LOS ANGELES – Maybe you believe he's been unlucky. Maybe the deeper statistics say he's been unlucky.
Clayton Kershaw does not believe he's been unlucky. He thinks he should throw better pitches and then, maybe, he wouldn't be unlucky anymore.
These are the thoughts he has, the conversations he's drawn into, when a pitcher of his stature has one win in seven starts and a 4.26 ERA, when some numbers insist he has been exactly the pitcher he was for the past four seasons while others imply there could be something more to consider if you're of the mind to consider them.
The last word, of course, belongs to Kershaw and then whether you choose to believe the first 1,400 innings of his career or the last 44. Because random comes for everyone, no matter how big and strong, no matter how polished, no matter how prepared. Things just happen. It's not always pleasant. And it doesn't always come wrapped in a pretty statistic that's supposed to have it all make sense.
For example, Kershaw is striking out batters at a greater rate than he did last season, when he won the Cy Young and MVP awards. His ground ball rate is about the same. So, same pitcher, right? Except, in those 44-plus innings, which amount to little other than they're the only ones he's pitched this season, and if you've seen Kershaw pitch you know there are no insignificant innings, batters are hitting for a higher average and hitting more home runs. The balls they're putting into play are more damaging. When a pitcher with the precision, raw stuff and history of Kershaw suddenly finds more ground balls are reaching the outfield and more fly balls are clearing the outfield, that seems random. Unlucky even. And we'd agree. Kershaw, however, winced.
"That stuff is one thing, which is fine," he said of the more sabermetrically inclined. "But, for me, my pitch execution hasn't been good. That's what I look at. I know, for me, I haven't pitched as well as I can."
Kershaw has thrown a few more fastballs over last season, but not so many to suggest a change in strategy. (He's picked up velocity on his fastball, in fact.) If anything, Kershaw's strategy to get ahead – primarily with the fastball – has bitten him: Buster Posey and Hector Gomez have homered on first-pitch fastballs. Paul Goldschmidt homered on a first-pitch slider. That's three of the five (he allowed nine in nearly 200 innings in 2014) on first pitches. But every pitcher aims to get ahead, mostly with fastballs. It doesn't make Kershaw unusual, just makes him better at it. Typically. Opponents hit .291 on the first pitch of an at-bat against Kershaw last season. They're hitting .400 on that pitch this season, and jumping it more often.
You know, as of today, May 12, still five weeks left in spring.
Albert Pujols had recently spent a good week living on his bat barrel, not literally but in a line drive sense, and as a result he had pretty much worn out the pockets of defenders' gloves all over the west. He was batting .212.
He smiled in spite of his misfortune. Twenty-five-hundred-and-some previous hits have a way of granting perspective, as do all the other line drives caught and the sorry flip shots that found grass for no reason at all.
"You just do what you can, man," he said. "What are you gonna do?"
It's an easier outlook in the light of day, before the sure hits start getting robbed and the sure outs are tumbling through the infield. It's why Kershaw works as he does, why he was sprinting in the outfield at 3 o'clock Tuesday afternoon, why there was a schedule to keep regardless of ERAs or BABIPs or temporary regrets or whole-hearted frustrations.
"That's where you really have to control only what you can control," Kershaw said three days before his eighth start. "I know it's a really baseball thing to say. But when you get frustrated with the things you have no control over, that's when the game breaks you down.
"Sometimes it feels like it's your year – the line drives are getting caught. Sometimes it feels like it's not your year and the ground balls are getting through."
He's not ready to make a determination on a year that's barely begun.
"I don't think anything's changed," he said. "I haven't changed. The hitters know what I try to do. It's just part of being around a while, I think. They've seen me 30 or 40 times now.
"It's definitely frustrating at times. But it helps so much that our team is so good. We keep winning in spite of me at times. I mean, I love baseball. I love coming to the field every day. Same time, the most fun in the game is being successful. Individually, when I can jump on the bandwagon, it can be that much more fun."
More MLB coverage: