Opening Day Notes: Kershaw vs. Lincecum

Opening Day’s most anticipated matchup is that of the Kershaw vs. that of the Lincecum. How anticipated you ask? The latest issue of Dodgers Magazine was appropriately dubbed “explosive openings” and will only be on sale at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day. And it features both Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum on its front cover much to the ire of many (or a very few) Dodgers fans.

To help you out when you watch the game tonight, let’s take a look at the pitch selection of both aces, as Kershaw and Lincecum mix their repertoires very differently. Kershaw relies heavily on his low-to-mid 90s four-seam fastball, hurling it on at least 70% of pitches throughout his Major League career. His 12-6 low-70s curve ball was the talk of Tinseltown a few years ago, but Kershaw has since developed a low-80s slider. It has become his favorite secondary pitch, used almost 20% of the time in 2010. His straight changeup hovers in the mid-80s range.

By contrast, Lincecum’s out pitch is his sinking changeup, which he adds a split-fingered grip to. Combined with his mid-80s hard slider and high-70s curve, Lincecum’s repertoire also consists of fastballs that cut, break, and rise in all sorts of directions. Timmy breaks out the fastball on 55% of pitches with varying speeds and movement, anywhere between 87 and 95 mph, then throws the changeup, curve, and slider in that order of frequency.

Here’s a look at Kershaw’s and Lincecum’s pitch selection in different count situations by batter handedness (on the first pitch, hitter’s count, and pitcher’s count:

Pitch Selection vs. Right-Handed Hitters Pitch Selection vs. Left-Handed Hitters
Kershaw First Pitch Hitter Ahead Pitcher Ahead Kershaw First Pitch Hitter Ahead Pitcher Ahead
Fastball 75.3% 84.6% 53.1% Fastball 74.6% 87.8% 60.0%
Slider 14.0% 8.9% 28.5% Slider 24.3% 12.2% 33.3%
Curve 7.8% 1.0% 17.3% Curve 1.1% 0.0% 6.7%
Change 2.0% 1.8% 1.2% Change 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Lincecum First Pitch Hitter Ahead Pitcher Ahead Lincecum First Pitch Hitter Ahead Pitcher Ahead
4-seam 60.0% 53.4% 34.8% 4-seam 35.0% 43.0% 30.7%
2-seam 8.8% 14.2% 5.3% 2-seam 26.5% 25.7% 10.9%
Slider 7.9% 9.2% 16.2% Slider 3.4% 3.2% 9.2%
Curve 18.0% 12.3% 18.8% Curve 21.8% 9.4% 10.4%
Change 4.9% 9.2% 25.0% Change 12.9% 17.1% 38.6%

The left-handed Kershaw uses only his four-seamer and slider against same-handed batters. His pitch selection clearly shows that his slider has become his favorite secondary pitch to use. When Kershaw is ahead in the count, he’ll use the slider most often outside of his fastball, while occasionally mixing in his 12-6 curve against right-handed hitters. Kershaw rarely throws his changeup, and never against lefties.

Whereas Kershaw throws the fastball 85% of the time in hitter’s counts, Lincecum isn’t afraid to mix in all of his secondary pitches no matter the count situation. He’ll throw a variety of fastballs rather than a distinct four-seamer and two-seamer, so think of the two-seam fastball numbers as Lincecum’s fastballs with the most horizontal break toward right-handed hitters. He’ll throw more of these fastballs against lefties since they break away from them.

Watch for the changeup when Lincecum is ahead in the count against left-handed hitters: he threw it 39% of the time in 2010, more often than any other pitch in that situation. His changeup is so effective that he’ll break it out against same-handed hitters too, a rare occurrence for most pitchers who throw the change. Another interesting nugget is that Lincecum uses his curve ball more often on the first pitch than most pitchers would, throwing it about 20% of the time.

Here’s a look at a few plate discipline numbers against each pitcher’s pitch, split by batter handedness (Contact% is contact made per pitch swung at, SwStr% is swinging strikes per pitch seen):

Pitch Outcome vs. Right-Handed Hitters Pitch Outcome vs. Left-Handed Hitters
Kershaw Contact% SwStr% Total Kershaw Contact% SwStr% Total
Fastball 87.2% 5.8% 1854 Fastball 65.9% 16.8% 530
Slider 59.9% 18.1% 504 Slider 48.7% 22.5% 173
Curve 73.5% 6.1% 214 Curve 77.3% 0.0% 18
Change 75.0% 9.1% 44 Change 0.0% 0.0% 0
Lincecum Contact% SwStr% Total Lincecum Contact% SwStr% Total
4-seam 83.6% 7.3% 818 4-seam 86.4% 5.3% 693
2-seam 85.3% 6.1% 164 2-seam 82.4% 5.8% 337
Slider 69.7% 16.6% 217 Slider 68.2% 22.8% 123
Curve 77.3% 9.7% 300 Curve 84.8% 5.1% 274
Change 60.5% 23.9% 285 Change 56.2% 27.4% 555

Kershaw’s slider has resulted in very good swinging strike numbers against both righties and lefties — righties made contact 60% of the time when they swung on the slider while lefties made contact less than 50% of the time. But the four-seamer is much more effective against lefties than righties, which complements his slider as the main reasons for Kershaw’s strikeout rate platoon splits (13.40 K/9 against LHH, 8.19 K/9 against RHH). Hitters make more contact against the curve ball than the slider when they swing.

Lincecum’s changeup and slider are his best out pitches, inducing swinging strikes over 20% of the time he throws them against all batters. They’re more successful against lefties than righties. One pitch that Kershaw’s better at throwing is the fastball, as Lincecum’s fastballs don’t induce as many whiffs as Kershaw’s, especially against same-handed batters.

One thing to watch out for in both NL West aces is their fastball speeds. Kershaw and Lincecum have both seen decreased fastball speeds each year, both averaging 94 mph two years ago and dropping to 91-92 mph.

Whether you’re looking for how Lincecum mixes his changeup and varies his fastball movement or Kershaw’s fastball and slider usage in getting whiffs, the Dodgers-Giants opening night at Chavez Ravine will be the game to watch on Opening Day, a must-watch pitching matchup.

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Albert Lyu (@thinkbluecrew, LinkedIn) is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but will always root for his beloved Northwestern Wildcats. Feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions.

13 Responses to “Opening Day Notes: Kershaw vs. Lincecum”

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  1. Oddibe McBlauser says:

    Sweet break-down. Very curious to see how both pitchers deploy their sliders and curves relative to each other. Lincecum’s late season slider stats last year markedly contributed to his resurgence. If his curve and slider release even more similarly this year, sitting on the breaking ball won’t help a hitter nearly as much as it has, and I think you’ll see % swinging strikes rise for both the curve and slider. Keep in mind Lincecum’s hammer curve was one of his best traits before his split change garnered all the attention. His evolution into a true 4-pitch SP bodes well for his keeping up with Halladay at the top echelon.

    Doyer fans, how was Kershaw’s fastball evolving at the end of last year? How was it breaking down on 2- and 4-seamers?

    I want you to preview all games. 4 eva.

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  2. Wavaw says:

    BRANDON BELT!!!. I’m surprised there wasn’t a post on the main blog about him. I suppose it could have been lost in all the amazing happenings of opening day. Either way, this is the game to watch tonight.

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  3. adohaj says:

    Great article

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  4. Graham says:

    Great work as always, Albert. I do have to quibble with one thing, though; PitchFX is notoriously fallible in identifying Lincecum’s fastball. He throws the two-seamer the vast majority of the time, regardless of what the above classifications say. This is what accounts for the unpredictable fastball movement you mention in your article.

    Go Giants!

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    • Albert Lyu says:

      That’s really helpful to know, Graham. From what I could tell, Lincecum’s two-seamer varies widely in movement, which makes sense that some (or many) of his two-seams that don’t break as hard are classified as four-seamers.

      Some of the classifications I have to do myself, but I’ll, admittedly, almost always make mistakes if a pitcher’s pitch characteristics don’t cluster well and if I don’t have a complete background of the pitcher’s repertoire.

      Classification is very easy for a guy like Kershaw, who throws only one type of fastball.

      Thanks for the note and for the comment.

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  5. Phantom Stranger says:

    Lincecum has lost a bit off his maximum velocity, but his worst stretches last year came when he lost control of his fastball. There were times when he needed to throw a called strike in the zone and could not do it.

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  6. apistat says:

    One thing to note when looking at all that pitch selection data and trying to determine what Lincecum likes to throw: He didn’t even have that slider in his repertoire until about September last year, so the percentages are probably very skewed. He leaned fairly hard on the slider as an out pitch during September and the playoffs, or at least a lot more than these numbers would indicate.

    But then again this is Lincecum, so who knows what his go to pitch will be this year…

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    Caught the end of the game and thee 3 broadcast nuggets …

    (1) Matt Kemp stole 2nd on Cailla because he “went on ‘First Move’ “. Is there any other way to steal on a RHP? Left heel moves, you go.

    (2) On the same play, Posey throws a 1-hopper to the 3B side of the bag. Orel says no chance to get him even with a good throw. Replay shows (timing) a good throw gets him.

    (3) Broxton v. Belt, 2-2 count. Orel says Broxton can throw either the slider or fastball as long as it’s not “right down the middle”. Gee, really? Then after he throws a slider low and in they frown on the location because lefties like it low and in.

    Thiese things drive me nuts. Bobby Valentine? Need I say more?

    Other than that very well pitched game. Kuo is soon to be the left-handed Marmol (very hard to hit).

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  8. AA says:

    …and Kershaw clearly won the battle today.

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    • ToddM says:

      Not sure I’d say “clearly” — they both threw well, although Kershaw was definitely sharper. Neither starter gave up an XBH in 7 innings, so they both limited their mistakes.

      The only batter on either side that had consistently good at bats was Kemp.

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  9. verd14 says:

    Really nice analysis. More please. It’s like the tale of the tape for boxing.

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  10. Jack Weiland says:

    Reaaaallllllyyyyy wish I’d seen this story before I watched the game last night. Balls.

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