Does Kershaw have a curveball problem?

May, 17, 2014
May 17
10:27
PM PT
PHOENIX -- Even great pitchers are entitled to bad days, but Clayton Kershaw isn't a shrug-it-off kind of guy.

"You're allowed to have bad days, but those have to be salvaged," he said. "You've got to save your bullpen. You've got to at least get through five or six [innings] on bad days, so yeah, you're allowed to, but not like this."

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw, Don Mattingly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw endured the second-shortest outing of his career Saturday in Arizona, lasting only 1 2/3 innings in a loss.
Kershaw was speaking, in rather clipped sentences, after the second-shortest outing of his major league career – 1⅔ innings -- in the Dodgers' 18-7 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday night. Is one awful outing by a great pitcher anything to be concerned about? In the big picture, probably not. Kershaw's arm and body should be relatively fresh after six weeks on the disabled list recovering from a strained muscle in his upper back, and manager Don Mattingly said the team has no concerns about Kershaw being hurt.

But it's also not something to dismiss out of hand, particularly since his off night Saturday prevented the Dodgers from getting on the roll they've been anticipating for weeks.

Kershaw's best put-away pitch is in a slump. Remember when Vin Scully, while watching Kershaw pitch a spring training game as a 19-year old, wearing uniform No. 96, called his curveball "public enemy No. 1?" Well, right now, it's its own worst enemy.

Kershaw didn't give up a home run on a curveball in all of 2013 or all of 2012, and batters hit .096 in at-bats ending in a slow curve -- 80 of which turned into strikeouts -- last season. Kershaw is still a fastball pitcher for the most part. It's not as if he has gone the Josh Beckett route and decided to lull hitters to sleep with slow stuff. He still throws his fastball 56 percent of the time.

But when he gets ahead in the count, he has been able to rely on one of the most devastating pitches in baseball for three seasons running. Until now.

On Sunday, Kershaw gave up a home run to the San Francisco Giants' Brandon Hicks on an 0-2 curveball. While the Diamondbacks were batting around in the second inning Saturday night, they feasted on hanging Kershaw breaking balls. Cliff Pennington hammered an 0-2 curveball into the left-center field gap. Paul Goldschmidt yanked a 2-2 curveball into the left-field corner.

For whatever reason, right now, it's not a put-away pitch for Kershaw; it's a knockout pitch for the opposition. These kinds of details can prove problematic.

"You can't really make excuses, saying they found holes tonight. They hit balls hard, and they hit balls in the gaps," Kershaw said. "I just got hit hard tonight."

It's probably a pretty good bet that Kershaw will grind pretty hard in his next bullpen session trying to figure out why he's hanging so many slow breaking balls. The Dodgers have a good pitching coach in Rick Honeycutt, and catcher A.J. Ellis might have a few things to chip in.

"If you look at the amount of strikeouts he's had in his career, Clayton knows how to put guys away," Ellis said. "If you're going to have a bad day doing it, do it all at one time. Next time, he'll make the adjustment and put guys away with two strikes."

Kershaw deserves the benefit of the doubt in situations such as these. Based on his track record since the start of 2011, the two Cy Young Awards and three ERA titles, we should probably assume he'll figure something out and get back on track.

This Dodgers bullpen is beginning to look as if it might never provide the stability late in games on which the team was banking. Dodgers relievers have walked 83 batters, most in the National League. Dodgers relievers have pitched 153 innings, most in the major leagues. Closer Kenley Jansen's ERA is 4.34, Brian Wilson's is 9.45, Chris Perez's is 5.09. Between them, they're making $16.6 million and were supposed to make the late innings pretty close to sure things.

Instead, getting the final nine outs is usually an adventure. Catcher Drew Butera has had to pitch in two of the Dodgers' past three games. Not a good sign.

Mattingly continues to say he's not concerned about his bullpen -- "We're capable," he said -- but Dodgers fans, at least those who can watch the games, might beg to differ.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Zack Greinke
WINS ERA SO IP
12 2.65 153 139
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .316
HRA. Gonzalez 15
RBIA. Gonzalez 70
RY. Puig 59
OPSY. Puig .943
ERAC. Kershaw 1.76
SOZ. Greinke 153