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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