The Awesomeness of Clayton Kershaw

The knock on Clayton Kershaw was always his control. He couldn’t throw some of his pitches for strikes and was prone to wild spells. He has pitched so spectacularly this season that some may not remember that critique.

In 198 2/3 innings, Kershaw is still striking over a batter per inning, but his walk rate has dropped to slightly over six percent of opposing hitters. While that rate isn’t in the top ten of the National League right now, it represents a marked improvement. From 2008-10, Kershaw walked 11.1 percent of the opposition, ranging from 11-13 percent over the three year span. Among senior circuit pitchers with 400 innings pitched in the span, only Jonathan Sanchez issued free passes with a greater frequency.

Missing bats was never a problem, as his career 9.4 K/9 will attest, but his filthiness proved detrimental to his command. He had the stuff to succeed but had not yet harnessed it. Thus the walks. Now those walks are a thing of the past and is he surpassing what many believed to be his potential at the ripe age of 23 years old.

He entered the league with a world-renowned curveball but couldn’t throw it for strikes. His changeup had potential but it wasn’t a true out pitch. Kershaw threw his fastball with the best of them and could induce whiffs on his offspeed pitches, but he struggled to throw them for strikes. He wasn’t going to blossom into an elite pitcher with a fastball-average curveball-below average changeup repertoire. As hitters began to notice he struggled to control the pitches, they began to lay off, and something had to give.

Kershaw took that opportunity to fine tune his slider. He began throwing the pitch last season, reducing his usage of curveball from 17 percent to just 7 percent. He also got rid of the changeup, throwing it just two percent of the time. For the most part, Kershaw was a fastball-slider pitcher last season, and the slider proved devastating. Whether you trust our pitch run values or not, it’s clear that his slider produced some of the best results of any single pitch last season. Whether using overall runs saved or runs per 100 pitches thrown, he held a clear lead over all other slider-throwers.

The pitch grew even more effective this season, perhaps as he better understood how to sequence and locate it. Kershaw also began to work the changeup in more, giving him an upper echelon fastball-slider-changeup repertoire. His BB/9 dropped from 4.8 to 3.6 last season and he sustained the high strikeout rate. Add to that more grounders than flyballs and Kershaw was well on his way towards becoming one of the best pitchers in the game. Not one of the best young pitchers, or a nice pitcher who could get there in a few years, but one of the best overall pitchers in baseball, free of detracting qualifiers.

Quite the transformation.

At 23 years old, Kershaw is an elite pitcher. He has also garnered plenty of recent support for the Cy Young Award, which seemed like Roy Halladay‘s to lose for most of the season. Kershaw’s age and quick jumps from solid prospect to good major league pitcher and then to elite starter place him in some limited company. Many fans and analysts are quick to point out how rare Justin Upton‘s accomplishments are given his age, but Kershaw is deserving of a similar treatment. How many pitchers, 23 years old and younger, have experienced the same type of success?

Going all the way back to 1901, and requiring at least 600 innings logged before turning 24 years old, Kershaw has the 10th best ERA+ at 131. If we instead go back to 1950, then only Dwight Gooden, Bert Blyleven and Dean Chance rank ahead of him. Kershaw finds himself in even more limited company when some of his best attributes are introduced. Since 1901, there are only two pitchers to throw 600 innings before their 24th birthday, while also posting a 9+ K/9: Kershaw and Sam McDowell. The latter whiffed 9.7 batters per nine innings over 799 2/3 frames over the 1961-66 seasons.

Very few pitchers experience Kershaw’s success. Not only are there fewer pitchers called up at such a young age, but it generally takes time for certain youngins to mature at the major league level. Kershaw is a big-bodied lefty flamethrower with likely the best slider in baseball, who now strikes four batters out for every walk. He might not yet be the best pitcher in the National League, but he is making a case as the man to dethrone Roy Halladay over the next few seasons.



Print This Post



Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Matty Brown
Guest
Matty Brown
4 years 11 months ago

Great article. It is a shame he is stuck on the Divorce-Dodgers for the foreseeable future though.

What was his ranking in the Trade Value series? I hope it was Top 5.

Shamus
Guest
Shamus
4 years 11 months ago

Why is it a shame? He should be on your favorite team instead?

Benjamin Hu
Member
Benjamin Hu
4 years 11 months ago

Because he won’t be given a legitimate chance to compete for the time being, and quite possibly won’t be offered an appropriate contract by his first major league team. It essentially forces his hand to become a monetary or competitive mercentary

Cliff Lee's Changeup
Guest
Cliff Lee's Changeup
4 years 11 months ago

Because we won’t get to see him in the playoffs very often, that is why it is a shame. Better players deserve more exposure, and the playoffs allow that to happen.

Bip
Guest
Bip
4 years 11 months ago

He was #11 or 10, but he was the highest ranked pitcher.

Tim
Guest
Tim
4 years 11 months ago

He’s pretty awesome.

Jon Bongiovi
Guest
Jon Bongiovi
4 years 11 months ago

He’s got a good chance to be your Cy Young. Absolutely stunning that one of the bally-hooed Philly Big 3 didn’t runaway with it.

AA
Guest
AA
4 years 11 months ago

You mean Big 4, right?

jim
Guest
jim
4 years 11 months ago

“didn’t run away with”

oh, so you’re from the future and know how the awards voting is going to go with a month-plus of regular season ball left?

Ugh..Jim
Guest
Ugh..Jim
4 years 11 months ago

So glad you were here to point out his very minor incorrect-word-usage mistake. I couldn’t have enjoyed this article or his comment with out you!

Shamus
Guest
Shamus
4 years 11 months ago

The Dodgers ownership situation will be settled before Kershaw is a free agent, and to say he won’t be payed appropriately is incorrect. He will go through the same arbitration process as every other arbitration eligible player.

Yeah, it’s a bummer the Dodgers have a bad owner, but every team deserves to have a great player.

Sitting Curveball
Member
4 years 11 months ago

He is a reminder that, for all of the much talked about busts, many of the top prospects turn into top players.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 11 months ago

At 23 years old, Kershaw is an elite pitcher. He has also garnered plenty of recent support for the Cy Young Award, which seemed like Roy Halladay‘s to lose for most of the season.

[1] Good point. The difference with Upton is that he had a monster age 20 season. Upton is viewed as kind of a disappoint since then … but then 2011 happened. Kershaw has been, surprisingly, under the radar. Kershaw and Verlander are two high strikeout guys that are figuring out how to reduce balls or increase command. A lot of MLB pitchers are pitching like MLB has just imposed new standards to deaden bats, if you’ll pardon the pun.

[2] Since coming to the NL, doesn’t halladay start off every year as the default choice for NL CY? Before him, it was Lincecum’s to lose.

Matt Cain
Guest
Matt Cain
4 years 11 months ago

Just noticed Halladay’s FIP is 2.10. Snap!

Bip
Guest
Bip
4 years 11 months ago

But he’s talking about as the season was happening. Halladay was clearly the best pitcher in the National League for a while. Kershaw was mediocre in April and some bad starts scattered since then. Going 11-2 in his last 13 start starts with a 1.18 ERA over his last 10 can change people’s perceptions though.

Ed Ed and Eddy
Guest
Ed Ed and Eddy
4 years 11 months ago

One of the main reasons Kershaw’s under the radar isn’t the divorce, per se. It’s the fact that MLB and Selig does a horrible job at marketing players outside of the AL East and the Phillies. Pujols, Fielder, Strasburg, Joe Mauer, Lincecum, Brian Wilson are the only players off the top of my head that I see constantly getting love from most forms of the national media . Why not market around young players like Mike Stanton, Kershaw, Upton, etc? I know for a fact that Kershaw is a pretty charismatic guy.

The other two main sports (NBA, NFL) do outstanding jobs are letting people know are the superstars of each team. Hell, you can make a case for the NHL marketing their players are favorably.

Jake S
Guest
Jake S
4 years 11 months ago

I’ve gotta agree with you on the marketing of stars… I’m not into the NBA at all, but follow the NFL closely. The teams and players that get coverage in football are teams that win and players that put up big plays. The MLB only chases the big markets and the casual fans get sick of hearing about the Red Sox and the Yankees et al.

ivdown
Guest
ivdown
4 years 11 months ago

Kershaw is like a little kid, he’s awesome to watch in the dugout. I’m with you, market the future with the guys you mentioned as well as maybe Jay Bruce, Tulo, Felix, etc… If they aren’t marketed how will non rabid baseball fans know who they are more than just some name.

cory
Guest
cory
4 years 11 months ago

He’s got my vote for CY.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff
4 years 11 months ago

That doesn’t matter because you don’t have a vote.

tdotsports1
Guest
4 years 11 months ago

I have to give Roy Halladay the edge in the Cy Young vote. My obvious Toronto bias not withstanding Doc pitches in a tougher park, probably tougher offensive division and IMO just slightly more impressive stats all things considered.

Kershaw is the real deal, best lefty in the game but he does benefit a great deal from his home park and unsustainable HR suppression (though at some point it has to be viewed as a skill considering it has been career long). The NL West is filled with extreme pitchers park (San Fran, San Diego, LA) and some pretty awful lineups.

The NL East isn’t MUCH better in terms of offensive talent (outside Philly of course) but it is a smidgen tougher.

Neither is a poor choice, but Doc has the edge.

Dave
Guest
Dave
4 years 11 months ago

Seems to me that Halladay and his career-low 4.3% HR/FB ratio despite playing home games in a HR friendly park is the unsustainable rate, not Kershaw’s.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin
4 years 11 months ago

While Halladay will finish off this season with a career-low HR/FB ratio, is that something that should be held against him while deciding post season awards? He is unlikely to sustain that ratio ever again (but then if Halladay never gave up a home run again, I wouldn’t be surprised at this point) but he still went an entire season with very few home runs. The same question could be asked for hitters as well. If somebody had a monster season hitting 100 pts higher than his career BABIP, should that be held against him?

tdotsports1
Guest
4 years 11 months ago

agreed with Kevin, besides Halladay has never had a true outlier season in terms of luck (BABIP, HR/FB etc) he was due for a bit of luck.

FFFFan
Guest
FFFFan
4 years 11 months ago

Moved to LA many years ago and go to Chavez Ravine when I can (although not a Dodger fan). Kershaw has the best pure stuff I’ve seen in a long time. His late movement is violent. He’s one of the few pitchers that I rearrange my schedule to go see.

Phantom Stranger
Guest
Phantom Stranger
4 years 11 months ago

Kershaw is probably my third favorite pitcher to watch now, after Cliff Lee and Verlander. What is truly scary is that I think he still has some upside left, meaning he could eventually reach a Pedro or Maddux-like prime in a year or two.

Bip
Guest
Bip
4 years 11 months ago

I sure do not tire of “Clayton Kershaw is awesome” posts from fangraphs. [not sarcasm]

ivdown
Guest
ivdown
4 years 11 months ago

I’m with you 1000% :)

Desdroia
Member
Desdroia
4 years 11 months ago

Matt Kemp and Kershaw would pretty much cover the entire gamut of markets (black, white, pop star dating, descendent of great physicist, both are charismatic and well-spoken, hitter, pitcher, young, freakishly talented) and as a Red Sox fan I’d love any opportunity to be less annoying to the rest of the country. But I go to school in LA and whereas in Boston all our billboards have current players and the tagline “We’re all in”, in LA they only have nostalgia billboards from the 70s and 80s. I think they understand that the current generation of Los Angelinos could give a crap about much of anything but raves and weed, so they appeal to the heavy drinking baby boomers who still care. It’s sad to see dying baseball markets, especially when it comes at the detriment of young players who could be superstars.

good Will hunting
Guest
good Will hunting
4 years 11 months ago

Oh jeez. Amazing generalization and over-simplification of the demographic of the second most populated city in the US.

Maybe if you ventured away from the westside or the valley you would have a different opinion.

Desdroia
Guest
Desdroia
4 years 11 months ago

I live in downtown, my parents grew up in east la and next door to Chavez ravine and I go to the 2nd largest school in the city. I’ve been to numerous Angels and dodgers games, as well as games in cities with real baseball fanbases.
So yeah, I’m generalizing, but that’s the point of sports teams: if you don’t support them, especially when you’re lucky enough to have one with a rich history and good young players, your city looks crappy.

And if you think those are the only parts of the city where kids are like that you don’t know the city as well as you think.

wpDiscuz