Imperfect Circumstances Foiled Clayton Kershaw’s Perfect Game

© Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers couldn’t have asked for much more from Clayton Kershaw than what he gave them in his first start of the 2022 season, and so they didn’t. Faced with the unenviable choice of letting the future Hall of Famer push himself into the red in pursuit of a perfect game — under frigid conditions in Minnesota, no less — or take a more prudent course with a 34-year-old hurler whose last regular-season appearance placed his future in doubt, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts went against all sentimentality. He pulled Kershaw after seven spotless innings and 80 pitches, a move that the pitcher later called “the right choice,” and the Dodgers settled for a combined one-hitter and a 7-0 victory at Target Field.

For those seven glorious innings, it felt as though the three-time Cy Young winner had turned back the clock. Kershaw struck out 13 of the 21 batters he faced, generating 20 swings and misses, including 17 (out of 27 swings) with his slider. He added another 13 called strikes, including four with the slider and seven with his four-seam fastball, which averaged a modest 90.6 mph, 0.7 mph below last year’s mark. His 41% CSW% for the day was a mark he surpassed only twice last year, first with a 44% CSW% in his 13-strikeout June 27 outing against the Cubs — his last unfettered start of the season, as he landed on the injured list with inflammation in his left forearm following a four-inning start on July 3 — and then a 42% CSW in his September 19 start against the Diamondbacks, the best outing of his abbreviated September.

It didn’t hurt that Kershaw was going against a Twins team that entered having hit .206/.287/.419 through its first five games, and that sat Carlos Correa after the previous night’s slog, which lasted four hours plus an 88-minute rain delay. He carved them up with efficiency, never needing more than 15 pitches in an inning, and twice using eight or fewer. He threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of 21 batters, and went to a three-ball count just four times. Here’s a montage of his strikeouts, capped by Byron Buxton’s meeting with Public Enemy Number One:

Of the eight batted balls Kershaw allowed, seven had exit velocities below 90 mph, and of those only one had an expected batting average above .100, a short fifth-inning fly out by Max Kepler that left the bat at 71.0 mph and traveled just 217 feet before Chris Taylor ran it down, with an xBA of .310. The hardest-hit ball Kershaw allowed produced the kind of break that usually accompanies such gems. On a 94.1 mph hot shot up the middle by Gio Urshela in the seventh inning — a ball with an xBA of .420 — second baseman Gavin Lux was positioned perfectly and made a strong play:

Under normal circumstances, given his 80-pitch count, Kershaw would have been in the clear to chase after the 24th perfect game in major league history and the first since the Mariners’ Félix Hernández’s August 15, 2012 masterpiece against the Rays. Kershaw had already notched a no-hitter against the Rockies at Dodger Stadium on June 18, 2014, missing out on a perfect game only due to a Hanley Ramirez throwing error. These were not normal circumstances, however, and not just because the first-pitch temperature at Target Field was 38 degrees, with 18 mph winds and a wind chill factor of 28 degrees.

Kershaw has landed on the injured list in each of the last five seasons, averaging just 25 starts and 157 innings in the non-pandemic years and topping out at 28 starts and 178.1 innings while navigating a variety of back, shoulder, and elbow ailments. When he’s been available, he’s generally been excellent, making three All-Star teams, each in years accompanied by Cy Young support; in 2017, he won his fifth ERA title, topped 200 strikeouts for the seventh time, and placed second in the Cy Young voting behind Max Scherzer. Last year, despite an ERA that ballooned to a career-high 3.55 due to his late-season woes, he produced a 16.7% swinging strike rate, the highest in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings. During all of those starts and stops, he’s helped the Dodgers to three pennants and, in 2020, their long-elusive championship.

Though he’s shed that particular burden, Kershaw brought additional baggage to Wednesday’s start. In his last regular season appearance, on October 1, 2021, he had retired just five of 10 Brewers over the course of 42 pitches before leaving the mound due to discomfort in his left forearm. That abortive outing was his fourth start after a 10-week absence due to his forearm inflammation. The early departure ruled him out for the 2021 postseason, depriving him of a chance to help the Dodgers defend their title and sending him into free agency for the first time with a great deal of uncertainty about whether he’d return, not only to Los Angeles but to baseball at all.

Kershaw underwent a platelet-rich plasma injection into his left flexor tendon in early October, didn’t begin throwing again until January, and didn’t re-sign with the Dodgers until March 11. On the day after the lockout ended, he agreed to a one-year, $17 million deal with incentives that could take him to $22 million. He made only three Cactus League starts, then followed with a five-inning, 75-pitch simulated game on April 7, the day before the Dodgers opened their season against the Rockies in Colorado.

That confluence of circumstances made completing the perfect game too tall an order, but that probably would have been the case for any pitcher given the hasty run-up to the season. Through Tuesday, no starter had pitched more than seven innings in a single game, only five out of 150 had gone more than six innings, and only six had topped 90 pitches. As the game returned from a commercial break at the top of the seventh, the SportsNet Los Angeles feed showed Kershaw and Roberts conversing in the Dodgers’ dugout. The subject of their discussion was no mystery. Via The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya:

This wasn’t Roberts’ first rodeo. In fact, it was the fourth time he’s pulled a starter who was making significant headway towards a no-hitter:

Dodgers Pulled With a No-Hitter in Progress Since 2016
Player Date Opp IP H R ER BB SO Pit
Ross Stripling 4/8/16 SFG 7.1 0 1 1 4 4 100
Rich Hill 9/10/16 MIA 7.0 0 0 0 0 9 89
Walker Buehler 5/4/18 SDP 6.0 0 0 0 3 8 93
Clayton Kershaw 4/13/22 MIN 7.0 0 0 0 0 13 80
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

This isn’t just a Roberts thing, it’s an industry-wide practice that I’ve tracked in recent years. Last year, on 14 occasions a manager pulled a starter after at least five no-hit innings, surpassing the 2018 record of 11; in both of those seasons, two such games turned into combined no-hitters.

As with Wednesday, the other times Roberts was faced with such a situation had extenuating circumstances. Stripling, a 26-year-old rookie making his first major league start, had missed all of 2014 and part of ’15 while recuperating from Tommy John surgery, and had topped out at 78 pitches in spring training. Having reached 100 pitches while walking his fourth hitter of the night in the seventh inning, it was clear he wasn’t going to complete the job; alas, reliever Chris Hatcher immediately served up a game-tying two-run homer to Trevor Brown, hence the run charged to his line. The Giants ended up winning that game in 10 innings, but Stripling’s father actually thanked Roberts afterwards for keeping his son’s future in mind.

Hill was making just his third start for the Dodgers after being acquired by the team on August 1 of that year, while in the midst of a five-week absence due to a bout of blisters. With concerns regarding a recurrence that could affect his postseason availability, Roberts gave him the hook. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time since at least 1900 that a pitcher had been pulled after at least seven perfect innings. The Dodgers’ shot at a combined perfecto ended when Joe Blanton allowed a two-out single to Jeff Francoeur in the eighth inning.

(Less than a year later, on August 24, 2017, Roberts let Hill pursue a perfect game a no-hitter into the 10th inning against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. He lost his shot at a perfect game via third baseman Logan Forsythe’s ninth-inning error, then began the 10th by serving up a walk-off homer to Josh Harrison.)

Buehler was a 23-year-old rookie making just his third start in the majors. Not only had he already undergone Tommy John surgery, he was recovering from it when the Dodgers drafted him out of Vanderbilt with the 24th pick in 2015. With his pitch count at 93 through six, the math showed that he wouldn’t reach the promised land on his own either. In this case, a trio of relievers finished the job for the first combined no-hitter in franchise history.

Given that litany, and Kershaw’s recent history, all signs pointed to Roberts pulling his southpaw before he could get to 27 outs. For anyone wanting to see a superstar pursue one of baseball’s rarest achievements, this scribe included, it was a bummer; the fan in all of us wants to witness this type of greatness. For our nation’s foremost cloud-yellers and hot-take artists, it was a bounty of Everything That’s Wrong with Baseball. But for a player who has always put his team’s success ahead of his personal glory, eschewing “selfish goals,” it was hardly a surprise.

“Why did Clayton Kershaw come back to the Dodgers?” asked Eric Karros in the SNLA broadcast booth. “What’s the goal? It’s to win a World Series. You’re not winning anything on a Wednesday in Minnesota [on] April 13.”

When he re-signed last month, Kershaw had been explicit about his pursuit of another title, saying, “I wanted to be here and win a World Series. I think the Dodgers give me the best chance to do that and I’m excited to be back.” After Wednesday’s game, he alluded to that objective, saying, “I would have loved to have stayed in. But bigger things, man. Bigger things.”

Kershaw acknowledged that he simply wasn’t built up enough to go the distance at this stage. “I knew going in that my pitch count wasn’t going to be 100, let alone 90 or whatever,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to do to have to come out of the game when you’re doing that, but like I said we’re here to win and this was the right choice.”

The situation that Kershaw and Roberts found themselves in echoed that of the Yankees’ David Cone and Joe Torre on September 2, 1996. Cone was making his major league return after missing four months due to surgery to repair an aneurysm in his right arm. He no-hit the A’s through seven innings and 85 pitches but was pulled before he could complete the job. “I’ll never wonder if this could have been my last opportunity to throw one,” he said at the time. “I wouldn’t think that way. I appreciate that they took me out of the game. It’s more important for us to get to the playoffs and the World Series.”

From the Yankees’ broadcast booth on Wednesday night, Cone put himself in the manager’s shoes. “The problem for managers is that you have to make the decision after the seventh inning, because if you allow him to go out and pitch the eighth inning, then you can’t stop it,” he said. “If he’s perfect after eight, he’s only three outs away and he might be over a hundred pitches, then you have a real quandary.” Instead of pressing his luck in his return, Cone continued to build up strength, and in October helped the Yankees win their first World Series in 18 years; three years later, he pitched a perfect game against the Expos.

More from Kershaw, via Ardaya:

“Earlier in my career I would’ve been built up to 100 pitches. I mean, blame it on the lockout. Blame it on me not picking up a baseball till January but I mean… My slider was horrible the last two innings. It didn’t have the bite. It was time. It was time.”

Catcher Austin Barnes concurred:

“Later in the season, when he’s a little more built up, I think he goes out there, but I think that’s the right call, taking him out there. It was the right move, for sure. I think he was getting a little tired.”

Not surprisingly, Kershaw’s velocity was trending downwards; over his final three innings, he threw just one fastball that broke 90 mph:

It was quickly apparent how relieved Kershaw was to be relieved — and why not, given the doubts that he carried into the game? He positively beamed as Barnes helped to ice the Dodgers’ victory by hitting the third of the team’s three straight homers in the top of the eighth inning, following shots by Cody Bellinger and Lux. The homers expanded the Dodgers’ lead from 3-0 to 6-0, after which Roberts called on lefty Alex Vesia, who with one out gave up a single to Gary Sánchez and then walked Kepler before escaping the jam. Justin Bruihl tacked on a 1-2-3 ninth inning after Max Muncy added another solo homer, and the Dodgers had their 7-0 win.

It wasn’t history, unless you’re counting Roberts furthering his own record for pulling pitchers with perfect games in progress. Nonetheless, it was a sight to behold, and an outing that rates as a very promising development for the Dodgers, who entered the season with an uncharacteristically thin rotation that ranked just 10th in our preseason positional power rankings after placing second in last year’s edition. Kershaw rounds out their big three along with Buehler and Julio Urías, but the slot that last year was filled by the top-of-the-rotation arms of Trevor Bauer (currently on administrative leave in connection with allegations pertaining to violations of the league’s joint domestic violence and sexual assault policy) and then Scherzer (now a Met) belongs to Andrew Heaney, a reclamation project who did pitch well in his first outing on Tuesday. Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson are also in the picture, and after that, things look rather threadbare.

Kershaw may not flirt with perfection again, but if he can flash the kind of dominance he showed on Wednesday, and consistently give the Dodgers the six or seven innings he routinely turned in during the first half of 2021, they’ll be a stronger club. And just maybe he’ll decide he wants to stick around and keep pitching.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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9 months ago

If Kershaw wanted to come out at that point I could agree with it, but it should have been completely up to him there. He has accomplished everything else in his career. A perfect game is basically the only thing not on his resume. The injury risk should have been left up to the hall of fame veteran pitcher, was it worth it to him.

9 months ago
Reply to  bluerum29

He himself said he wanted to end at 80 or 85 pitches. He didn’t ask to stay out there.

9 months ago
Reply to  dl80

He is a veteran and a professional at that. Saying anything else would be childish. What would making a fuss accomplish?

9 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

It wouldn’t be childish, it would be a lie. It sounds like he recognized that the upside of a perfect game wasn’t worth the downside

Six Ten
9 months ago
Reply to  bluerum29

Right here on this website they documented the shallowness of the Dodgers’ rotation. They’re in great position to win everything with a healthy Kershaw, but it gets awfully thin with a banged up Kershaw. The injury risk isn’t just for him, it’s for him plus the other 40 or whatever guys who are gonna play for this team this year, plus the coaches and managers and attendants. Every single person in that org is trying to win the World Series, Bagging one chance at history for himself for a bigger one for the whole team is obviously the correct move.

Is a perfect game fun and cool? Yes, it’s very fun and extremely cool. Is it more fun and cool than Kershaw exorcising a bunch of playoff demons and laying waste to guys for 25-30 innings in October? Not remotely. That would be the most fun thing in the world.

9 months ago
Reply to  Six Ten

It is not valid to assume that pitching two more innings yesterday has any impact at all on anything. It might, but it is extremely unlikely. Saying this was obviously correct is absolutely wrong.Throwing 100 pitches is far from obviously dangerous. Just making sure that we are talking about the same guy that is always hurt in the second half and known as being a playoff choke artist. Yeah, their season definitely hinges on keeping Kershaw under 100 pitches last night.

The Dodgers micromanage their pitchers every year and also manage to be thin on arms by September and they always under-perform in the playoffs, but yeah, they know what they are doing. Your line of thinking prevents him from throwing a perfect game. You will never be able to prove in any way that pulling him yesterday has anything to do with him laying waste in the playoffs if that happens. The second that he doesn’t lay waste in the playoffs, your decision becomes a tragedy. The idea that him leaving after 80 pitches in April make him have a historic playoff run is absurd.It is far more likely that there is no relationship between the two events.

9 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

It is not valid to assume that pitching two more innings yesterday has any impact at all on anything. It might, but it is extremely unlikely. Saying this was obviously correct is absolutely wrong.

True, saying it was obviously correct was wrong. But saying it was extremely unlikely is also wrong. Pitch counts are not an exact science.

What we do know, however, is that Kershaw’s velocity was trending down the last couple of innings—about as big of a red flag as there is—and that Kershaw himself was targeting 80-85 pitches after being built up to 75 previously. Considering his injury history the last couple of years, it is entirely believable that he was telling the truth.

Under different circumstances, it may have been overkill. But considering the circumstances as a whole, it was a defensible decision.

Last edited 9 months ago by shadowmoses
9 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

yea the Dodgers have no idea what they’re doing, but RonnieDobbs does!

9 months ago
Reply to  bluerum29

Injury risk lol. He has been injured for how many years straight now? Pulling him had nothing to do with injury prevention. LAD does everything they can to ensure that the players do not get credit for their contributions to the team.The last thing that org wants to see is an individual getting any credit… unless it was a recent FA signing, trade acquisition or a rookie that they handed a job to. If they could remove the names and numbers from the player jerseys they would.

Six Ten
9 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

It 100% has to do with injury prevention, that part isn’t even controversial. The only question is whether it’s worthwhile to do it.

Da Bear
9 months ago
Reply to  Six Ten

The Dodgers had three choices:

  1. Let Kershaw pitch the 8th, resulting in some amount of injury risk to Clayton Kershaw.
  2. Let somebody else (probably a reliever who throws harder than 90) pitch the 8th, resulting in some different amount of injury risk to that pitcher.
  3. Walk off the field and forfeit the game completely. It’d be a shame to have to forfeit with a 6-0 lead after 7, but hey–you wouldn’t want to risk your valuable players getting hurt, right?
Jason Bmember
9 months ago
Reply to  Da Bear

Yes, that’s exactly what everyone is arguing. They should have forfeited. *hard eye roll at disingenuous comment*

Charles Baltermember
9 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

I love how back in the day, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine basically averaged 34 starts and 230-340 IP per year and were hardly ever on the DL (IL).

Now, starting pitchers are averaging more like 30 starts and 175 IP, and they’re getting hurt just as often, if not more.

But hey, if it weren’t this way, I wouldn’t get the joy of seeing Luis Severino gut-out two-and-two-thirds innings before giving way to Michael King, Clarke Schmidt, Ron Marinaccio, Miguel Castro, Clay Holmes, Lucas Luetge, and Aroldis Chapman.

This is totally better than getting to watch Curt Schilling face Mike Mussina and they both pitch into the eighth. I’m so thankful the game has “evolved.”

9 months ago
Reply to  Charles Balter

Yeah, it’s almost as if the game hasn’t completely changed and these guys are just overpaid wusses.