A case for Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke skipping the Dodgers’ Australia trip

It’s assumed by everyone Clayton Kershaw will start the first game of the season. He’s the ace, he pitches the first game — not unlike the second baseman batting second in Don Mattingly‘s lineups.

But, it might actually make sense to hold Kershaw back from starting the first “official” game of the season in Australia.

It’s still February, and the Dodgers have already expressed concern about Kershaw’s 2014 workload — they want him to be as fresh as possible for the postseason. If Kershaw were to start three of the first six games of the season (the schedule allows for that), the Dodgers wouldn’t be doing that.

Teams should want their best pitcher throwing as much as possible, but there is something to be said for big workloads these days. Kershaw has averaged 225 innings in the last four years, including an career-most 236 in 2013 (259, if you count his 23 postseason innings). While he was nails against the Braves in the National League Division Series and in the first game against the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, Kershaw looked tired in Game 6, and the results showed as much.

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I first heard David Vassegh mention this possibility on Dodger Talk last week. While I don’t agree with a lot of comments and opinions on the show, this one actually makes some sense.

Hitters are always ahead of pitchers in spring training. All these guys are used to a full month of games before breaking camp. The Dodgers (and Diamondbacks) have the shortest camps this year because of the opener down under. The Dodgers begin games today, and their final game in Glendale is March 16 (I’ll be there!). They come back after the trip and have the Freeway Series on March 27-29, with their first real stateside game March 30 against the Padres on Sunday Night Baseball.

Kershaw is entering his age-26 season and just signed a mega deal. The last thing the Dodgers need is have him pitch meaningful games before he’s ready. That could be said about all their pitchers, but with the investment they made in Kershaw, it’s much more magnified. Skipping the Australia trip is more about his being ready for 32-33 starts from April through September, and hopefully 5-6 starts in October.

If Kershaw does remain in Glendale, he can get plenty of work in on the back fields. While he wouldn’t be facing major leaguers (or future major leaguers), it’d be true game action, and would help him get his arm where it needs to be.

Pitchers are creatures of habit and routine. Kershaw has a specific routine, and throwing a regular season game in Australia in March probably isn’t part of it.

The more I think about it, the more I agree with Zack Greinke about there being “zero excitement” for the trip, seeing as he’d be probably be slated to start the game that was reserved for Kershaw.

Greinke caught some flak for that comment, but I see nothing wrong with it. Greinke is one of the most honest athletes in sports today, and that’s rather refreshing. It’s better than a standard or canned, “We look forward to playing in Australia to open the 2014 season.”

So, if Kershaw is out, who goes to Australia? Greinke — despite his comments — would have to go. I mean, the Dodgers couldn’t conceivably refuse to throw Kershaw and Greinke in the first two meaningful games of the season… right?

Hyun-Jin Ryu would be one of the starters for sure. He’s one of the international faces of the club, and what better way to promote the Dodgers by sending a Korean pitcher to Australia?

Since the Dodgers don’t need a fifth starter much in April, even if they don’t throw Kershaw as much as they can, perhaps Ryu and Dan Haren could get the first two starts, with Josh Beckett (the leader for the No. 5 rotation spot) ready to spell Haren for a start in April. Remember, Haren spent time on the disabled list last season because he was tired, not because he was hurt. Limiting Haren’s workload might be a little more important than limiting Kershaw’s at this point (but only a little).

If Greinke isn’t excited (at all) for the trip, then maybe it makes more sense to hold him back as well. He and Kershaw give the Dodgers the best 1-2 combination in baseball. If the team sends Ryu and Haren — and the team loses both games — is it really the end of the world? I know, I know, games in April (well, March, in this case) mean just as much as games in September. However, the Dodgers returning home 0-2 isn’t devastating. Sure, it’d suck, but there is far too much talent and veteran presents on this team to let an 0-2 rattle it.

Oh, and Ryu and Haren are good pitchers. There’s every chance the Dodgers come back 2-0, despite sending their No. 3 and 4 starters. Then, all the hand-wringing about not sending Kershaw and Greinke will have been for naught.

It’s almost like playing with house money. Send Ryu and Haren to face off against Patrick Corbin, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill or whomever the Diamondbacks are sending to Australia — I like the Dodgers’ chances in those match-ups.

There’s a real possibility Kershaw doesn’t go, and Greinke probably shouldn’t go. I don’t see the scenario playing out like this, but it’s something that should at least be considered by Mattingly and Co.

Pitcher Hitting – The Dodgers’ Secret Weapon?

The Dodgers’ current starting rotation is shaping up to be one of the strongest in the league. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dan Haren, and Josh Beckett is a combination that most teams in the league envy for their pitching ability. The Dodgers’ projected rotation has a hidden talent, though: they can hit. I’m not talking about sacrifice bunting, either. That’s boring. When compared to other pitchers, they can do more than that.

The graph below shows each of the projected starting five in terms of wRC+ (minimum 35 plate appearances) by season. The average wRC+ for a position player is 100, and the average wRC+ for NL pitchers is the light blue line.   Pitcher_Hitting_Chart

The graph shows that all of the Dodgers’ starting five is consistently better than the average pitcher with the bat. Let’s break this down pitcher-by-pitcher:

Clayton Kershaw

Best season: 2013. 92 PA, .182/.241/.260, 42 wRC+, 0.6 oWAR

Career: 424 PA, .154/.192/.175, -3 wRC+, 0.8 oWAR

Best moment: 4-1-13 Opening Day HR

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An easy choice. We’re not going to forget this moment for a long time.

Conclusion: Kershaw struggled with the bat during his first three years in the majors, hitting just .076/.103/.076 in his first 171 plate appearances. However, he’s improved his hitting line to .204/.247/.238 in his last 253 plate appearances. He’s been consistently competent with the bat over the last three seasons, and there is no reason to think that this won’t continue in 2014.

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