Clayton Kershaw Is Still Experimenting

Around the end of last September, Clayton Kershaw began an experiment. A few times a game, seemingly at random, Kershaw would drop down and deliver a pitch from more of a sidearm slot. He took the experiment with him into the playoffs, and although that seems like it would’ve been ballsy, one of the explanations given was that Kershaw used to pitch from that slot in high school, so it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. It was clear immediately that the experiment was interesting. It was less clear whether it was particularly successful. Kershaw had a total of 25 pitches tracked from his lower slot, and I wrote about them in March.

One of the things about Kershaw is he doesn’t say much. So he didn’t offer much analysis of his own little quirk. We couldn’t be sure, therefore, whether Kershaw would resume dropping his arm in 2017. He didn’t throw any pitches like that in his first start. He didn’t throw any pitches like that in his second start. He didn’t throw any pitches like that in his first eight starts. It certainly looked like the experiment was dead. So it goes. If nothing else, at least he was still Clayton Kershaw.

Then start number nine came along. It’s back. For 21 pitches in the last four games, it’s been back. And Kershaw has added a new twist to his new twist.

Last time out, on Friday, Kershaw struck out 14 Brewers. He looks a lot like himself again, after a brief little relative slump. In the third inning of the Brewers game, Kershaw faced Eric Thames and struck him out on three pitches. Here’s the first one:

Pretty ordinary Clayton Kershaw fastball. 94 miles per hour, strike, a little bit elevated. Thames pulled the trigger and fouled the pitch off, and when you’re up against Kershaw, you don’t want to fall behind in the count. I mean, you don’t want to have to be facing Kershaw in the first place, but there are better and worse ways of even doing that. Anyway, with the count 0-and-1, Kershaw came back with another heater:

You see it, right? You see it in the delivery, and you see it in the follow-through. Kershaw dropped down for that pitch and Thames swung right through it. 94 miles per hour. If you try to read the body language, you can see signs of Thames looking out at the mound and then nodding his head. Like, “all right, that’s how we’re going to do this.” This is the old experiment, if you want to call it that. This is Kershaw dropping down and throwing a fastball more like a two-seamer than a four-seamer. The count was 0-and-2. And then:

This is the new element. It certainly caught Thames by surprise, and he had to shoot Kershaw a glance:

Not that Kershaw did anything wrong. Not that Thames did anything unsportsmanlike. Thames just looked out to the mound, because twice in three pitches, Clayton Kershaw dropped down, and one time, with two strikes, he spun a curveball.

Let me just put it all out there for you. The first pitch:

The second pitch:

The third pitch:

Here are the three release points:

There’s no question that Kershaw threw with an unusual delivery. There’s no question he was more sidearm, with a weirder kind of incomplete follow-through. That stuff could be considered relatively old news. But now let’s look at some plots from the Texas Leaguers website. Here are Kershaw’s 2016 release points:

Every single pitch thrown from the lower slot was a fastball. Don’t worry about how some of those points are red and some of them are orange — they’re identical. All fastballs, all basically two-seamer equivalents. Kershaw dropped down 25 times late last year, but he did so always with the same basic intent. Which, again, is still interesting! But you could see the potential downside. Maybe it was too much of a tell. Maybe it was going to be more trouble than it was worth. It’s not like there’s anything real subtle about Kershaw’s sidearm drop — it’s pretty clear even from early in his throwing motion.

Here’s the same plot for 2017:

It’s still mostly fastballs. When Kershaw has dropped down, the overwhelming majority of the time, he’s thrown the same pitch. But now there’s something new in there. Four curveballs are scattered among the orange and red. Thames was the recent recipient of one of them. Kershaw’s experiment went on hiatus, but then it came back, and it had been tweaked. Kershaw now looks more like Rich Hill than he had, and Hill was his specific inspiration for even trying this in a game.

Do not be led to believe it’s been a wild success. We’re talking about four low-slot curveballs, and one of them got a called strikeout. One of them was hit for a grounder. One was a ball, too high, and one was a ball, too low. The pitch to Thames has been the most successful of these curveballs, but it’s still worth highlighting just because this is Kershaw, and this is a sign of development, or commitment, or intention. Kershaw is stubborn enough he wants to make this experiment work. It seems like it stands a better chance than it did, when the lowered slot was more of a dead giveaway.

For those of you who are curious and really into the numbers — when Kershaw has thrown a drop-down fastball, the pitches have averaged about six inches more run, with a few inches more sink. The drop-down curveball breaks about six additional inches in the other direction, now with a bit less sink. Where the typical Kershaw curve is a 12-to-6 hammer, this variety is more like a slurve. I don’t know whether the pitch is all that good on its own, but that’s not what’s relevant. You always have to consider individual pitches within the greater context, and now one could say that Kershaw technically throws two fastballs, two curveballs, and a slider. He had three pitches for a while. Then he folded in something of a gimmick. Now he’s confusing from twice as many slots. We still can’t say it’s an amazing development, but it is development of some kind.

We’ve had some questions answered, then. Yes, Kershaw is keeping this up. And, yes, Kershaw is willing to throw non-fastballs from the lower slot. That second one could be key, as hitters are forced to have to guess about a whole new motion. This still isn’t something Kershaw does with tremendous frequency. And I still don’t love the way Kershaw looks when his momentum takes him kind of in the direction of first base. Something seems a wee bit unpolished. But a new twist is a new twist. Eric Thames saw a Clayton Kershaw just about no other hitter has seen. Other hitters aren’t going to know when they’re going to see that Kershaw for themselves.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

Watching that strikeout live was a real treat.