line after seven.
Clayton Kershaw vs Minnesota Twins 13 April 2022:
7 IP, 0 R, 0 H, 0 BB, 13 K
All this was accomplished with only 80 pitches thrown. Keeping in mind that he needed a minimum of 39 pitches for those 13 strikeouts alone, and one need not strain the wee grey cells too much to understand just how overwhelmingly (perhaps historically) dominant Kershaw was on Tuesday. Die hard Dodger haters were tuning in to watch Kershaw take his shot at history. Less than 20 minutes after leaving the mound at the end of the seventh, the Dodgers took the field again for the bottom of the eighth.
Clayton Kershaw did not return to the mound.
Dave Roberts elected to pull his star pitcher from the game due to an abundance of caution, taking the long view and placing the priority on protecting the future of the season. In place of Clayton Kershaw, Dave Roberts and the Dodgers sent left-handed unknown reliever, Alex Vesia to the mound to protect the Dodgers’ six-run lead. Two batters later, the perfect-o and no-no were both over. All the fans tuning in late, responding to the perfect game alert, to see Kershaw take a run at history never even got to see Kershaw on the mound.
Now, here is the brief moment when I take the time to acknowledge several points. First, Kershaw’s longest outing so far in 2022 was only 75 pitches. Kershaw went into the start expecting to be pulled from the game between 80-85 pitches. It was only 38 degrees. This was Kershaw’s first competitive outing since going on the IL last season. Spring training was abbreviated. Kershaw has a lengthy injury history. The Dodgers are favourites to win it all this year and Clayton Kershaw figures heavily into those plans. The Dodgers have invested a ton of money into the left-hander and are understandably protective of his award-winning arm. Dave Roberts had a conversation with Kershaw in the sixth during which Kershaw did not insist on staying in the game, but rather, he apparently agreed with the notion that he would still be pulled between 80-85 pitches. Any one of these points by themselves would be the basis for some sort of argument to pull Clayton Kershaw from most any outing. When taken all together, they make a very compelling reason for Roberts to use his hook and to pull Kershaw from the game.
All of it is utter hogwash.
If the game was merely a no-hitter, sure, as much as it would have sucked for fans, pulling Kershaw from the game would still have made sense. Kershaw already has a no-no feather in his hat. This was not just a no-no though. This was a perfect game. That changes everything. Or at least, it should change everything. Looking closer at the situation, there arguments for leaving Kershaw in the game heavily outweigh any justifications that can be made for pulling him from the game.
Kershaw had been on cruise control all game. His battery mate was mindful of Kershaw’s performance and commented after the game how fluid and easy Kershaw was in his outing. 80 itches is not a sizeable bump from 75. Not is Kershaw a 21-year-old rookie with little or no experience throwing deep into games, hitting the 100 pitch mark after a previous abbreviated outing. Kershaw is a veteran with an arm conditioned for lengthy starts. The shortened spring training (fully the fault of owners who are now clutching their pearls over pitchers like Kershaw suddenly being moderately taxed physically because of ownership’s own decision making) was still long enough for pitchers to get innings in and to stretch Kershaw out to 75 pitches. A normal ramping up from 75 pitches is somewhere in the 90-100 pitch range for veteran arms, depending on how they are throwing. The gametime temperature was certainly low with regard to keeping players’ muscles loose. However, the Dodgers, despite tacking on three runs in the the eighth, finished the top half of the inning quickly enough that Kershaw’s arm could not possibly have already cooled down and begun tightening up.
In this day and age of baseball, the technology exists to give instant feedback with regard to velocity, spin rates, and arm angle. Catchers and pitching coaches, bench coaches, managers, and even other pitchers on the bench are all watching Kershaw go through the motions on every pitch, observing with a highly trained, practiced eye, looking for performance issues or any sign of something off. Reports from the catcher and the eye test say Kershaw was still just fine.
So, why not simply get Vesia up in the bullpen. Have the lefty reliever locked and loaded. If Kershaw allows a base-runner. his night is immediately over. If the data points show a dip in velocity, erratic spin rate, or a slip in arm angle, send Mark Prior (someone who knows more than just a little bit about the differences between the slipping performance of an ace pitcher and a run-of-the-mill starter) to the mound and have him have a conversation with Kershaw about what is being seen. Plain and simple, the stars were aligned for Kershaw to take a run at history. His pitch count was low. He was cruising. The Dodgers had a plethora of tools at their disposal to address every last one of their on-field/performance concerns. The notion that Kershaw pitching an extra six outs (at the absolute most) is going to be the difference between the Dodgers winning or losing the World Series is laughable.
Furthermore, the average baseball fan could not care less about the litany of the Dodgers’ concerns about the situation. They want to see the very best of the best performing extraordinary feats on the field. They want to see J.D. Martinez launch four home runs into the night sky in Chavez Ravine. They want to see Miguel Cabrera pick a white baseball travelling at 90+ mph out of a snow flurry and deposit it into the bleachers for his 500th home run. They want to see Randy Johnson strike out 20 Reds in a single game. They want to see Clayton Kershaw try to join the elite club of pitchers who have hurled a perfect game.
There have been only 23 perfect games thrown since they became a thing during the days of Cy Young (who threw the first recorded such game). That’s 23 perfect games out of more than 200,000 games played. Roughly 1/100th of 1% of games played have resulted in a perfect game being thrown. What is something that Hall of Farmers Don Drysdale, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, and Nolan Ryan all have in common? Despite being among the very best of the best at hurling a baseball, none of them ever managed to throw a perfect game. Clayton Kershaw was six outs away and appeared to be fully in command and certainly had the tools available to join the exclusive club.
Since 1901, there have only been two occasions where a pitcher has been perfect through seven innings and been pulled from the game. The first such occurrence was in 2016 when Rich Hill was pulled from his start against the Miami Marlins. The second was last night, when Clayton Kershaw was pulled from the game despite having obtained a pink slip for the Minnesota Twins. In both instances, Dave Roberts is the manager who brought made the decision to pull the potentially history-making starter from the game.
Baseball is hemorrhaging fans. Fans being deprived of the opportunity to see history made because of the delicate sensibilities of billionaire owners is not going to help the situation in the least. As discussed above, there were options available to protect everyone involved while allowing Kershaw to continue. What are casual fans going to tune in for if there is no chance of seeing something fun and exciting? Where will the drama and suspense come from? What is MLB going to showcase to try and draw new fans to the sport? Fans aren’t getting excited to see fie and dive pitchers. Nor do fans want to have performances being super-hyped, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.
Despite all is reasons, despite all the justifications, Dave Roberts pulling Kershaw from the game was an embarrassment and it was simply bad for baseball – period. Let Clayton Kershaw lose the perfect game to a seeing-eye dribbler between first and second with one or two out in the ninth inning. Let him lose it because Miguel Sanó put together a hard-fought at-bat before finally drawing a walk. Or maybe, just maybe, sit back and appreciate the sight of Clayton Kershaw making history.
After all, that’s why we fans are watching these games.