Cautious optimism surrounds Clayton Kershaw’s return to Dodgers

Today’s the day. Today’s the day the Dodgers and the fan base get the best pitcher in the game back. There is reason to be (cautiously) optimistic.

Clayton Kershaw hasn’t pitched in a Major League game since June 26. After a rehab process that started, stopped, started again and culminated with a minor-league start on Saturday, he’s finally coming back — and none too soon.

But, it’d be foolish to expect him to pick up exactly where he left off nearly 2 1/2 months ago. From Rick Honeycutt, via Ken Gurnick:

“‘To be off two months and not be in a competitive situation, everybody has to be conscious that he’s not in midseason form,’ said Honeycutt. ‘He wouldn’t be going out there unless he felt well enough to do it. At the same time, he still has not been in a competitive situation at the big league level, using all of his pitches. At that time in ’14, it was the curveball that was not as good as it can be. That’s not only a control pitch, it’s a feel pitch and a release point.'”

“… Kershaw will be on an unspecified but rigid pitch/innings limit. Winning on Friday is important. Having Kershaw on the mound in October is essential, and that is the real goal here. Honeycutt said Kershaw understands there isn’t time for another setback.”

Well, yeah. All the simulated games, bullpen sessions and minor-league rehab starts (one, in this case) can’t truly replicate the Major League game — especially in a pennant race in September.

And this bit from Jon Heyman:

“Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who makes his return start Friday, is ‘pretty banged up’’ according to a Dodgers connected person. However, that person still expects Kershaw to ‘tough it out.'”

First of all, a “Dodger connected person” is about the silliest way to refer to a source. Second, I’m sure Kershaw isn’t 100 percent. He might not be 100 percent until some point in 2017, and I don’t think anybody expected him to be feeling like brand new. But Kershaw at, say, 80 percent is better than no Kershaw at all. This, of course, is provided he doesn’t alter his mechanics, get into bad habits and, most importantly, risks injury to another part of his body.

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Kershaw was having arguably his best season to date before he went down with the mildly herniated disc. Up until recently, he was still leading the majors in FanGraphs wins above average for pitchers. Now, he’s just second (5.5) behind Noah Syndergaard (5.8). He was exhibiting the best command/control of any pitcher in baseball, and was well on his way to a fourth NL Cy Young Award before injuring his back.

Despite his absence, the Dodgers made up 13 games in the National League West by playing .613 baseball. The offense finding its stride, a cobbled-together rotation and a better-than-expected (and overused) bullpen are to thank for that. For a player who has picked up the Dodgers so many times, it was nice to see the rest of the squad pick up for him while he was down.

He’s slated to make four starts to close the season (provided he’s healthy). After that, he could get as many as 6-8 starts in the postseason (or as few as one, honestly), depending how far the Dodgers go in October. Basically, the Dodgers need a third of a season worth of Kershaw to have a legitimate chance at the World Series. If his back can hold up until then, great. I’m hoping it won’t have an adverse effect on him going forward. But for now, if the Dodgers can get another third of a season out of Kershaw, they might be celebrating come the end of October, and that possibility is alluring.

Even if Kershaw isn’t the pitcher he was for the first three months of the season, he’s still better than most of the guys who will take the ball in the postseason. And counterpoint: What if he is the guy he was in the first three months?

What if.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.