Clayton Kershaw Isn’t the Clayton Kershaw of Everything

I don’t know if Clayton Kershaw is going to win the Cy Young Award, but I know he deserves to as much as anybody else. Three years ago, he won the Cy Young by allowing a .521 OPS. Two years ago, he won the Cy Young by allowing a .521 OPS. This year, he might win the Cy Young after allowing a .521 OPS. Maybe he wouldn’t mind a loss so much; he’s already won three of these things, plus a league MVP. He’s not hurting for hardware. But then, it’s not like Clayton Kershaw likes to lose.

He is the total package, as a pitcher, as a player, as a person. On the field, he’s proven his durability. He’s turned himself into a good hitter for his position. He’s also a good defender, who’s difficult to run against. Few pitchers have Kershaw’s know-how, and few pitchers have his command. Kershaw throws what rates as one of the best fastballs in baseball. He throws what rates as one of the best sliders in baseball. He throws what rates as one of the best curveballs in baseball. He does everything, and he’s 27. There’s no such thing as an actually perfect pitcher, but Kershaw is as close as it gets. There are no meaningful weaknesses. He’s even now proven himself in the playoffs.

There’s just this one thing. This one nearly irrelevant thing, that bothers Kershaw even if it doesn’t bother anybody else. Ask anyone else, and they’d tell you that Kershaw is as good as they come. Ask Kershaw, and he’d tell you he wishes he could throw a decent changeup.

When you look back on Kershaw the prospect, on Kershaw the youngster, what drew attention was the curveball. It was supported by a good heater, but the curveball looked like it could be iconic. Back then, Kershaw had a middling changeup, and he didn’t really have a slider. In time, he picked up a slider, and he turned it into one of the best sliders, and Kershaw’s whole career took off. He’s made his name on his three primary pitches, but that fourth has just never quite died. It’s stuck around, as much Kershaw’s challenge for himself as anything.

From Brooks Baseball, here’s how Kershaw has mixed things up during the PITCHf/x era, which also covers his whole career:

kershaw-pitches

That combines sliders and curves under the “breaking” label. Over time, Kershaw has thrown more breaking pitches. Over time, he’s thrown fewer fastballs. And over time, the changeup has faded, but it hasn’t disappeared. It peaked when Kershaw was a rookie, as he threw it about 5% of the time. This past year was a career low, as Kershaw threw it less than one half of 1% of the time. According to PITCHf/x, Kershaw threw 18 changeups. According to Brooks, he threw 15 changeups. According to my own video confirmation, he threw maybe 14 changeups. That’s not very many changeups. It’s also 14 more than zero.

I was led back to this Tim Brown article about Kershaw and his changeup from January 2014. Nothing has changed — as now, Kershaw was then probably the best pitcher in the game. He didn’t need a fourth pitch, but he still wanted to have it. An excerpt:

“Whaddya workin’ on?” I’d ask, every February, from the time Clayton Kershaw was a name on a list of prospects. The most promising name, but still.
[…]
We’d bat it around a little – fastball command, an emerging slider, a tighter, more obedient curveball – and then as the conversation was ending, over his shoulder, he’d say, “Changeup.”

Kershaw wanted to have a changeup, just in case. You never know when you’re going to need to make an adjustment. He also wanted to have a changeup because it was something he didn’t have, something other pitchers had, and Kershaw didn’t want to feel like there was something he couldn’t do. It was a flaw he saw, and just because everyone else was content to see stardom doesn’t mean that little blemish didn’t gnaw at him. It was one of the only things Kershaw could work to improve. Naturally, he was aware of that.

The changeup hasn’t been around much, but since Brown’s article, there’s evidence of a tweak — the changeup has gotten faster.

kershaw-changeup-velocity

This is another way to know Kershaw hasn’t entirely given up. If he’d stopped trying with the pitch, he wouldn’t make adjustments to it. Kershaw has thrown the changeup harder because it’s something he’s wanted to experiment with. Maybe this combination of finger pressure and arm speed will unlock it. It hasn’t so far, but you get the sense Kershaw won’t let himself stop trying.

This year, 14 changeups, more or less. No changeups in the playoffs, but some in April, and some in September. This is where they went:

kershaw-changeups

You know from the low frequency it wasn’t a reliable pitch. And you can also tell from that plot, because you see the misses up, arm-side. It’s not that all of them were bad. It’s that Kershaw didn’t trust the pitch to be good. He can trust his other pitches to be good. This is the problem, but it’s also a tricky thing to work on in a game situation.

Kershaw’s 14 changeups were thrown during plate appearances with an average Leverage Index of 0.37. Remember that a Leverage Index of 1.0 is a situation with an average stress level. A Leverage Index of 0.5 is a situation with half the average stress level. There’s one changeup with an LI of 1.5. There’s another changeup with an LI of 1.0. Then, in third place: 0.4. Kershaw was trying to hide the pitch. Or at least, he wasn’t really willing to use the pitch unless he didn’t feel like it would matter if something bad happened.

Of interest, Kershaw threw four changeups in his second start of the season. But by the time he threw his first, he’d already allowed nine hits in four innings or so, so he was probably just looking to make a change. There were seven changeups in April. There were seven after April.

Those two changeups with decently high leverage — those were thrown in the same game, to the same hitter, in consecutive trips. In an August start against the Nationals, Kershaw threw the following 0-and-1 pitch to Wilson Ramos:

The pitch was a ball, but it was a pretty good ball, all things considered, and you can see Yasmani Grandal point at Kershaw to indicate that it was a quality pitch. Kershaw doesn’t usually need that sort of encouragement, but with the changeup, it doesn’t hurt. When Ramos batted again in the sixth, Kershaw threw another 0-and-1 changeup:

Much worse. A waste pitch. Kershaw would throw two more changeups all year, with Leverage Indices of 0.2 and 0.4. As always, the fact that he didn’t have a good changeup didn’t make anything easier on the opposition. But as far as Kershaw’s concerned, that isn’t the point.

It’s worth wondering, maybe, whether it’s just more difficult to throw a reliable changeup from Kershaw’s arm angle.

kershaw-angle

The only problem with that idea is that Marco Estrada doesn’t have any problems throwing his own changeup. Though Estrada’s right-handed, that doesn’t really make a difference.

estrada-angle

So we’re just where we’ve been. Kershaw is as excellent as ever. His fastball, his slider, and his curveball are as excellent as ever. Other pitchers would do horrible things to possess just one of those pitches, but Kershaw might make his own sacrifices to have a changeup that would count as even decent. It’s something he’s never had, and it’s something he’s forever searching for, not really because he needs it, and not really because he might need it, but because Clayton Kershaw doesn’t like to fail at anything, least of all an attempt from the mound. Perfectionists obsess about things others might not even notice, but perfectionists don’t do what they do for the others. It’s all about being the best you can be, and Kershaw believes he can still be better.

I don’t know if this is encouraging for other pitchers, or deflating. I mean, you have Clayton freaking Kershaw, struggling to throw a changeup, which some guys get down in Double-A. Even Clayton Kershaw can have a project he has problems with. It makes him relatable. What makes him less relatable is literally everything else.

We hoped you liked reading Clayton Kershaw Isn’t the Clayton Kershaw of Everything by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Painfully Real
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Painfully Real

But he IS the Clayton Kershaw of my heart.