What happened to Clayton Kershaw in Minnesota on Wednesday immediately outraged Twitter (which is not hard to do) and will likely fuel a month’s worth of angry sports talk-radio calls.
Kershaw made it through seven perfect innings against the Twins, racking up 13 strikeouts in a bid to throw Major League Baseball’s first perfect game since 2012 and just the 24th one ever. But manager Dave Roberts took him out of the game after just 80 pitches, and reliever Alex Vesia promptly gave up a single to former Yankee Gary Sanchez to end the hopes of even a combined perfect game (something that, incidentally, has never happened in the major leagues). If you’re the type who wishes for a return to the days when pitchers routinely threw nine full innings, reloading their mouths with chewing tobacco between each one, this was an outrage. Even if you’re not that kind of nostalgist, Roberts’s decision probably seemed mystifying and representative of an overly cautious conservatism.
But Kershaw’s removal isn’t just another instance of the fun police sucking all the enjoyment out of baseball. Nor is it an especially good example of the evolution in the use of pitchers in the modern game.
Even under the best of circumstances, starting pitchers are typically kept to short pitch counts in the first few starts of a season, reflecting the fact that throwing a baseball really hard is an insane, unnatural thing to do and that it takes a while to build up the stamina to do it repeatedly. This spring has hardly seen the best of circumstances. Because of the owners’ lockout, spring schedules were shortened and Kershaw threw just 11⅓ innings over four appearances.
Wednesday’s start was Kershaw’s first of the regular season; pushing his arm beyond its limits, given his age (34) and his recent injury history (not insignificant) would have been foolish. The risks to a pitcher’s health in the pursuit of a single moment of glory are real: When the Mets let Johan Santana throw 134 pitches to complete the franchise’s first no-hitter in June 2012, it marked Santana’s end as an effective pitcher. He would make just ten more starts, many of them dreadful, and in August he went on the disabled list. He never pitched again. (“Basically, the worst-case scenario happened,” said manager Terry Collins years later.) For a stacked Dodgers team that expects to be playing deep into October, and for a pitcher who hopes to be a part of the ride, risking a potentially serious injury isn’t remotely worth it.
But don’t take it from a nerd like me. Hear it from the man himself:
All of this stinks, absolutely. Perfect games rule, and Kershaw throwing one would have been one of the great moments in Dodgers history. But the story isn’t about what’s wrong with pitchers these days. It’s about a manager being able to read a calendar.