Clayton Kershaw “struggled with his fastball command,” wrote one recap of Thursday’s NLDS Game 1 in Atlanta. “He couldn’t throw the ball where he wanted,” said another, again referring to his fastball, and he “wasn’t at his best early,” wrote yet another.
Those takes were all accurate, and when you’re reading reviews of a starting pitcher’s playoff performance and they contain phrases like that, you’re probably wondering just how badly things went. You might think those terms would be more appropriately applied to someone like Pittsburgh’s A.J. Burnett, who was awful in the Pirates’ 9-1 loss to St. Louis in Game 1 of their series.
Yet Kershaw, as you most certainly know by now, wasn’t awful, nor was he mediocre, nor was he merely even good. He was dominant, striking out 12 (the third-most in Dodger playoff history), at one point whiffing six in a row (tied with five others for the postseason record) and nine of the final eleven hitters he faced, completely outdueling Atlanta’s Kris Medlen as the Dodgers went up one game to zero with Zack Greinke heading to the mound on Friday evening.
But how did he manage to do it when something was so obviously off? The data backs up the fact that Kershaw’s fastball command wasn’t what it is usually is, because he managed to place it in the zone just 37.5% of the time, the worst performance he’s had with that pitch since April. There had also been talk about a new-and-improved change that he’d planned to use, but as A.J. Ellis told the press, it was used only one time.
So what happened after it became clear Kershaw wasn’t going to have the fastball he wanted? He simply stopped using it:
After throwing 77 pitches through four innings, Kershaw (and Ellis) decided that struggling to get the fastball over just wasn’t working, because while he’d been effective to that point, he’d also let two leadoff men reach base and came within feet (aided by a nice defensive play from Carl Crawford) of Brian McCann putting a three-run homer out of the park. As you can see, for the next two innings, the slider and the curve were the pitches of choice, and even though the fastball made a return in the seventh, it wasn’t near the percentage it had been in the early going.
It’s here that I think we need to stop and realize what Kershaw’s fastball is to him. It’s not merely a show-me pitch designed to set up hitters for effective breaking stuff, as it might be with other pitchers It’s arguably the most valuable fastball in baseball… and he simply said, “that’s unfortunate, let’s move on to something else.” There’s not too many pitchers who can do that and still get outs; there’s even fewer who can do that and still dominate.
While all appropriate credit is due to Kershaw here, it’s important to remember the role the catcher has in this situation; in this case, Ellis and Kershaw are close friends (and occasional parody television show hosts), and it was the backstop who made the call to change the game plan:
Ellis said the light bulb went on when Andrelton Simmons was handcuffed by a slider to strike out with runners on the corners to put down a fourth-inning rally.
“It was an unhittable 3-2 slider and it set the tone for the rest of the game,” Ellis said. “It reminded me how good his slider is and we had to use it more. That’s him right there. The pitcher he’s become, not just the thrower.”
The effects were immediate. In the fifth, he struck out Elliot Johnson, B.J. Upton, and Jason Heyward, with the last pitch to Upton being particularly nasty — along with the absolutely appropriate reaction from a Braves fan who couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
In the sixth, two more whiffs; in the seventh, all three Braves tried and failed to make contact. Kershaw’s got a top-five curve as well, but it was the slider — arguably his third-best pitch — where he made his money last night. As Dan Brooks noted, Kershaw got 14 swinging strikes on the slider, more than he had in any other game this year.
That, really, is what is at the heart of what makes Kershaw the nearly unquestioned best pitcher in baseball. On a night where his fastball just wasn’t where it needed to be, Kershaw seamlessly changed the plan in the middle of the game to use his “lesser” pitches, and not only was it “good enough,” it was phenomenal.
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