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.
“He hides the ball well and it gets on you pretty quick, so it makes him very effective.”
“The (fastball) has an angle to it, too. It looks harder than the radar gun.”
“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.”
“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.”
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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