The last time Clayton Kershaw allowed a run, his team was trailing the Giants in the National League West by seven and a half games. The Dodgers have since caught up, in part because of the whole thing where Clayton Kershaw hasn’t allowed any runs, and for as much as this is a particularly pitcher-friendly era for the game, Kershaw these days has achieved a basically impossible level, standing out from the group of pitchers standing out from the rest of the pitchers. If the best pitchers get strikeouts while limiting walks and homers, 2014 Kershaw has been just about perfect, improving from a Cy Young campaign that was his second in three years.
It is absolute silliness that Clayton Kershaw owns a 1.85 ERA. I’ll note also, for good measure, he hasn’t allowed a single unearned run. It is additional absolute silliness that Kershaw is one start away from possessing a 1.16 ERA. Through 13 starts, he’s allowed 18 runs, but in 12 of those starts, he’s allowed a combined 11 runs. On May 17, Kershaw allowed 39% of his runs in 8% of his appearances, getting yanked in the second inning. Kershaw entered that game with a 1.74 ERA. Since that game, he’s posted a 0.97 ERA. That was a start that didn’t at all fit the greater pattern, so it makes you wonder: how did it happen? How did Clayton Kershaw get bombed by the Diamondbacks in the middle of May?
Let’s take a look. If nothing else, this post reveals what an actually mortal Clayton Kershaw can look like. It is an increasingly unfamiliar image.
Something to point out right away: the game was a mystery to Kershaw himself. Though he’d earlier had a DL stint, he’d shaken off any rust, so the pain was a distant memory. He made his next start and spun six shutout innings, so this wouldn’t have been anything physical. Kershaw wasn’t sick, and he didn’t make any excuses, at the time or after the fact. His velocity readings were normal. The roof in Arizona was closed, so there weren’t any environmental considerations.
In 1.2 innings, Kershaw allowed seven runs. Another way to put that: in 0.2 innings, Kershaw allowed seven runs, because his first inning was spotless. In the early going, there was no indication that Kershaw was about to go through a ten-batter nightmare. He got an out on his first pitch, and then he did this to Chris Owings:
Then Paul Goldschmidt struck out, so, in all, Kershaw threw a 1-2-3 first with a pair of whiffs. That looked like ordinary Kershaw. The next Kershaw people would see in the game would be about four standard deviations below ordinary Kershaw. It all started with Cody Ross.
That was Kershaw’s first pitch of the second inning, and though no one would’ve known at the time, this was a bit of foreshadowing. Kershaw flew open and badly missed with a fastball. Three pitches later, Kershaw missed again, and Ross took his base:
Not good, but not dreadful. The same would’ve gone for Kershaw’s next matchup, facing Martin Prado. In a 2-and-2 count, Prado bounced a high fastball over the first baseman for a single to put runners on the corners:
There’s a lot going on here. Kershaw, again, missed up and a little away with a fastball. That part of the process was bad. But Prado made fairly weak contact, so that part of the equation was good. But the contact was enough to get the ball into right field, so that part of the equation was bad. For Kershaw, this was both a lousy pitch and a lousy, unlucky result, with worse pitches yet to come.
You can say this: the Diamondbacks didn’t hit every mistake. The next batter was Alfredo Marte, and in a 1-and-2 count, Kershaw missed up with a curveball. He came back with another curve, and though it was elevated, Marte swung right through it, because Marte isn’t very good. Not every hung pitch got hammered.
After Marte, Cliff Pennington quickly fell behind 0-and-2 after taking a pair of good low, inside fastballs. But hitters swing at most pitches in two-strike counts, and Kershaw’s pitch was a bad pitch, a curveball that stayed up at the belt. Pennington drilled a triple.
Tuffy Gosewisch subsequently swung at a first-pitch fastball, which Kershaw had thrown to everyone. He made good enough contact to knock the ball past all the area infielders.
The pitch was higher than Kershaw wanted. Unsurprisingly, that happened over and over again. The easiest thing to say would be that Kershaw wasn’t adequately finishing his pitches. After Gosewisch, the opposing pitcher bunted, bringing up A.J. Pollock. In another two-strike count, Kershaw tried to come with a breaking ball — this time, a slider — but the slider never snapped and it stayed in the wheelhouse, and Pollock had himself three bases.
With the curveball and slider both hanging, Kershaw came after Owings with six consecutive fastballs. All of them were in similar spots, somewhat allowing Owings to time the pitch and focus on a zone. Owings came through with Arizona’s third triple in the span of five batters, one of whom put down a sacrifice bunt. Kershaw is the only pitcher in baseball this year to allow three triples in one appearance, and it took him only a fraction of said appearance. Though the pitch Owings drilled wasn’t necessarily in a bad spot, Kershaw hadn’t mixed things up, and he put the fastball where he likes to put two-strike sliders. An inning earlier, Kershaw got Owings to swing at a slider down and in, off the plate. Owings swung, thinking it was a fastball. Here he had to protect against that same pitch, but this pitch never broke.
Up came Goldschmidt, and for four pitches, Kershaw was good enough, getting two balls and two strikes. Goldschmidt took a low fastball, and he took a slider down and in, but he also whiffed at a slider down and in, and he fouled off an inside heater. The fifth pitch was the mistake — the fifth pitch was a hung curve, on the inner third. Goldschmidt clobbered it.
By that point there was activity in the bullpen and it was obvious that Kershaw was just about done. But the last showdown, against Ross, included its own humiliations, beginning with three consecutive balls and this gesture from Don Mattingly, urging A.J. Ellis to go have a chat.
Almost immediately, that was followed by a balk, with Kershaw showing some frustration and carelessness.
And then, finally, Ross saw his eighth ball out of eight pitches in one inning. Kershaw would be removed, his ERA having climbed into the mid-4s.
Clayton Kershaw, that night, made an uncharacteristic amount of mistakes, and he was perhaps disproportionately punished for them. It’s hard to believe now, but there was some concern about him, and here’s an example post from Mark Saxon:
Kershaw’s best put-away pitch is in a slump. Remember when Vin Scully, while watching Kershaw pitch a spring training game as a 19-year old, wearing uniform No. 96, called his curveball “public enemy No. 1?” Well, right now, it’s its own worst enemy.
A.J. Ellis, Kershaw’s catcher, traces the left-hander’s current performance back to a start he made against the Diamondbacks on May 17, when he allowed seven runs in 1 2/3 innings. Most of the damage done in that game, Ellis noted, was against breaking pitches, and Kershaw came out of that performance angry and determined to throw his curveball and slider better.
With the way he’s throwing his slider and curve now, Ellis said, “they look like they’re strikes forever, and then bottom out.”
It almost sounds like non-information: pitcher who got hit attempted to throw better pitches. But, obviously, Kershaw has been sharper since. The reason is as simple as improved mechanical consistency, as everything is always about improved mechanical consistency, and perhaps Kershaw came a bit out of whack given that his particular mechanics are unusually complicated and unusually timed. Since that inning in Arizona, Kershaw has seen seven runners cross the plate. Instead of scoring in one inning, those seven have scored over 65.
In a sense, in that game against Arizona, Kershaw wasn’t himself. Obviously, he wasn’t himself. In another sense, you notice that Prado’s hit came in a two-strike count. Pennington’s hit came in a two-strike count. Pollock’s hit came in a two-strike count, and so did Owings’ hit, and so did Goldschmidt’s hit. Even without his command, Kershaw was coming one pitch away from sitting these hitters down. Not every pitch in a bad game is a bad pitch. Not every pitch in a good game is a good pitch. Everything turns on a smaller handful of mistakes or great deliveries.
To get hit, to get beat around, Clayton Kershaw had to make mistakes. He had to make some of the worst possible mistakes — leaving breaking pitches up in counts where the hitters would be aggressive. The inning happened without warning, and just as there were no signs before, there were no signs after. As evidenced by the events of May 17, Clayton Kershaw isn’t immune to ugly big innings, and if Kershaw isn’t immune, no one’s immune. Such an inning could happen to anybody. But Kershaw came away determined to never let anything of the sort happen to him again, and the only reasonable conclusion we can draw is, mission accomplished, to date. It’s nuts that Kershaw was charged with seven runs in one frame against the Diamondbacks, but that frame might in part have led to the frames we’ve seen more recently. That’s what one might refer to as winning the war.
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