As one of the greatest pitchers of our generation, one might think that it is extremely unlikely that Clayton Kershaw would have what we would consider a ‘problem.’ As a seven-time All-Star, a three-time (potentially four-time) Cy Young winner, and an NL MVP, Kershaw has been the model of consistency over the past number of seasons, and as his career progressive ERA would dictate, he gets better each and every season. But if there were one knock on Kershaw, especially over the last season, he has been extremely prone to the long ball. His HR/9 rate in 2017 was 1.18, significantly higher than his previous high, which rang in at 0.92 in 2008. Between 2008 and 2017, the highest HR/9 during that span was 0.63 in 2012.
Also at a career high this season was his HR/FB rate. This season, he came in at 15.9%, compared to his previous career high, which also came in 2008, at 11.8%. So it wasn’t just an increased number of fly balls that led to his inflated HR/9, but as we can see with the high HR/FB rate, more of the fly balls hit left the yard.
Expanding on that even further, in his regular-season career, Kershaw has given up 128 home runs. Of those 128, 75 of them have been solo home runs (58.6%). This season, of the 23 home runs Kershaw surrendered, 15 of them were solo shots (65.2%). League-wide this season, of the 6105 home runs that were hit, 3495 were of the solo variety. This is 57.2%. Kershaw’s career average is on par with the major-league average, but this year, there is a significant spike in the percent of solo home runs that Kershaw gave up. Is this because Kershaw took it easy with the bases empty? Or because hitters have finally realized that stringing together three hits in an inning off of Kershaw can seem about as impossible as licking your elbow? (Real question is how many of you just tried to lick your elbow.)
Whether or not 2017 will turn out to be an outlier for Kershaw in terms of the home-run ball remains to be seen. Will hitters continue on the same trend, thinking that the long ball is the only way to beat Kershaw? Only time will tell. As for things we do know, while giving up the most home runs of his career, Kershaw still remained near the top of the list of best pitchers in the game. And while he missed six starts in July/August, he will still receive numerous Cy Young votes, although I predict he will come up short.
Kershaw, as proven last Thursday night in the Dodgers’ 11-1 rout of the Cubs to clinch the NL Pennant, remains terrific. The home run that Kershaw gave up to Kris Bryant was a cheap one. The ball was hit at 94mph, at a 32 degree launch angle. The expected average given that combination is an abysmal .136, and is a home run just 6% of the time (via Mike Petriello). Granted, not all home runs that Kershaw gives up are like that, but maybe Kershaw just ran into some bad luck this past season.
So given Kershaw’s resume, and the fact that he somehow finds a way to lower his career ERA each and every season, just how good could Kershaw be next year if he fixes his “problem?” The sky’s the limit, and if anyone could reach the sky, it would be Kershaw.