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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.