Clayton Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young winner, is once again experiencing back pain. As of now, the Dodgers aren’t panicking, but there’s definitely concern – in part because Los Angeles (43-37) is 14-2 when Kershaw pitches and 29-35 when he doesn’t.
“This guy is so valuable to the Dodgers,” Sports Illustrated MLB writer Tom Verducci said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “The team is a losing team – by a lot – when he doesn’t start. They’re two completely different teams. When he does start, they’re probably the best team in baseball. When he doesn’t, they’re the Colorado Rockies, so they can’t take any chances. You have the All-Star break coming up where you have the opportunity to really give him some rest in and out of the break. He deserves to start the All-Star Game, but given this physical question mark now, I would take him out of that and make sure he gets some rest.”
Yasiel Puig, meanwhile, continues to disappoint. Once considered the most exciting player in baseball, Puig is hitting .249 with a .292 OBP, six home runs, 23 RBIs and four doubles in 61 games this season.
“I think there’s real questions about what his ceiling is – not just with the Dodgers, but with everybody around baseball,” Verducci said. “This is a guy who is a superstar without putting up superstar numbers. He had an unbelievable first month in the big leagues (in 2013). I think he was the first player since Joe DiMaggio with 40 hits in his first month in the big leagues. People had no idea who this guy was. Well, (people) started figuring out the book on him. He doesn’t like pitches in on the plate, he chases sliders off the plate – this guy has been a very ordinary offensive player, at best, since his first month in the big leagues. He’s essentially been riding the coattails (of that ever since).”
Puig’s OBP has gone from .391 to .382 to .322 to .292, and his home runs have regressed each year.
“He just hasn’t been that good of an offensive player,” Verducci said. “Given the fact that now you’re talking three or four years here, the fact that you’re not seeing any growth whatsoever, makes me at least question what his ceiling is. Physically, it’s easy to see. You watch him sometimes with that arm in the outfield, the way he runs the bases, how far he can hit it. It’s great to see. You’re just not seeing it nearly often enough.”
Of course, that’s a trend we’ve seen throughout baseball. There are only 16 players in each league hitting .300 or better – an average of just over one per team.
Verducci blames sabermetrics for the dearth of .300 hitters.
“(Executives have) sent the message out there to a generation of hitters that batting average is overrated,” he said. “You can hit .230, but as long as you hit 25 home runs and take your walks, you’re going to get paid very well in the game. So the idea of hitting .300 historically, we all know what that means – something really special. To this generation of hitters, it means nothing. So batting average has been devalued. Strikeouts are definitely devalued. There’s no taboo to punching out 150 times. So hitters now are selling out just to hit the long ball, and I kind of get it. You guys watch games. Velocity has gone up 11, 12 consecutive years.”
A decade ago, the average major league fastball was about 89 miles per hour. Now it’s 92.
“That gives you less time as a hitter to read and react,” Verducci said. “So you have to sell out.”
Elsewhere in the NL, Verducci doesn’t think we’ve seen the best from the Cardinals (40-37), who trail the Cubs (51-26) by 11 games in the NL Central.
“I think St. Louis is going to make a move (before the deadline),” he said. “I think they’ve underachieved a little bit. Their starting pitching was really rocky the first couple months of the season, but I do think they’re starting to stabilize some things here. I do think they have a run coming in the second half. Don’t get me wrong: They’re not catching the Cubs. Nobody’s catching the Cubs, but they will be in the Wild Card hunt for sure.”
Verducci also anticipates movement in the AL East. The Orioles (47-30) lead the Red Sox (42-36) and Blue Jays (43-37) by 5.5 games – a lead they’ve built in spite of their starting pitching, not because of it. Baltimore would bolster its playoff chances with another arm, while Boston and Toronto will also look to get better before the deadline.
“I still think that’s going to be a three-team race in the East division,” Verducci said.