Clayton Kershaw is more important to baseball than any perfect game could be

Clayton Kershaw looked jovial in the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout, slapping backs and shaking hands. The scoreboard showed it was the eighth inning, and zeros remained in every slot except errors for the Minnesota Twins, but Alex Vesia was taking the mound. A bid for MLB’s first perfect game since 2012 was abandoned.

By the time many heard that a living legend was throwing a perfect game on a Wednesday afternoon, Kershaw was done throwing anything at all. If you scrambled to a television or snuck onto your work monitor, it was a letdown, a big one.

The deflation, predictably, turned to misdirected anger online. Some fans, broadcasters and some former players lashed out at Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who has found himself in this scenario a couple times now, famously (or infamously) pulling Rich Hill from a perfect game after seven innings and rookie Ross Stripling from a no-hit bid. Even more directed their ire at the easiest target in sports right now: baseball as a whole. MLB has an image problem, and virtually any dramatic moment can be weaponized in an instant. This one was easier than most.

The logic of the takes, as the crow flies:

  • Perfect games are an exceedingly rare, edge-of-your-seat achievement.

  • The declining use of starting pitchers is an “analytics-are-ruining-the-sport” bogeyman.

  • Kershaw, one of MLB’s biggest names, exited a perfect game bid early.

  • This is why baseball is dying.

The reality of this situation just has little to do with any of that. If there was a takeaway for baseball as an ongoing entertainment concern, it was one of rejuvenation. Clayton Kershaw, 34 years old and only months removed from worrisome speculation about his future, hurled seven perfect innings.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw exited after seven innings Wednesday even though he was carrying a perfect game. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw exited after seven innings Wednesday even though he was carrying a perfect game. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Why the Dodgers’ decision was obvious

It’s easy to sit back and wish that we had watched a perfect game. Or even a deeper run at a perfect game. It is legitimately a bummer that the circumstances conspired to limit a potentially historic performance.

The circumstances are not a big-picture story, though. They are a decidedly specific one.

After the Dodgers closed out the win, Roberts and Kershaw spoke of the decision as fairly obvious. Kershaw, who left after 80 pitches, pointed out that he hadn’t thrown more than 75 pitches in any outing this year, and even that came in a sim game. Going any further felt like risking the Dodgers’ long-term goals.

“Earlier in my career, I’d be built up to 100 pitches,” Kershaw told reporters. “Blame it on the lockout, blame it on me not picking up a baseball until January. My slider was horrible the last two innings, it didn’t have the bite. It was time.”

Lest we forget, just last September, a fully healthy and stretched out Max Scherzer chased perfection into the eighth under Roberts’ watch.

Coming off a lockout-shortened spring training and an injury-influenced offseason, Kershaw simply wasn’t prepared for that. No one would have expected eight or nine innings the moment before first pitch, and it didn’t become a much more reasonable request even as he powered through a stellar outing.

Kershaw’s seven-inning start is tied for the second-longest of the MLB season thus far, and tied for the longest by a pitcher in his first appearance. Sean Manaea, who wasn’t coming off injury and isn’t 34, didn’t come back out to chase a no-hitter for the San Diego Padres after seven innings and 88 pitches.

This isn’t a 2020s baseball problem, either. In 1996, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre pulled David Cone from a no-hit bid after seven innings and 85 pitches in his first start back from surgery to remove an aneurysm. And in 1990, in his first start after a lockout had condensed spring training, the Angels’ Mark Langston pulled himself out of a no-hit bid after seven frames.

You can protest that the hallowed perfect game could have and should have changed the equation, yet it doesn’t feel particularly compelling for a team and a pitcher whose regular-season efforts have never been the issue.

By any forward-looking standard, this was a wildly encouraging victory for the Dodgers and one of the game’s most recognizable characters. Forearm problems shut Kershaw down in July 2021 and then again in September, causing him to miss a Dodgers’ postseason run for the first time in his career.

Over the offseason, he reportedly contemplated ending his Dodgers tenure and joining the Texas Rangers. There was some question as to whether he’d require Tommy John surgery and lose precious years of his remaining career. Instead, he was back on the mound with an evolving approach that has served him well.

In a move that echoes adjustments made by other aging power pitchers like CC Sabathia, Kershaw is emphasizing parts of his arsenal that are less reliant on velocity. He leaned on his legendary slider Wednesday, throwing it more than half the time. The Twins whiffed a whopping 17 times on 27 swings.

Don't mistake one game for MLB's entertainment issues

Recognizing the reasoning for Kershaw’s exit doesn’t mean denying the ways in which MLB is bleeding entertainment value. Starting pitchers who once constituted each game’s protagonists — the names on the marquee — have had their roles whittled away as teams discover and act on the advantages of throwing fresh new arms at hitters.

Left unchecked, the trend threatens to slowly melt down the concept of an ace over the next generation or two. That’s starting to be addressed via roster limits, but more action might be needed to ensure that 2075 baseball fans have avatars as electrifying as Kershaw, Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke taking the mound every fifth day.

Tripping over yourself to pronounce baseball doomed because Kershaw left Wednesday’s game is willfully neglecting to grapple with the sport's larger evolution and the systemic solutions required. It also fails to account for his much larger role in the narrative arc of the 2022 season.

Still without a ring in a full-length season, the Dodgers have yet another terrifying machine of a roster. Roberts even guaranteed a World Series win on the record earlier this spring. His one eventual caveat? If the rotation stays healthy.

MLB has a decidedly more difficult load-management story to tell than the NBA — no one gets pulled from a potential 50-point outburst, they just don’t play — but the forces at work are similar. Teams are in the business of winning titles. Leagues are in the business of adding more playoff teams to make more TV money. Up to a certain point (that, yes, the Lakers still somehow managed to plunge below), preserving energy and health for the playoffs is more important than a weeknight game on the road.

If you want to really ensure a big-tent moment without the propulsion of championship stakes, you’ll probably have to get creative. MLB had some success with the Field of Dreams Game. The NBA has repeatedly floated a midseason tournament that could achieve similar drama.

While baseball’s margins aren’t wide enough to openly flaunt the meaninglessness of its regular-season games just yet, they’re safe enough that Roberts had no incentive to push Kershaw past his limits for our collective enjoyment. We don’t know if an extra inning or two would wreck his season or even his next start, but clearly he and Roberts saw no reason to chance it.

Few storylines have produced more drama over the past decade than Kershaw’s tortured dance with October. And in almost every situation, preserving Kershaw’s 34-year-old arm for the playoff stage lines up with whims of the average fan. On Wednesday, on a cold Minnesota day, on the heels of a lockout, the Dodgers ran into a sequence of events where it didn’t. Whether you want to admit it, that’s just baseball.