Pitcher Spotlight: The Crack In Clayton Kershaw’s Armor

Wednesday night featured a Clayton Kershaw that we didn’t know. An imposter, a fraud who gave us a six-walk outing so rare that we hadn’t seen one from the #1 Starting Pitcher since 2012. So long ago that it was a time where Matt Harrison had fantasy relevance. So ridiculous that we have to have a talk.

There is something wrong with Clayton Kershaw.

It’s not a novel idea. Kershaw’s 3.48 ERA was uncharacteristic during his September return from the DL last season – a seven-game stretch concluding with six straight games allowing a longball. And with the likes of Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, and Chris Sale all knocking on his door to claim the title of “Best Pitcher On The Planet” there was bound to be plenty more scrutiny.

But while the arguments before eventually ended with “yeah, but it’s Kershaw, he hasn’t shown any real sides of fading and he’s done it for so long,” we finally have an explanation for his struggles. No, it’s not his back problems (while it may be the very root, it’s too simple of an answer and is far from effective rhetoric), it’s his fastball. More specifically, his fastball command.

Command is what has made Kershaw sing. Those stumbling upon a classic Kershaw outing may be seduced by the break on his curveball, but it’s been his fastball/slider combination that has allowed him to soar above the rest. The way he would establish his fastball on the black, then paint a slider that starts in the same location before breaking toward to the dirt at the last moment. These two examples should acclimate those unfamiliar:

Here’s another GIF, this time from his April 20th start against the Nationals:

Kershaw used all three of his pitches – Fastball, Curveball, Slider – to get Bryce Harper in this at-bat on April 20th. Most importantly isn’t the pitch mix, but how little Yasmani Grandal had to move his glove to receive the final two breaking balls that fell to their exact spot each time.

But even in this sequence you can see that the 0-0 fastball wasn’t perfect. It was fine but it wasn’t magnificent. Kershaw isn’t supposed to be a fine pitcher. He’s supposed to be a magnificent pitcher. That’s hard to be when your fastball is a shadow of its former self.

It may surprise some that Kershaw’s collectively best pitch over his career has been his four-seamer, not the flashy curveball or deadly slider. Here are a collection of numbers showing the progression of Kershaw’s four-seamer since 2009:

Clayton Kershaw’s Four-Seamer
Year BAA Groundball % HR/FB % Velocity pVal
2009 .207 40.5% 4.7% 94.8 29.8
2010 .240 42.3% 6.0% 93.2 16.6
2011 .268 43.1% 6.8% 94.1 21.9
2012 .252 44.9% 5.9% 93.8 24.5
2013 .223 45.7% 6.1% 93.3 39.4
2014 .250 51.3% 6.0% 93.8 19.9
2015 .232 50.5% 12.3% 94.3 26.3
2016 .243 41.2% 9.4% 93.7 22.1
2017 .255 41.1% 18.3% 92.7 8.5
2018 .327 32.6% 25.0% 91.2 -2.9

Things are looking grim. Velocity is down over two points from his heyday. He’s generating fewer grounders with the pitch and allowing more homeruns. Batters are swatting his heat around and after years of a 20+ pVal, Kershaw holds a negative mark. Negative.

Remember, those numbers are across the full season, not just Wednesday’s atrocity. I actually can’t even call it that. Kershaw struck out all three batters in the first and still managed to allow just three runs in five frames, so let’s go with “perturbing performance.” Ahem, those numbers aren’t just from Wednesday’s perturbing performance, this has been a problem all season.

It seemingly came to a breaking point on Wednesday, though, and after a first inning that had some wavering, these were the first three fastballs we saw in the second frame:

Heart of the plate at 89mph, called strike on the opposite side of the plate, and another fastball down Broadway for a single. That’s not Kershaw.

But you know what is definitely not Kershaw? Failing to throw a strike with seven straight four-seamers:

And this concluded with what would have been ball eight, but instead resulted in a double down the line. This was man struggling as much as you’ll ever see.

Let’s review the situation. Kershaw has lost 2.5 ticks off his fastball velocity from 2016. Losing velocity means that fewer mistakes get masked and create a smaller margin of error that can only be prevented by improved pitch locations. Kershaw is doing the opposite, showcasing terrible command, resulting in more hits, more homeruns, and plenty fewer grounders. Even with an increased focus on sliders or curveballs, Kershaw cannot be Kershaw without this command.

Normally in these pieces I have a stance. A firm foot in the ground detailing how to interpret both the numbers and the eye test. But I’m conflicted. Everything I’ve studied about his recent performance is pointing toward telling you that Kershaw is about to hit a freefall. Telling you that this wasn’t just a blip in the radar, but rather Kershaw is struggling heavily.

Thing is, I just can’t say that with conviction. We talk about pitchers needing to adapt often, and if there is any pitcher in the game that can adapt, it has to be Clayton Kershaw. We have to make an exception because he is an exception.

Maybe all this means he’s not the “Best Pitcher on the Planet” anymore. Or maybe this is a blessing in disguise, forcing the ultimate craftsman to get back to work. Whatever happens in the shed, Kershaw better get that fastball command fixed. Now.

Nick Pollack is the founder of PitcherList.com and has written for Washington Post, Fantasy Pros, and CBS Sports. He can be found making an excessive amount of GIFs on twitter at @PitcherList.

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6 years ago

Nice work. You are an excellent staffer.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jim

Enjoy the content? Check out PitcherList!

6 years ago
Reply to  Jim

yeah, I was kind of bracing for a lame “is Kershaw broken” that looked just as WAR or quality starts. There was actually some interesting information here.

so, if you’re a GM what’s Kershaw worth this Winter?

6 years ago
Reply to  bly

Better question is will he even opt out. Lot of money on the table already