Clayton Kershaw’s Big Miss, Matt Adams’ Big Hit

On Tuesday evening, Clayton Kershaw gave up a home run to Matt Adams. It was a big home run. Wanna know how I know it was a big home run? Because Matt Adams did this:

adams

The graphic which appears during that replay is annoying, but also helpful, because it shows the real reason why Adams’ homer was a big homer. It was a big homer because it gave the Cardinals a 3-2 lead late in an playoff game with the opportunity to eliminate a team that had the best pitcher in the world on the mound. The Cardinals went on to win, of course, and the Dodgers’ season is now over.

This was a big home run, and it was an unlikely home run. Basically any homer allowed by Kershaw is unlikely. But this one was especially unlikely. Moments before Kershaw served up the dinger, the FOX broadcasters called to the viewer’s attention some activity in the Dodgers bullpen, but noted the lack of a left-handed reliever. Quickly, however, they added that “the Dodgers already have their left-handed specialist on the mound.” Rarely is there a situation where it makes sense to take Kershaw out to bring in a left-handed reliever, because rarely is there someone available who is better at getting lefties out than Kershaw. He held left-handed batters to a .215 wOBA this season, which was the best mark of any starting pitcher in the National League, and second only to Chris Sale in the MLB. Kershaw gave up nine homers in the regular season, just one of which came off the bat of a left handed hitter.

And for as good as Kershaw has been against left-handed hitters, Adams has been nearly as bad against left-handed pitching. The sample is limited to just 193 plate appearances, but that’s because he isn’t any good against lefties and the Cardinals know that. His career wOBA is just .234 against lefties, and of his 34 career regular seasons dingers, just six have come against lefties.

Then there’s the fact that this homer came off a curveball. Lefties already don’t hit Clayton Kershaw, but when they do, it’s against his fastball. Prior to yesterday’s game, no lefty had ever taken Kershaw’s curveball deep. Phrased differently: Matt Adams is the first left-handed batter to ever hit a home run off Clayton Kershaw’s curveball in the MLB.

And it was just the second time Adams had ever hit a curveball from a lefty out of the park. The other instance came exactly three months prior, when he took Justin Wilson’s curve deep for a walkoff.

Kershaw’s curve is deadly to lefties. Adams is dreadful against left-handed curves. The Cardinals knew this. The Dodgers knew this. Kershaw and catcher A.J. Ellis certainly knew this. Said Ellis, after the game:

“Give Matt (Adams) credit for making the adjustment. We weren’t going to adjust because (the curveball) has been such an effective pitch to him. It was probably a little higher than we would have liked, but you still have to hit it.”

The Dodgers plan of attack against Adams was the curveball, and it would have worked, had Kershaw executed it. Problem is, he didn’t execute it. Given the circumstances, this obviously wasn’t your ordinary Kershaw curveball. For Matt Adams to take a Clayton Kershaw curveball deep, it’s got to be one of the fatter curves Kershaws has thrown. Ellis alluded to it in that quote. Let’s see for ourselves.

kersh1

Yup. That’s about as fat as they come. It just kind of… floats over the middle of the plate until Adams crushes it. When we think about a fat curveball, we think about location and we think about movement. Of course, there’s other factors, like the sequence within the at-bat and past history between the two players, but location and movement are the most basic, and also the ones with numbers to support them. Everything is better with numbers, so let’s use them!

In Clayton Kershaw’s career – regular season and playoffs included – he has thrown 2,605 curveballs. This one right here was 2.4 inches from the center of the zone, horizontally. Of those 2,605 curveballs, just 664 of them have been within 2.5 inches horizontally from the center of the plate.

But a curve down the middle can still be a good pitch when it breaks into the dirt. This is how Kershaw dominates. It looks like it’s going to be middle-middle until it’s not anymore. As Ellis mentioned, this one didn’t do that. This one was high. This one crossed the plate 2.5 inches above the center of the zone. Of the 664 curves we’re left with, just 84 of them also were within 2.5 inches of the center of the zone, vertically. We’ve pared down Kershaw’s 2,605 career curveballs to just 84 that were dead middle-middle.

But there’s break, too. If you’ve seen a Clayton Kershaw curveball before, you know they don’t usually just float there like this one did. This one had about 10.5 inches of vertical drop, which is actually pretty good for a Kershaw curve, but 12 of our remaining 84 curves had more drop. Now we’re down to 72.

But it wasn’t as much a lack of vertical break that made this pitch so fat as it was a lack of horizontal break. Kershaw’s curve usually sweeps across the strike zone with a little more than three inches of horizontal break. This one broke just two inches. 55 of our 72 hanging Kershaw curves had more horizontal break than this one, leaving us with 17 curveballs.

Just 17 of Clayton Kershaw’s 2,605 curveballs over a seven-year stretch have been as middle-middle as this one with as little movement as this one had. He throws about two curveballs a year this fat. This one was his last pitch of the season. The pitch he’ll have to sit on for an entire offseason.

Everyone makes mistakes, even the best pitcher in the world. Considering the fact that nobody has ever done what Adams did off Kershaw, it’s hard to fault Kershaw for making literally the first mistake of this kind in his entire career. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he was pitching on three days rest for just the second time and he was already up to 101 pitches. Maybe it was just something that was bound to happen eventually, because nobody is perfect. One thing is for sure: the timing couldn’t have possibly been worse, especially because it came right after two singles that each barely left the infield.

Even when Kershaw throws a curve this fat, it’s not exactly a recipe for disaster. Usually, hitters are so taken aback by it that they watch it go for a called strike. Batters only swung at six of our 17 fattest Kershaw curves. One of those was a whiff. One was a foul ball. Two were popouts, one was a groundout, and one was a dinger. Kershaw made a huge mistake with this pitch, yes, but credit is due to Matt Adams for being the first one in Kershaw’s career to pounce on the mistake the way he did.

We hoped you liked reading Clayton Kershaw’s Big Miss, Matt Adams’ Big Hit by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Ceetar
Guest

This is basically the glory of the playoffs in a nutshell. Individual performances of players bucking odds in specific circumstances. We have the regular season to watch Kershaw dominate on a routine basis, to watch the mastery of Andrew McCutchen drive the ball all over the place. In the playoffs..well, it’s about these collection of small events rolled into a battle that create a story out of a baseball series or game. Kershaw makes that pitch and it’s about his dominance. He didn’t, so it’s Adam’s triumph.

But why couldn’t Wainwright have floated his curve 8 years ago?

Fatbot
Member
Fatbot

“This is basically the glory of the playoffs in a nutshell. Individual performances of players bucking odds in specific circumstances” … I get that view and indeed it always gets the media love. But too often the other viewpoint is ignored — the one that wants to see baseball’s greatest perform at their greatest on the greatest stage. Sadly, the recent baseball playoffs seem to be more and more about “unlikely heroes” storylines and less about the best talents providing a championship moment to put a stamp on a Hall of Fame career. I’m not a Cards or Dodgers fan, but I would have rather seen a no-hitter by Kershaw than this.

Swfcdan
Guest
Swfcdan

When he struck out Carlos Beltran looking?