The Los Angeles Dodgers announced on Tuesday that, as a result of back spasms, left-handed veteran Clayton Kershaw will not make his scheduled start against the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the NLCS; rookie Tony Gonsolin will take his place on the mound opposite Braves rookie Ian Anderson.
The 32-year-old three-time Cy Young Award winner has battled back problems since 2016, hitting the Injured List with a back-related ailment on four separate occasions, the most recent of which was just earlier this season, when Kershaw was similarly scratched from his Opening Day start just hours before first pitch. He didn’t make his first appearance of the season until August 2, but did not miss a start after that.
Clearly, the hope for the Dodgers is that Kershaw will make a faster recovery this time, ideally in time to make a start later this series. Last year, the Washington Nationals were dealt a similar blow when Max Scherzer needed to be scratched after waking up before his scheduled World Series Game 5 start with severe neck spasms; Scherzer was able to start Game 7 three days later.
Kershaw looked sharp in his first two postseason starts, allowing just three runs across 14 innings against the Brewers and Padres, striking out 19 and walking just one. Those came after a regular season in which the left-hander looked the best he had in years, turning in a 2.16 ERA and 3.31 FIP in 58.1 innings with his best strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.75) since 2016.
But this isn’t a time to panic for Dodgers fans. ZiPS still gives them a 55.9% chance to win Game 2 with Gonsolin getting the ball, down from a 62.3% chance when Kershaw was the anticipated starter. That isn’t all that surprising, considering how good the 26-year-old righty was during the regular season. Despite pitching in one of the most crowded rotations in baseball, Gonsolin was able to lead the team in WAR (1.8), and led starters in FIP (2.29) and HR/9 (0.39), while leading all major league rookies in swinging strike percentage (14.0%).
The biggest reason for Gonsolin’s success is his four-seamer. It averages 95 mph with 92nd percentile spin, according to Statcast, and held opponents to a .207 wOBA. By our pitch weights, it was the fifth-best fastball in baseball this year. Off that fastball, Gonsolin will throw a splitter, curveball, and slider, all of which have excellent movement and generate whiffs on more than 40% of opponents’ swings.
As good as Gonsolin is, however, this is far from an ideal spot for him to pitch in. Because the Dodgers made such quick work of their first two postseason opponents, Gonsolin hasn’t made a start since the regular season — 17 days ago. Now, his first career postseason appearance will come a couple of days before he expected it to, and he only has a few hours to try to settle into his typical game day routine. As difficult as it is to quantify what effect routine has on all this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this reshuffling have some effect on the young right-hander.
That isn’t where the questions stop for the Dodgers. How deep can Gonsolin be expected to pitch on short notice, two and a half weeks after his last game? How aggressive should manager Dave Roberts be in moving to his bullpen, which hasn’t really been tested to this point in the playoffs? He surely hoped to get long outings from Walker Buehler and Kershaw at the start of this series. Finally, in a series with no off days, how long will Los Angeles need to wait before it gets Kershaw back on the mound, and will his back be able to hold up when it needs to?
The Dodgers hardly broke a sweat in pulling off the best record in baseball during 2020’s 60-game regular season sprint. On the second day of the NLCS, however, down a game in the series and a potentially down a key starter in their rotation, bad outcomes are suddenly beginning to snowball. The Dodgers are better built to withstand these obstacles than any other team. We’ll soon see if that will be enough.
Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.
Even though this benefits my time, I’m still bummed out. Was looking forward to seeing how well Ian Anderson could match up against Kershaw.