Clayton Kershaw and Public Enemy No. 1.5

Think if you will, for a moment, about Jose Fernandez. What’s impressed you most about the healthy Jose Fernandez? Probably, it’s all the strikeouts, many of them coming on his breaking ball. This year, Clayton Kershaw has Jose Fernandez’s strikeout rate. Now veer off and think instead about Koji Uehara. The most amazing thing, probably, about Uehara is his impeccable command. This year, Kershaw has Koji Uehara’s walk rate. Finally, think about Tim Hudson. Hudson is among the league’s premier groundball specialists. He’s always been armed with a devastating hard sinker. This year, Kershaw has Tim Hudson’s groundball rate. This year’s Kershaw basically had the first three picks in the pitcher ability fantasy draft, and that explains how he’s allowed just 18 runs in ten starts, with seven of them coming in one.

None of them came in yesterday’s. Technically, Clayton Kershaw finished with a no-hitter, and not a perfect game. Realistically, he threw 1.037 perfect games, going above and beyond in the way that Armando Galarraga previously went above and beyond. And unlike with Galarraga, this wasn’t a start that came out of nowhere — with Kershaw, there was a sense of inevitability. You analyze his Wednesday start and you realize he didn’t do anything differently. He pitched like Clayton Kershaw, and this version of Clayton Kershaw was going to end up with at least one start of this kind. It was more a matter of when and where.

One is left with a variety of images. There’s Kershaw on the mound, standing straight up, arms to the sky. There’s Kershaw’s wife, watching along and feeling more anxiety than her husband. There’s everybody in the ballpark watching Kershaw’s curveball float and drop into the strike zone, hitter included. And there’s the slider, the wipeout slider responsible for the plurality of Wednesday’s outs. In all, Rockies hitters had the misfortune of batting 28 times. A dozen of those plate appearances ended with sliders, and of those, eight ended with strikeouts. All of the pitches were magical, but the slider stood out most, and given this opportunity, it’s worth a reflection on how Kershaw’s slider has progressed into arguably the greatest slider in the game.

Let’s watch a few examples. Here is an unfair pitch, thrown a number of times:

KershawSL1.gif.opt

That’s just the best position player in the National League, no big deal.

KershawSL2.gif.opt

That’s not the best position player in the National League.

KershawSL3.gif.opt

That’s a fitting conclusion and a .gif of historical relevance.

The younger Kershaw was most known for his curveball. That much was justifiable, and as you might have noticed Wednesday, the curveball hasn’t gone anywhere. The curveball is outstanding, easily one of the game’s best. But over the years, Kershaw has folded in and developed more confidence in a slider. And the slider he was throwing in 2009 wasn’t the slider he was throwing Wednesday night. No, that pitch has evolved, and here’s an idea of how:

kershawslidervelocity

A breaking ball at 81 has gradually turned into a breaking ball at 87, to go with a fastball in the 90s and a curveball in the 70s. Between 2010 and 2011, Kershaw’s slider gained some power. The next year, it did it again. This year, he’s up another two ticks. Clayton Kershaw looked at what he did in 2013 and decided to try to be better than that. And, so far, he’s been true to his goal.

Laterally, the slider has always moved more or less like the curveball. Vertically, though, there used to be about eight inches of separation. Now there’s more than a foot, as the curve has stayed the same but the slider has tightened up. The slider, now, has less drop than ever, but it’s also faster than ever, which makes for a good trade-off. Understand that, over the years, the fastball has kept the same velocity. The curve has kept the same velocity. The slider has changed on its own, and this season to date, batters have missed it with more than half of their swings.

It’s not just the speed of the pitch that’s been changing. It’s also the location, which is evidence of Kershaw’s improving command. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, let’s look at Kershaw’s rates of sliders thrown in the zone’s bottom third, or below:

kershawlowsliders

For a while, just over half of Kershaw’s sliders could’ve been considered low. Now it’s more of a 4-to-1 ratio, the result being that batters have swung more, and batters have missed more. Previously, 28% of swings at Kershaw’s slider hit the ball fair. This year, that’s at 21%. The pitch is getting more strikes and more whiffs, and it’s allowed Kershaw to be absolutely dominant against lefties and righties alike. Let’s look at a few career contact rates against Kershaw’s slider:

High: 78% contact
Middle: 82%
Low: 44%

From Baseball Savant, here are Kershaw’s 2014 sliders that have been contacted:

kershawSLcontact

And here are the 2014 sliders that have been missed:

kershawSLwhiffs

Kershaw has always had a good fastball, that he’ll use in the middle of the zone or up. He’s always had that curve that works as a change of pace, coming in around 20 ticks slower. He’s had a slider for a while, but he’s never before had this slider, and he was already amazing with his last one. Now, the slider is sharper. Now, the slider is more consistently coming in on a different plane, staying down after approaching like a regular heater. Elevated sliders, before, could’ve been hit with fastball swings, and they could’ve been hit with air under them. Now they just drop to the bottom of the zone or below, yielding little opportunity to do damage even given contact, which has grown increasingly rare.

A year ago, Clayton Kershaw won the NL Cy Young Award. He’s since dropped his FIP by 79 points. The reasons are complex and numerous, but among them is the continued improvement of his slider, which he keeps in his back pocket along with Public Enemy No. 1. Clayton Kershaw isn’t amazing because he basically threw a perfect game against the Rockies. Clayton Kershaw is amazing because you could see a game like Wednesday’s coming a mile away. Those are the games you can throw when you possess two of the best pitches of their type on the planet.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

49 Responses to “Clayton Kershaw and Public Enemy No. 1.5”

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  1. Wobatus says:

    Unfair question, but do you want Kershaw or King Felix for game 7?

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      • because then my offense might score a fucking run

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        • Wobatus says:

          There’s that.

          No hesitation otherwise, though. He’s just that much better. Xfips awfull similar last 3 calendar years. ERA a run lower. Tony has been a slight DIPs theory apostate but something to this controlling contact thing. Felix has been better than ever. Kershaw likewise.

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        • Wobatus says:

          Mariner’s run scored per game started by Felix Hernandez this year: 4.9375. They have scored 4 or more in 9 of his 16 starts. Major league average 4.166. Mariner average 3.972.

          The Dodgers have averaged 5.6 runs in Kershaw’s 10 starts. Dodger average 4.297.

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        • joser says:

          Not all of those runs were scored while Felix was still on the mound. Anyway, have a look at Felix’s last two starts; I’m sure that is what Jeff is reacting to.

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        • Wobatus says:

          Joser, I know he didn’t get run support his last 2 starts. Jeff’s was a funny post and I gave it a plus 1. The reason I even asked the original question is because I know Jeff is a big Hernandez fan. I just, killjoy that I am, found it interesting, and contrary to my expectations, that King Felix has actually had a lot of run support this year. Most of it coming in a few games. He has toiled many years with limited run support.

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    • GMH says:

      Just don’t ask Kershaw to pitch in Game 6. He won’t get out of the fifth inning.

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  2. Biased Rangers Fan says:

    Now that Kershaw’s no-no is out of the way, I would have to say that the next most “inevitable” no-no is by Yu Darvish. I always feel he has a shot at it…unless he is playing Oakland.

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    • Bip says:

      He’s been inches away from it, what, two or three times now? Yeah, I’d say that’s a safe pick.

      The way Tanaka’s pitching though, I wouldn’t be sure that he won’t get one first.

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  3. Phantom Stranger says:

    It was the best stuff I’ve seen for an entire game since Randy Johnson’s perfect game. I’m not sure the Rockies would have gotten a hit if the Dodgers had told them what pitch was coming.

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  4. Johnston says:

    I watched the entire game and Kershaw was magnificent.

    Sandy Koufax couldn’t have done any better.

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  5. Juan says:

    Kershaw actually is better than Koufax at the same age. Additionally,
    he won his two CY’s at an earlier age than Koufax. NOW …………
    it’s time that he helps win two or three World Series Championships
    for the Dodgers. The ball is in the Dodger GM’s court, to acquire
    the players that better fit a championship team! The left side of the
    infield could be upgraded, for a start (with an emphasis on better
    defense and speed).

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  6. David says:

    Pitcher McPitcherson?

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  7. frivoflava29 says:

    15% swinging strikes through 10 starts is so crazy too for a starter averaging about 6 1/3 innings, especially when you see Tulo taking that pitch for a strikeout looking.

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  8. MrKnowNothing says:

    As a baseball fan, he’s simply incredible to watch.

    As a Giants can, I hope his arm falls off.

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    • Steven says:

      As a normal human being who doesn’t like to see dismemberment of other good-willed human beings, I hope his arm doesn’t fall off.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      No. I love what makes for better baseball, even when it’s a rival. As a Nationals fan, I love Jose Fernandez. As an Astros fan, I love Mike Trout. Great baseball is always most important to me, more than my own pet team winning games, so I want amazing and watchable and stupendous things even if it means Andrelton Simmons robs my guy of a hit or my team gets slaughtered by Yu Darvish.

      Except the goddamned Phillies. They can go to hell.

      +30 Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. inevitability says:

    2014 Kerhsaw in LA against the 2014 Rockies in LA may have been the most predictable no-hitter ever

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  10. Dave says:

    I’d say the same, but Tulo has been a beast all year.

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  11. buddyglass says:

    Was there one particular thing that went haywire in his 7-run game?

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    • Johnston says:

      Rockies gave up too many clustered XBH.

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    • The Foils says:

      Zero fastball command and his slider wouldn’t break was my assessment at the time

      He only had the curve and left a couple of those up. Also shit happens. :)

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      • buddyglass says:

        Yeah, was trying to get at whether it was just poor luck or some facet of his game left him for that particular start.

        Might be interesting to go back over the past couple years and check whether there’s a trend in just how Kershaw falters in the rare instances when he does.

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        • The Foils says:

          Yeah but then I’d have to go back and watch that NLCS game again and I am certainly never doing that

          I’d hazard a wild guess that he gets into the most trouble when he doesn’t have fastball command (pretty rare) and doesn’t lean on whatever his better breaking stuff is that night in time (crazy rare).

          Most teams have gotten into the pattern of trying to whack the first hittable fastball he gives them, so if he’s not hitting any spots and doesn’t have a good slider to lead with instead, maybe he can get into trouble. Once or twice a year. :)

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        • Bip says:

          I feel that may have to lead to an exploration of how disaster starts happen at all. In other words, Kershaw’s disaster start may have more to do with how disaster starts happen in general than it does with Kershaw.

          A big part of it is sequencing. A pitcher who gives up 7 hits in 7 innings, one per inning, will have a pretty good game. A pitcher who gives up 7 hits in 7 innings, all hits in the same inning, is going to have a terrible line.

          Every time Kershaw faces a batter, that batter has a chance of crushing the ball. Kershaw, as the best pitcher in baseball, avoids that as well as anyone, but it happens. Is a disaster start mostly just when batters do what they are always capable of doing, but they just manage to all do it in the same inning?

          Another way to look at this: If Kershaw had his best stuff every single day, would he never have a disaster start? Obviously they’d be extremely rare, but they would happen sometimes.

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      • Belloc says:

        He’s struggled at Chase Field throughout his career. If he’s pitching away from Dodger Stadium, he is merely great.

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  12. Grumpy Old Kirk Gibson says:

    Great article Jeff!

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