If Walker Buehler was available to start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, selecting him for the starting assignment Thursday instead of Clayton Kershaw would have marked a symbolic passing of the torch. The decision to start Hyun-Jin Ryu sent an entirely different message, a statement that was less about the pitcher who was chosen and more about the one who wasn’t.
Kershaw isn’t The Guy anymore.
The Dodgers can explain the decision however they want, they can point to how Kershaw could pitch the final game of the five-game series if necessary, but what they are basically saying is that because his days as the best pitcher in baseball are behind him, the days they treat him like it are, too.
The sudden and unexpected shift in franchise doctrine was logically defensible. It was also completely unnecessary. It’s not as if there’s ever a comfortable moment to inform a proud professional he’s no longer the cornerstone of your franchise, but this feels particularly untimely.
The Dodgers tried to downplay the importance of the decision, but the story already has become a sideshow. The majority of questions directed at manager Dave Roberts in a Wednesday news conference pertained to the Game 1 starter.
Reading between the lines of what Roberts said, it didn’t sound as if Kershaw was welcoming of the news.
“Obviously, he wanted to pitch Game 1 and expected to,” Roberts said.
Kershaw didn’t make himself available to reporters. He is scheduled to speak at a news conference Thursday.
Kershaw would be the first to say that roles should be earned and Ryu posted better numbers than he did over the last month of the regular season, including in the final series in San Francisco. And while diminished fastball velocity and 3.89 earned-run average in September point to Kershaw being in the declining stages of his career, that doesn’t mean everything he has accomplished over the last decade should be wiped from the memory.
Diminished velocity and all, he finished the season with a 2.73 ERA. And his best postseason was his most recent. His blowing of separate four- and three-run leads in Game 5 of last year’s World Series might be what Los Angeles remembers, but what the city forgets is that the Dodgers won his first four starts in the playoffs. He pitched a masterpiece in Game 1 of the World Series, when he limited the Houston Astros to a run over seven innings and struck out 11 batters.
He already wasn’t the pitcher he was at his peak then. He still found a way.
Kershaw carried the Dodgers for most of the last decade. He was a model of professionalism. Considerations about his future aside — he can void the remainder of his contract and become a free agent this offseason — he earned the right to start Game 1. He certainly didn’t deserve a very public demotion two days before the start of the playoffs.
Now, the situation would be different if Buehler was the other option. The 24-year-old rookie has the best stuff on the Dodgers. If how he pitched in a Game 163 victory over the Colorado Rockies was an indication, he has a mental approach to match. Buehler is hands down the best pitcher on the team.
So if Buehler is available to open a series, go ahead, start him. Kershaw can’t complain.
This isn’t intended to be a slight against Ryu, but as well as he has pitched this season and as well equipped as he appears to be to deal with pressure, he hasn’t accomplished enough to supplant Kershaw.
And it’s true that the difference between starting Games 1 and 2 is largely cosmetic. Both games will be played at Dodger Stadium and the pitchers of both games will be available for a potential Game 5.
As Roberts said, “Game 1 is important, but so is Game 2.”
But this is a sport in which uniform numbers matter to players. Ceremonial titles mean something, too.
That the Dodgers would needlessly introduce a potentially emotionally destabilizing element into a series is puzzling.
“I think the thing is it’s always easy to have Clayton on regular [rest] or have Clayton go 120 pitches or 125 pitches,” Roberts said. “And he’s earned it. And he’s the best pitcher we have and he’s shown it throughout his entire career. The more responsible thing to the team and the organization is to do what’s right for the player and the team. That’s not always popular, but it’s something that we thought through a lot and the decisions that I made throughout the year and the decisions that we make on the roster reflect that. So regardless of how it plays out, we feel that this gives us the best chance to win the first two games.”
Roberts’ justification was that Ryu was lined up in front of Kershaw in the regular season and starting Ryu first would permit the left-handers to each pitch on five-days’ rest.
So Kershaw pitched better this season on five-days’ rest compared to four. But Ryu also pitched significantly better on six-days’ rest compared to five, this season and over his career.
The real problem could come in Game 5. Kershaw could start Game 2 and theoretically start that game on four-days’ rest. But Ryu could start it on five. And the Dodgers aren’t committed to starting Kershaw.
“Everything is going to be on the table at that point in time,” Roberts said.
The Dodgers have made three significant pitching decisions in the last year.
They started Yu Darvish in Game 7 of the World Series in November, costing them their first championship in 29 years.
They started Buehler in Game 163 against the Rockies this week, winning them their sixth consecutive division title and allowing them to avoid a dreaded wild-card game.
Starting Ryu over Kershaw was the third. The ramifications of the decision won’t be as obvious immediately, but they could be equally crucial.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez