As a franchise player, the general assumption is Clayton Kershaw can dictate plenty within the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Perception, of course, isn’t always reality. Even with his stature and importance, Kershaw remains singularly focused on what he can control on the field.
However, the Dodgers inadvertently began to interfere with him on the mound last season with their aggressive shifting. Early indications of significant changes were there when the club hired Andrew Friedman as president of baseball operations in October 2014.
Friedman represented the first significant step toward a more progressive-thinking front office. The Dodgers’ deep collection of executives, special assistants and advisors has since become regarded as arguably the most innovative in all of professional sports.
Kershaw, however, isn’t completely on board with the organization’s penchant to use shifts. He called the strategy into question early last season and eventually the Dodgers largely did away with the tactic in games the 2014 National League MVP started.
In addressing defensive shifts, Kershaw explained why his preference is to pitch with infielders in a traditional alignment, via Bill Plunkett of the OC Register:
“I think just mentally for me I can live with a hard-hit ball getting through a hole as opposed to a soft, cheap ground ball that goes through because no one is playing there because of a shift,” Kershaw said. “Mentally, it’s just easier for me to swallow. You start making excuses in your head like, ‘Ah, I made my pitch.’ You just don’t want to have that in the back of your mind. At least I don’t.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has made it no secret his club will use shifts when analytics suggest they do so. Kershaw added he believes a wide array of statistics need to be taken into account when making such a decision:
“For me, I think you have to weigh in personal history a little more than just how a guy swings and what a guy’s spray chart looks like,” Kershaw said. “That includes probably his career against left-handed pitching or that season or whatever it may be. Guys have different approaches against different guys. For me, personal history weighs in more than an overall spray chart.”
With that, Roberts said he will discuss the strategy with Kershaw and is aware of the importance of receiving the ace’s approval:
He thinks it is up to him and new bench coach Bob Geren to make their sales pitch to Kershaw before planning the defense behind him. “Yeah, I do,” Roberts said. “Because the starting pitcher is the most important person that day. So if he’s not comfortable – especially a pitcher as accomplished as Clayton is – you’ve gotta have the buy-in. If he’s not comfortable and doesn’t trust what we’re doing behind him, then it doesn’t work.”
While shifts can certainly be useful, their success rate for a pitcher of Kershaw’s merit is perhaps lower than typical results because of the soft contact the southpaw can induce. With a shift in place, some of that becomes fluke hits.
With the same goal in mind, Kershaw, Roberts and Dodgers bench coach Bob Geren presumably will arrive at an amicable decision. It just may come after some trial and error, as was the case last season.