A Few Observations On Clayton Kershaw

While I watched a lot of baseball yesterday, there was only one game that was broadcast without competition – the evening affair between the Dodgers and Giants. Major League Baseball made a pretty smart move here – it’s hard to better feature the sport than by starting off with a prime-time match-up of bitter rivals, one of whom is coming off a World Championship, especially when each is capable of putting an elite young pitcher on the hill. Tim Lincecum versus Clayton Kershaw is a fun match-up at any time, and when you haven’t had real baseball in five months, its sure to attract attention. It got mine, that’s for sure.

I have to say, though, that what on paper looks to have been a classic pitchers duel did not seem to be while watching live. Lincecum wasn’t bad, certainly, but the game had the vibe of Clayton Kershaw’s coming out party, with Lincecum as just the opening act that got in the way of the guy who we really wanted to see. Even while they both were throwing shutouts, Kershaw’s innings were just ridiculous. Lincecum got hitters out – Kershaw embarrassed them.

Now, Clayton Kershaw making hitters look foolish isn’t entirely new, but he did show a few interesting wrinkles last night that I want to touch on briefly. The main thing that jumped out to me watching the game was just how well he was handling a mostly right-handed Giants line-up, because Kershaw has some of the most extreme platoon splits of any starting pitcher in baseball. For his career, he’s racked up a ridiculous 14.00 K/9 against LHBs but a more human 7.89 K/9 against RHBs. His xFIP against lefties is 2.09, but against righties, it’s just 4.26. He kills left-handed bats, while being just okay against right-handed hitters.

Tonight, though, we saw this:

Andres Torres struck out swinging.
Buster Posey struck out swinging.
Pablo Sandoval struck out swinging.
Andres Torres out on a dropped third strike.
Buster Posey struck out swinging.
Pat Burrell struck out swinging.

And that was just in the first four innings. Now, it’s certainly possible that the setting sun was creating some problems for hitters picking the ball up early in the game (though why Lincecum wouldn’t have seen similar results would then need an explanation), but that’s still six strikeouts of right-handed batters in four innings for Kershaw. And this wasn’t against super crappy hitters or anything – these guys are legitimate Major League bats, and Kershaw made them look like silly.

What was different? Dave Allen is working on a better write-up of the Pitch F/x data from last night than I’m capable of, but in the first inning, I quickly noticed that Kershaw was throwing an 86 MPH breaking ball that I didn’t remember him throwing last year. A quick check of his player page revealed that his average slider last year was indeed 81.4 MPH, several ticks lower than what it appeared that Kershaw was throwing. Several minutes into the broadcast, Orel Hershiser (who was fantastic last night, by the way, and is probably the best guy on TV in explaining the nuances of pitching right now) mentioned that the Dodgers had been working with Kershaw to throw a “hard slider”, and that was the pitch that we were seeing him use effectively against right-handers.

In general, we know that the slider has a huge platoon split and doesn’t work well against opposite handed hitters, but this wasn’t the sweeping slider that I’ve seen Kershaw throw in the past – this was more of a cutter that rode in on the hands of right-handed bats. And they couldn’t do anything with it. He threw three straight to Andres Torres in the first at-bat of the game, getting a swinging strike and a foul ball on the two that Torres offered at. He then used the pitch to get called strikes and swinging strike threes against both Aubrey Huff and Buster Posey, showing confidence in this breaking ball to get LHBs and RHBs out, even consecutively.

There are still enough calibration questions with Pitch F/x data that I don’t want to draw any firm conclusions about whether Kershaw is definitively throwing a new “hard slider” that looks like a cut fastball – The Guru will weigh in on what he sees in the data shortly – but we know definitively that Kershaw got significantly better results against right-handed batters last night than he has for most of his career. We also know that Hershiser mentioned a change that the Dodgers were working with him on, and I think we observed a lot of success on what looked like a pitch that he hasn’t used much in the past.

You should never get too excited over any one start, especially the first start of the season on a night where the shadows looked especially problematic for the hitters. However, if this turns out to be a new weapon that Kershaw has added to his arsenal, and it helps him neutralize right-handed batters in a way he hasn’t been able to before, look out – this kid is already good, and he’s just that weapon away from being in the conversation about the best pitchers in baseball.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


49 Responses to “A Few Observations On Clayton Kershaw”

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  1. ian says:

    Kershaw was indeed filthy last night, and I was pleasantly surprised with ESPN’s 3-man booth. Shulman was great as always, but Orel has definitely stepped his game up. In my mind, he’s second only to Mike Krukow in breaking down the mechanics and nuances of pitching.

    All they need to do is get rid of Bobby Valentine and they’ll have a formidable broadcast team.

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    • Captain says:

      i didnt think Bobby V was too bad. he was making some good points about the Giants bunt D and the missed chance to run when Kuo was in the game. when he tries to make jokes or wisecracks, he falls flat on his face.

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    • Chip Buck says:

      I second that. Within 30 seconds of listening to Bobby V, I started praying for someone to shove a sock in his mouth. The other two were great. Hershiser was unbelievable.

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    • hunterfan says:

      I can’t complain about Bobby V, because:

      Bobby V >>>>> Joe Morgan.

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  2. I HATE ADS says:

    THIS WEFEEDBACK AD AT THE TOP IS COVERING UP THE FG MENU BAR AND WILL NOT GO AWAY. I AM ACTIVELY NOT DONATING TO STARVING KIDS TO SPITE YOU AND YOUR INTRUSIVE AD

    MY FAVORITE MEAL WILL CHANGE MY LIFE AND MY LIFE ONLY

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  3. dbp_mickey says:

    None of the base-hits he gave up last night were hit very hard. Huff’s fly ball that carried to the warning track in right wasn’t even hit that hard. Funny you mentioned Timmy’s decent performance getting in the way of Kershaw’s outing last night cause I was thinking the same thing. Kershaw was sick last nite, and i dont think the absence of the shadows in the first couple innings would’ve helped the Giants too much.

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  4. Jim Lahey says:

    ya could you guys kill that banner/advertiser? It’s covering up the menu and part of the titles.

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  5. Dash says:

    Who knew that sabermatricians liked to watch baseball games?

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  6. Stan says:

    This site used to be so much more navigable before all this crap started appearing to the right of the screen. There are just too many objects in the HTML object that need to load for the page to be fully loaded. Who do you get your design from? Gawker?

    It takes forever to load every one of those million objects and the home page is absolutely horrible on mobile devices. I like the content of the site but all these “enhancements” have been anything but.

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    • Fergie348 says:

      Don’t like ads? Maybe you’d rather pay for your content directly?

      If you figured out how to properly set up your browser you wouldn’t need to see Javascript or Flash driven content, just the static page. You could even customize your settings specifically for this site if you wanted to. I’m just sayin..

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  7. Scout Finch says:

    Cy Young stuff indeed. His #’s vs the Giants have to be good because I can only recall him being filthy against them. A 14 K performance comes to mind.

    What did you all think about Brandon Belt’s AB’s against him ? Personally thought his looked the best.

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  8. LionoftheSenate says:

    Belt did have a great AB vs Kershaw, considering the groove CK was in. Belt is going to be a very good hitter.

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  9. M.Twain says:

    A cutter looks much more like a fastball than a slider does and the velocity is greater. You said the same thing (kind of like a cutter) about Pineda’s slider and his is even slower (relative to his fastball).

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  10. fjmanuel says:

    hooray for the smallest of small sample size

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  11. Bruce Brazil says:

    And…it was the Giants offense.

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  12. CircleChange11 says:

    Hershieser is very good, other than the instances where he says some incredibly obvious things (which is part of the describing process, as well).

    But, Hershieser’s most valuable service, is as you describe, how one can throw the same pitch multiples ways/speeds to create even more variety. That was his most valuable asset in both Men at Work and his CWS commentary.

    Hershieser also has some vrey good insights comparing pitching now to even 20 years ago. The differences in intensity, pacing, and role definition.

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  13. Fergie348 says:

    I was very impressed with Kershaw last night. Untouchable. I also was pretty impressed with Belt. The ABs he had against Kershaw show why the G’s think so highly of him. His strike zone awareness for a 22 year old is unbelieveable. Best homegrown left handed hitter the Giants have had since Will Clark, I’m imagining.

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  14. Ree says:

    Broadcast-wise, I’m just happy it wasn’t showing on FOX.

    And although the ESPN team (sans Bobby Valentine) is pretty good, I prefer Kruk, Kuip, and Fleming. Radio + TV = useful.

    Baseball-wise…Brandon Belt’s at bats are getting me excited. That last battle with Broxton was impressive, not to mention his tries against Kershaw.

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    • Kevin says:

      Sentences that will never be typed again: “I prefer Kruk.”

      (Yes, I know who you were actually referring to)

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  15. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Kershaw was very impressive. He definitely did have a hard slider, which I don’t recall seeing before, that the Giants were flailing at. The problem with the old balloon curveball, which was nowhere in site last night, is that hitters could see it coming in time and lay off. If he could throw it for strikes, it was a sick pitch, but more often, hitters didn’t have to swing at it. The way the hitters reacted, it looked like they couldn’t distinguish it from the fastball until too late.

    I agree that Kershaw would have probably been very tough to hit even in perfect conditions, but the glare off the CF wall was ridiculous. Posey didn’t even see one pitch from Timmy at all and it nailed him right on his catcher’s helmet and bounced away for a passed ball.

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    • Albert Lyu says:

      You’re going to discredit Kershaw and excuse Posey’s passed ball because of the glare and not mention that it also had an effect on LA’s hitting and Barajas catching? Come on.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Of course it did! Goes without saying. Did you read my post? I, in no way discredited Kershaw’s performance. The Dodger hitters had the same conditions, as evidenced by Posey’s passed ball. Are you going to deny that the conditions were very tough for hitters out there?

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        BTW, for the record, I didn’t think Lincecum pitched well at all and were it not for the conditions, probably would have gotten shelled. Andy Baggerly reported that Timmy’s FB was 95 MPH, which is encouraging if true. ESPN wasn’t showing velocities, at least that I noticed.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Clarifying first response: Of course the glare affected the Dodger hitters and Barajas too! Goes without saying.

        You know, your response to my original post was about the level of a high school taunt. Very unprofessional for someone who writes for this site.

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        DrB, we put up with your tired shtick because, while you might be repetitive and predictable, you’ve thus far stayed on the right side of trolling and starting fights. Stay there, please.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Dave,

        I believe I was the first one attacked in this thread. l’m not sure how pointing out that the sun was an issue in this game is part of any shtick. I certainly didn’t intend it that way.

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      • Reuben says:

        DrB is one of my least favorite commenters on this site. But he’s 100% in the right here. Throughout this entire thread.

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  16. Ivdown says:

    Kershaw was at the level he has been at since may 7th of last season last night. If he truly does have a harder slider/cutter he’s gonna be an absolute force on the mound

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  17. WillClark says:

    DrB may have his faults, but in this situation, it was albertyu who was or mistaken, as his responce to DrB’s initial comment, was not only rude but ridiculously wrong. How Albert got ‘discredit Kershaw’ from “I agree that Kershaw would have probably been very tough to hit even in perfect conditions,” is at ridiculous and oversensitive.

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  18. WillClark says:

    Kershaw was nearly unhittable and it seemed like neither left or right handed hitter, with or without the glare, could pick up his slider. With the exception of Belt, he made the giants hitters look like little leaguers.

    Lincecum was ok, but looked very hittable for awhile there. Unlike Kershaw, the dodgers seemed to be able to make fairly decent contact with his fastball and slider, while sometimes recognizing and laying off the change.

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  19. Mofo says:

    Does Dave Cameron still stand by his ESPN Insider article in which he suggested that Kershaw may have already peaked in 2009?

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  20. R.B. says:

    its Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday….FUN FUN FUN
    partyin’ partyin’ YEAH!!!

    Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
    Today i-is Friday, Friday (Partyin’)
    We-we-we so excited
    We so excited
    We gonna have a ball today

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  21. Evan says:

    Kershaw was just filthy, but the conditions were pretty absurd early on. Both make Belt’s plate appearances even more impressive. He’s going to be an absolute force this year. I look forward to Kershaw’s next start against the Giants, whenever that is.

    Lincecum didn’t look terrific, but it’s a testament to what a complete pitcher he is nowadays that he can get outs without his best stuff. Really encouraged by the fastball velocity, though.

    I’m convinced Dave Cameron’s blatant hatred of the Giants is partly due to how insufferable DrBGiantsfan is. It makes me cringe to have to associate with him as a fellow Giants fan.

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  22. Bgaw says:

    Well that was prophetic.

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