Clayton Kershaw’s Deception

In a sense, Clayton Kershaw is pretty easy to understand. He’s a big lefty with power stuff and multiple breaking balls to go along with a changeup he’ll mix in from time to time. He dominated in high school before getting selected early by the Dodgers, and after a few years in the majors of showing flashes, Kershaw decided he didn’t want to walk batters anymore, and now he’s probably the best starter in baseball. His next contract could break records for pitchers, and if the 2013 season were to end today, Kershaw might well win the National League Most Valuable Player Award. He’s amazing and he’s 25.

The last time I personally addressed Kershaw, I essentially made love to his curveball. Since then he’s allowed 30 runs in 17 starts. It’s tempting and easy to break Kershaw down to his component pitches, because it’s upon those pitches that Kershaw’s made his name. His curveball’s great. His slider’s great. His fastball’s great. It’s all great. But it’s also probably worth taking a moment to speak to that which might tie everything together. That which is unique to Kershaw, that which comes before he makes his pitches dart and dive.

“He’s just got really good stuff, for one, he hides the ball well and he just competes,” Posey said.

April 1, 2013

“He hides the ball well and it gets on you pretty quick, so it makes him very effective.”

August 14, 2011

“He’s a good pitcher,” Brewers right fielder Norichika Aoki said. “He’s won a Cy Young in the past. Even today it was hard to pick up any of his pitches.

“The (fastball) has an angle to it, too. It looks harder than the radar gun.”

May 20, 2013

“First of all, he’s a little deceptive. It’s hard to pick up his fastball in the first place. Then, when he goes to his offspeed pitches, he looks like he’s throwing his fastball. They break late, so it’s really tough to stay on a certain pitch. You almost have to go out there looking for something, just stick with it and hopes he puts it somewhere you can hit it.”

May 3, 2013

“I think he’s one of the better left-handers that I’ve seen in a while in the National League,” Ross said. “He’s good. He hides the ball, man. Especially out of the stretch, he doesn’t give you anything to time, nothing to go off of to get your rhythm. He kind of falls toward you and it’s on you.”

June 5, 2010

Here’s a picture of Clayton Kershaw in the process of throwing a pitch:


That is, more or less, a picture from the batter’s perspective, which is a difficult perspective for us to get. Plainly obvious in the picture: Clayton Kershaw, who is pitching. Kershaw’s presence is unmistakeable! Less obvious in the picture: the baseball that Kershaw is about to release at 75-95 miles per hour. In another frame or two, the baseball will be a lot more clear, but it’ll also be that much closer to the release point. Up until now, the baseball’s been hidden behind Kershaw’s body and head. He brings the ball out from behind his head just as he’s about to get outstretched.

When batters say they have trouble picking the ball up against Kershaw, this is the reason why. I might as well include this last quote:

“I think there is some deception involved,” Kershaw said of the advantage his windup gives him. “I think some of the hitters that have told me before that it’s not always easy to pick up the baseball. That’s kind of the goal, to be deceptive out there.”

As a batter, you want to pick the ball up as soon as possible, so you can try to identify the pitch as soon as possible. Kershaw successfully keeps the ball hidden, and he has a consistent delivery for all of his pitches, so there are no tells to keep in mind. One of the pitches below was a fastball. One of the pitches below was a breaking ball. I don’t remember which was which, and I can’t really tell from the images.



Every pitcher, at some point, has the baseball hidden from view, just from holding it out behind his body. Every pitcher, later on, reveals the baseball as the throwing arm takes it forward. Hitting, however, depends on tiny fractions of tiny seconds, and Kershaw appears to have a little bit of extra deception that hides the ball a split-second longer. It doesn’t make all the difference, but it presumably functions as a boost for his repertoire.

Though this isn’t the camera angle I was hoping for, this is the best I could do without potentially going through hours upon hours of video:


Every pitcher’s delivery is unique, and Kershaw has ironed out the delivery that works for him. A pitcher is more than just the pitches he throws, and given Kershaw’s numbers, it’s probably fair to say his delivery allows him to maximize his weapons. Righties and lefties alike see fastballs, curves, and sliders, and they’re all thrown from the same place with the same arm action, and the ball isn’t revealed until the last possible instant.

Above, there was also mention of what Kershaw does to hitters’ timing. From the windup, his delivery has something of a pause. From the stretch, Kershaw is kind of tall-and-fall, beginning his delivery all of a sudden with a slide-step that follows an arm reach that lets him take a deep breath. An example, from the back:


An example, from the side:


Clearly, this makes Kershaw difficult to run against, but it also makes him difficult to hit against, because hitters can’t settle into a groove. They have to be reactive, they have to be ready, because the ball is on them shortly after Kershaw starts moving forward. He gets the ball to home plate in a hurry, and it might not be a coincidence that Kershaw has a career .280 BABIP allowed with the bases empty, and a career .261 BABIP allowed with runners on. That’s only speculation on my part, but we’re also dealing with four-figure sample sizes.

Kershaw, as a pitcher, isn’t easily timed. And Kershaw, as a pitcher, is further deceptive, by hiding the ball behind his head until shortly before release. The majority of his pitches are fastballs, so hitters might be able to sit on that. But when Kershaw’s been ahead, he’s thrown less than 50% fastballs, meaning hitters have to try to react without much of a clue. He’s mixed it up pretty evenly between fastballs, sliders, and curves. Of related note: since Kershaw debuted in 2008, no starter has allowed a lower OPS when ahead in the count. Only Stephen Strasburg has allowed a lower isolated slugging percentage, barely. When behind in the count or even, Kershaw has allowed a .283 BABIP. When ahead in the count, he’s allowed a .247 BABIP.

Kershaw, without question, has been blessed with wonderful stuff, and with a more conventional delivery, he’d almost certainly be a successful starting pitcher. He does run his fastball into the mid-90s, and he does have a pair of quality breaking pitches. It’s not like he isn’t overpowering. But because of the way he throws, Kershaw keeps the baseball hidden from the hitter until right before it’s released, and it stands to reason that makes Kershaw even more effective than he might be otherwise. Hitters are left having to guess, and Kershaw isn’t afraid to throw any of his pitches to any kind of bat. On multiple occasions in the past, opponents have remarked that they have trouble seeing the ball against Kershaw. Hitters need to see the ball to hit. Give a hitter one less fraction of one second, and the hitter’s going to notice.

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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.

17 Responses to “Clayton Kershaw’s Deception”

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  1. Cream says:

    “He gets the ball to home plate in a hurry, and it might not be a coincidence that Kershaw has a career .280 BABIP allowed with the bases empty, and a career .261 BABIP allowed with runners on. That’s only speculation on my part, but we’re also dealing with four-figure sample sizes.”

    If so, he ought to just pitch from stretch always.

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    • BSLJeffLong says:

      His splits say he should pitch from the windup when possible.

      Windup: .261 wOBA (career)
      Stretch: .269 wOBA (career)

      OBP-against is nearly .020 higher out of the stretch indicating a possible ‘issue’ with command compared to the windup.

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      • Cream says:

        That’s interesting. I’m sure it’s impossible to filter the noise, but I wonder how much of that is due to things like defensive positioning (e.g. double play depth increasing likelihood of ball sneaking through infield)

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        • Cream says:

          To follow up, if you remove the effects of IBB, the OBP looks like:

          Runners-on: .280
          Bases empty: .272

          I did notice, and perhaps one of the reasons driving lower BABIP is the higher incidence of HR with runners on.

          Runners on: 34 HR / 1749 PA = 1.94%
          Bases empty: 37 HR / 2805 PA = 1.32%

          In fact, if you run BABIP excluding impact of HR’s (treating them instead as normal hits) you would get BABIPS of:

          Runners On: .285
          Bases Empty: .294

          Still a difference of .09, but more than half of the BABIP differential is attributable to increased HR runs.

          These numbers indicate to me it’s probably nothing more than statistical noise.

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    • jaysfan says:

      I’m guessing that those numbers are because better hitters get on base more often, so a lower percentage of batters faces with runners on base are elite hitters. When Kershaw’s pitching from the stretch, there’s a greater likelihood he’s facing a lower quality hitter.

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  2. BSLJeffLong says:

    This is really cool Jeff. Between you and Eno I’m nerding out over all of the mechanics/pitch grip/pitch repertoire articles lately.

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  3. Hurtlocker says:

    Watch youtube videos of Sandy Koufax, very similar except Kershaw hides the ball behind his head a little better.

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    • TheVerbalOne says:

      Although Koufax didn’t really benefit from hiding much at all, since he famously tipped his pitches throughout his career. I believe Willie Mays said something like, “I knew what he was throwing, and I still couldn’t hit him.” Knowing it and seeing it didn’t even help; his stuff was just black-magic wicked.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        Koufax also had the benefit of not having all sorts of video of his stuff and mechanics readily available or competition that proactively looked for such information.

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  4. Rick Rivas says:

    I wonder if I am correct in assuming that physically there is a point in the throwing motion that is the last possible point in which the ball can be hidden, and that this point is physically the exact possible point in all body types. The hiding-of-the-ball until the last possible point in the throwing motion seems to me to be a technique taught to all pitchers (?). This point probably has a name, and maybe Kershaw hits this point consistently, making him very deceptive.

    If some pitchers are perfect at hitting this point in the throwing motion and some are good and some are average and some are poor at it, is it the case that this is a physically very hard point to hit. If so, is a pitcher who hits this point putting more stress on his arm than a pitcher who doesn’t?

    Am I on to something here? Have I identified the reason Kershaw, whose “next contract could break records for pitchers,” will certainly experience a significant decline in his performance shortly after signing that contract and makes that contract the worst contract in MLB? This may sound idiotic to you now, but the potential upside for me is HUGE. I was the first to mention this. Years from now, this “I told you so” moment will make me famous in Euless, TX.

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    • RYAN says:

      I think part of the deception, that may not have been mentioned explicitly, is not being able to see the ball being removed from the glove. As a current baseball player (in an adult rec league but…nevertheless) not being able to track the ball/arm path has a lot to do with hitting success. As you can see from the GIFs at the top Kershaw drops his glove down to his lift leg, as it is moving forward, and removes the ball from the glove behind that leg, thereby obscuring the arm and ball from the hitters view. I do believe not seeing the arm path up to the release point is where the surprise comes for the hitters.

      If you ever go to the batting cages and hit against the “iron mike” style machine vs. the wheel machine you will have two entirely different timing sequences. In the wheel you will see the ball drop to the wheel and then the pitch will be thrown very soon after. The “iron mike” sort of simulates an arm throwing motion, but the throw always seems to happen VERY suddenly. You never really get a chance to see the ball get loaded and if you aren’t ready the pitch will already be on its way and you will have missed it. As a kid I hated the “iron mikes” because I could never get the timing down, and could never really square up the pitch. Now the wheel is too predictable and I prefer the “iron mikes” because it helps me prepare for a live pitcher and the potential deception they may have.

      Not being able to track the arm/ball path when the ball is removed from the glove I think has a lot to do with the hitters timing. Because if you are able to see the arm path/ball path you can at least time the release of the pitch, if not the pitch itself. Of course Kershaw throws in the mid 90s and has ridiculous off speed pitches to compliment his fastball and further frustrate the hitter…and seeing that stuff come out of his throwing slot suddenly without warning….sucks to be the hitter.

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  5. dtpollitt says:

    Great stuff, thanks.

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  6. dannyrainge says:

    Excellent article. A part of me wonders whether there is some Todd Marinovich father soaking all this Fangraphs stuff up and building his son into a mini-Kershaw (keep the ball behind your head, reach your arms up for a big breath and mini-pause in the stretch, don’t you know about Glen Perkins? etc.)

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  7. Richie says:

    I know Reggie Jackson said that all he did was focus on the release point, rather than follow the ball through the windup. And my impression was that Reggie was pretty standard in that during his time. Has that changed?

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  8. Cream says:

    I was curious and looked to see which pitchers are most similar to Kershaw in terms of pitches (velocity & usage patterns). The two that I found were Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Duensing. I don’t know why, but I found this funny.

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  9. TheUncool says:

    Ha! You’re just trying to make me regret finally letting Kershaw go in trade in my salary dynasty back in early-June. :-p I had owned Kershaw (and paid him his real life base salary on an annually inflating ~$100-110M payroll) since drafting him #2 overall in our annual MiLB Draft back in spring 2007, but finally feel like my SP staff is strong enough now to let him go just as he’s nearing his big payday, which could eat up 20-25% of the payroll.

    Still saddens me a little though to realize I won’t be able to enjoy Kershaw’s dominance on my fantasy team anymore even though my staff is looking very strong even w/out him now (and might still be tops in this league after adding Liriano in another trade and signing D Salazar in FA auction right after his MLB debut). I could really use the help elsewhere going forward, so had to pull the trigger after doing some shopping. Landed Matt Carpenter (and his cheap pre-arb years and possibly longer) to become Zobrist’s successor at 2B (and David Wright’s near-term injury backup) plus Papelbon (on significantly better contract than real life though still more expensive than I ever like to pay an RP there) and some minor rental pieces to bolster my championship run this year — so far so good w/ that although Kevin Gregg has actually done more to help my run thus far than Papelbon, which hopefully changes for the better real soon. :-p Unexpectedly, Dillon Gee, whom I threw in, turned the corner soon after the deal and looks to become a nice bonus for that other team — he was signed pretty cheaply for multiple years.

    Now, I just gotta hope Papelbon doesn’t really turn up lame (after a tepid run) like most every RP I’ve dealt for (usually at midseason to bolster my run in a tight race). And unfortunately, if this one turns up lame, I’ll need to eat more $$$ than in the past. Can’t stand closers, but can’t live w/out them in fantasy… :-p

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  10. Charlie says:

    Great pitcher…although I’d like to watch some film from the first base side to see the pause in the motion of the full windup. The leg is up, its down, then he falls towards the plate… wonder how developed that – sure helps him hide that ball and has to be disconcerting the first few times you face him.

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