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 the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.