What happened in 2016: Was on his way to a historically great season when a herniated disc sidelined him for two months.
Clayton Kershaw‘s 2016 started off really, really well, even by Clayton Kershaw standards. By the end of May, he’d already reached 100 strikeouts versus just five walks, a feat never before accomplished in the modern era. He picked up an additional 40 strikeouts in five June starts (while issuing just four walks, one of which was intentional), and another 300 strikeout season seemed well within reach. Kershaw was preventing runs in typical Kershaw fashion, too. His 1.79 ERA at the end of June was easily the best in baseball, and he was on pace for what would have been the fourth ERA title of his career.
Then, misfortune struck. Following a lackluster outing in Pittsburgh on June 26, Kershaw missed his next scheduled start due to lower back soreness. He was placed on the disabled list on July 1 with mild disc herniation. At that point, the Dodgers were in second place in the NL West, with a record of 45-37; in non-Kershaw starts, they were 31-35. Yet the Dodgers carried on without their ace, managing to make up ground on the Giants and permanently occupying first place from August 21 onward (though San Francisco’s collapse certainly helped matters). The Dodgers had one of the least consistent rotations in baseball, but somehow made it work with what they had, in spite of lack of Kershaw’s services.
In September, Kershaw was finally well enough to make a rehab start, and he returned to Major League action on Sept. 9. With a mostly strong final month, he ended the 2016 regular season with 172 strikeouts and just 11 walks. Minimum 140 innings pitched, that’s easily the best K/BB (15.64) in the live-ball era, as well as the fourth-best K-BB% (29.6%).
In the playoffs, Kershaw struggled in both of his NLDS starts against the Nationals, but the Dodgers won both games. He also made a memorable relief appearance in Game 5, taking over for Kenley Jansen with two on, one out and a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th. Kershaw retired the two batters he faced (no small task, considering the first was Daniel Murphy aka Satan himself), sending the Dodgers to the Championship Series.
Kershaw made two starts in the NLCS against the Cubs, the first of which featured seven brilliant scoreless innings. His second NLCS start came in Game 6, when the Dodgers were down three games to two. It honestly didn’t even matter how Kershaw pitched in that game, as Kyle Hendricks and Aroldis Chapman came together to face the minimum number of Dodger batters. That sent the Dodgers packing, and the Cubs to the World Series … not really sure what happened to them from there.
In the end, Kershaw didn’t have enough innings to qualify for MLB’s leaderboards, but his efforts were still good enough to land him fifth place in Cy Young voting. His bWAR of 5.6 was tied for second in the National League, and his fWAR of 6.5 was tied for best in baseball. It’s a shame his season was derailed, because now we can only imagine what he might have accomplished had he remained healthy.
2017 status: Heading into his age-29 season and the fourth year of his seven-year contract extension, Kershaw is set to make $35 million.