Clayton Kershaw, Right Down the Pipe

Clayton Kershaw is having one of those all-time seasons, the kind of season that causes you to reflect on Pedro Martinez and some of his own all-time seasons. Kershaw is running a 1.70 ERA, and a big chunk of that is due to one brief start in the middle of May. The last time Kershaw left a game with an ERA more than 2 was June 29, and while we all recognize that ERA leaves out unearned runs, including Kershaw’s unearned runs lifts his runs-allowed average all the way up to 1.75, because his unearned-runs total is 1. Kershaw’s been a human sort of perfect. Even though he missed the whole month of April, he’s almost a shoo-in for the NL Cy Young, and he’ll get a lot of attention for the league most valuable player. Clayton Kershaw has stepped it up a level, from already having been Clayton Kershaw before.

Let’s think about what makes a great starting pitcher. I mean, in the most general terms. You want a guy to have at least reasonable stuff. Unless the stuff is extremely overpowering, then it’s important to mix up speeds and it’s important to hit locations. One thinks of a lot of ace pitchers as being able to spot the baseball where they want, and absolutely, great pitchers know how to pitch around edges. Kershaw’s no exception. His command this year has been better than ever. What you don’t think of ace pitchers as doing is hurling the ball down the middle very often. That’s the danger zone, the area where you find the bulk of the meatballs. Turns out Kershaw’s not afraid of going down the pipe. Turns out Kershaw doesn’t really get hurt there very much.

We’ll consult our FanGraphs heat maps. The average pitcher throws about 8.5% of his pitches middle-middle. A year ago, Kershaw finished just by 9%. This year, he’s over 11%. In Kershaw’s finest season yet, he’s thrown one of every nine pitches down the gut, which is a spot you’re taught to avoid. We can rewind a few days to Kershaw’s most recent start, against the Nationals. Here’s Anthony Rendon making poor contact:


Here’s Ian Desmond making poor contact:


Here’s Jayson Werth watching strike one:


Here’s Jayson Werth watching strike two:


A few pitches, of course, don’t make a case. But they do provide a visual to help explain the numbers shown in Kershaw’s data. One of the heat-map tabs is for runs above average per 100 pitches. League-wide, middle-middle, the RAA/100 value is just about 0. The fact that pretty much all the pitches are strikes is offset by the reality of more frequent hard contact. This season, middle-middle, Kershaw’s heat map shows a 4. Last season, middle-middle, Kershaw’s heat map also shows a 4. In other words, per 100 pitches down the heart, Kershaw has been about four runs better than average. In all, since the start of last season, he’s been about 20 runs better than average throwing pitches you’d assume were grooved.

It’s not that hitters aren’t swinging. They’ve swung at 74% of Kershaw’s pitches down the middle, against a 72% league average.

It’s not that hitters aren’t making any contact. They’ve made contact with 87% of their swings at Kershaw’s pitches down the middle, against a 91% league average.

It’s that the contact they’ve made is bad. Kershaw’s batting average allowed on pitches down the middle is 19% better than the league’s. His isolated power allowed on pitches down the middle is 51% better than the league’s. Against what you’d assume would be Kershaw’s most hittable pitches, hitters have had difficulty squaring the baseball up, and you begin to realize that the definition of a meatball changes pitcher to pitcher and situation to situation. Kershaw absolutely does make mistakes, and sometimes he gets punished for them, but he’s so good that his mistakes can still be effective, and not every pitch he puts down the middle is a mistake anyway.

By total run value on pitches down the heart this season, Kershaw isn’t quite in first place, but he’s close, and he’s presumably in first since the start of last year. Danny Duffy deserves some credit for avoiding pain on grooved pitches this year. Adam Wainwright, too. They have Kershaw beat in 2014, by a little bit. Include 2013, though, and it’s Kershaw ahead of them both. Some of this is going to be noise, but to explain what’s going on, refer back to the start of the article: One of the things great pitchers do is change speeds. Kershaw will throw fastballs down the middle, but he’ll also slot in a slider or drop in a curve. This will happen in any count. When you don’t know what pitch to expect, and when you don’t know which location to expect, you can recognize that you should swing at a pitch down the middle, but you might not get your best swing on it. When hitters get caught in between, the baseball will frequently die off the bat.

It’s not like weak contact is anything new to Kershaw’s game. He’s allowed a lifetime .270 BABIP. He’s allowed homers on fewer than 7% of his fly balls. Kershaw’s player page breaks down the difference between his regular WAR and his RA9-WAR, and he’s accumulated eight full wins based on ball-in-play value. That’s a dorky way of saying: Kershaw’s been inducing weak contact forever. It’s an established part of his game, and just as it applies to pitches around the borders, it seems to apply to pitches down the middle. Against Kershaw, as a hitter, you can never eliminate anything, and you can never eliminate any spot. So a pitch down the middle is just one of the unpredictable possible results, so it’s not as much of a gift as we’ve all been conditioned to assume.

Clayton Kershaw doesn’t always mean to throw a pitch down the middle. If he lost some of his stuff, those pitches wouldn’t be as effective. If he lost some of his command, those pitches wouldn’t be as effective. Basically, if Kershaw were worse, he’d be worse, and if he were more predictable with his pitches over the plate, he’d be worse, too. But because Kershaw’s got almost everything optimized, he can be effective in any spot. A question you might reasonably ask: Can Clayton Kershaw even throw a meatball? It’s weird to think about a hypothetical gift pitch, because as long as Kershaw’s going like this, he even wields gifts as weapons.

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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.

26 Responses to “Clayton Kershaw, Right Down the Pipe”

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  1. AlexL925 says:

    Fun piece.

    One note though. In that very same game, Bryce Harper took Kershaw deep on what I believe was a middle-middle fastball. Doesn’t destroy your point or anything, but it seems worth noting given the other GIFs you included.

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  2. Phantom Stranger says:

    Since MLB pitchers really don’t live in the middle of the zone, most hitters have trained their swings away from it. Harper looks to have ambushed Kershaw’s get-me ahead fastball in that at-bat.

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  3. Yirmiyahu says:

    Just found a new Kershaw-is-amazing stat:

    He has the 7th highest career RA9-WAR through his age 26 season in the last 100 years. The highest since since Bert Blyleven.,26&filter=&players=0&sort=3,d

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    • Anon20 neverdiso Ruralman says:

      Blyleven’s lead is HUGE over the pack, even if you go to fWAR.

      Funny that he almost missed the Hall. His WAR is over 100 no matter which way you look at it.

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    • Bip says:

      Things I notice about this:

      1. Gotta give some respect to Felix, who is only two spots below Kershaw on this list, though technically Kershaw is closer to 3rd place than he is to Felix. By the end of this season, Kershaw will probably be squarely in 6th place.

      2. Because of the era most of these guys pitched in, of the 6 pitchers ahead of him, only Tom Seaver threw about the same number of innings. Looking at their relative effectiveness over the same sample, Kershaw has the best ERA- of the group and the best FIP- of the group, tied with Blyleven. (link to custom player list)

      3. Fernando Valenzuela actually has about the same fWAR through age 26 as Kershaw, though that is also partially due to throwing more innings. Unfortunately, Fernando’s age-26 season was the last in which he was really good. Yikes.

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  4. jcroentgen says:

    Gonna be tough to beat in a 7 game series.

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  5. Detroit Michael says:

    Is there a leaderboard for results on balls in play in the middle of the strike zone that shows Duffy, Wainwright and Kershaw on it? Or is this custom data that the author generated somehow?

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  6. cass says:

    I imagine Strasburg’s numbers middle-middle are awful this year. When he keeps the ball out of the heart of the plate, he seems to be dominant. When he leaves it middle-middle, it gets blasted out of the park. Would be interesting to try to find out why – are Strasburg’s pitches just that much more predictable? You do hear that sometimes.

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    • AA says:

      Strasburg doesn’t get the movement on his fastball that Kershaw does, and his secondary stuff isn’t as good. Kershaw has 3 plus plus pitches.

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  7. Hyun-Jin Kershaw says:

    Anyone else having Carlos Villanueva flashbacks?

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  8. Mike says:

    I was hoping the danger zone hyperlink would take me here I was slightly disappointed.

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  9. Patrick says:

    What percentage of the pitches down the middle were fastballs as opposed to curveballs? Could that contribute to some of stats?

    Secondly, wouldn’t you expect Kershaw to be near elite levels even with balls down the midde?

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    • Bip says:

      That’s a good point. You would expect the best pitchers in baseball to most likely be among the most effective in all zones. What may a bit more remarkable is how Kershaw actually throws middle-middle more often than normal, when you might expect an elite pitcher to throw there less often.

      One thing we might hypothesize is that pitchers tend to do worse in areas that they throw more. If a pitcher frequently throws in one spot, it’s likely because he knows he can be successful there, but that can be offset somewhat by the fact that hitters know to look there. The fact that Kershaw throws middle-middle more often than usual and yet still is one of the most effective pitchers in baseball in that zone is remarkable.

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  10. Bip says:

    According to Baseball Savant, Kershaw is 6th in baseball with 7% of his pitches going middle-middle, minimum 1000 pitches thrown (link). Not sure the reason for the discrepancy, but the resulting point is basically the same.

    However, he is 61st overall in middle-middle pitches when behind in the count (link) and 8th when ahead in the count or the count is even (link). Whether this is due to fine command that allows him to avoid the middle in vulnerable counts or just a reflection of the fact that he is ahead in the count so often, it helps explain the results. He goes middle-middle often, but not particularly when he is pitching with a disadvantage.

    Thank you!

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  11. Grammar Police says:

    Right down the pike is the correct term. You’ve been cited, Sullivan.

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  12. james wilson says:

    It has always appeared to me that a pitcher with great command will get away with the rare stray pitch down the middle, but when the hitter has reason to feel confident he’s going to see one in every at bat they are less likely to miss it. I’ve seen it happen often enough with the same pitcher making consecutive starts against the same team, with exactly the same stuff sans command.

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  13. Babyspittle says:

    Chris Sale.
    Is he also not having one of those “all-time” seasons?

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