Grading the Pitches: Clayton Kershaw, 2016

Changeups: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Curveballs: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Cutters and Splitters: MLB Starters.
Four-Seamers: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Sinkers: MLB Starters.
Sliders: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Two-Seamers: MLB Starters.

Over the last few weeks in this space, I have been painstakingly grading the individual pitches of every 2016 ERA-qualifying starter. Unfortunately, Clayton Kershaw didn’t pitch enough innings to be included. He is special enough to deserve his own article, however.

For those of you new to this series, we’re giving all of the pitches a letter grade, weighted 50% on bat-missing and 50% on contact management. League-average-range performance in both component measures would receive a “B” grade. If that seems high to you, bear in mind that these are already better-than-average pitchers, simply by virtue of their ability to compile the 162 innings necessary for qualification while dodging the not insignificant hurdles of injury and ineffectiveness.

Three of Kershaw’s pitches induced the requisite 50 batted balls to qualify for this exercise: his curveball, his four-seamer, and his slider. Let’s see how they stack up versus the rest of the NL pack.

2016 Pitch Grades – Clayton Kershaw
CU 36 14.6% A 15.6%
FF 80 8.9% A 50.1%
SL 88 25.6% B+ 33.4%

The first column contains the pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score for each of Kershaw’s offerings. Here’s some brief background for those of you unfamiliar with that concept. MLB average production was applied to each ball in play based on its exit-speed/launch-angle combination. Total production of all BIP was then scaled to 100. Below 100 is good; above 100, not so much.

The second column lists the swing-and-miss rate for each of Kershaw’s pitches. The third column features the aforementioned grade. The last column indicates each pitch’s usage as a percentage of his overall pitch count.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The assessment of each letter grade was a somewhat subjective exercise. With “B” considered league average, I estimated each color-coding bucket to represent a half-grade move above or below average. The final letter grade involved splitting hairs very tightly in some cases.

ERA qualifiers in 2016 had a cumulative swing-and-miss rate of 13.5% with their curveballs. Kershaw checked in just above that average but not materially so. That said, he did excel — to an extreme extent — at managing contact with his curveball, posting a rather insane 36 Adjusted Contact Score, over two full standard deviations better than the NL average of 93.9.

Kershaw throws a traditional, 12-6 curve, with lesser velocity (73.0 mph, fifth slowest among 2016 NL qualifiers) and horizontal (0.9 inches, dead last) movement, but well above vertical (95 inches, second most) movement.

He was an extreme grounder-generator with his curve, and he stifled authority of both fly balls (49 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (48). Sure, his low liner rate allowed is likely to regress upward, but his extreme authority-management skill makes his curve a clear Grade A pitch.

FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch-value metrics were a little lighter on his curve, ranking it seventh overall and fifth in value per 100 pitches, when he is included with NL ERA qualifiers.

The four-seamer is not typically a swing-and-miss pitch, with 2016 MLB qualifiers combining for a mere 7.5% whiff rate. Kershaw checks in somewhat materially above that mark, at 8.9%, a fairly big deal when you consider he threw the pitch over half of the time.

NL qualifiers didn’t manage contact all that well with their four-seamers, combining for an average 113.9 Adjusted Contact Score. In that context, Kershaw’s 80 Adjusted Contact Score is quite the standout, close to two full STD better.

His four-seam BIP mix was a bit more grounder heavy than the pack, but his ability to mute fly-ball contact with the pitch (60 Adjusted Contact Score) was the primary driver of his positive contact-management performance.

Stylistically, his four-seamer was very firm for a lefty (93.0 mph, ninth fastest in NL), with extreme vertical movement (12.4 inches, first in NL) and almost no horizontal movement (0.7 inches, tied for last). A little closer of a call than the curve, but the four-seamer also garners an A grade for well above-average performances in both key areas.

FanGraphs’ outcome-based metrics also hold his four-seamer in high regard, ranking it third overall and second in value per 100 pitches when he’s included among NL ERA qualifiers.

Sliders almost have to be graded on a curve. NL qualifiers recorded an average whiff rate of 16.1% on their sliders in 2016, higher than for any other pitch. The NL average slider Adjusted Contact Score of 84.5 was also quite exceptional.

Kershaw did post an excellent 25.6% whiff rate on his slider, but that wasn’t quite two standard deviations above the norm. In fact, Noah Syndergaard and Max Scherzer both posted better slider whiff rates, both tipping into the “red” category.

He was actually quite lucky with regard to contact management with his slider last season; his fly-ball (37 vs. 99), liner (38 vs.103), grounder (60 vs. 97), and overall (43 vs. 88) Unadjusted vs. Adjusted Contact Scores were all pretty significantly out of whack. It’s a close call, but when you balance his great but not elite bat-missing with his average-range contact management, the slider earns a B+ grade — which, for this guy, must be some sort of disappointment.

FanGraphs’ outcome-based metrics likely overstate the value of this pitch a tad because of that relative good fortune, ranking it first, both overall and per 100 pitches, when he is included among NL ERA qualifiers.

Not bad at all, three primary pitches, two As and a B+, with very high bars to clear for a grade above B on any individual offering. But he is Clayton Kershaw, after all. Plenty of pitchers miss a lot of bats, some do so with multiple pitches. Others are extreme contact managers. Kershaw is the only pitcher in baseball who is great at everything, with all of his pitches. Enjoy him at his peak while you can.

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5 years ago

Kershaw had one of the best 2/3 seasons in baseball history last year.

(Just like we might end up seeing from Trout by the end of this year.)

5 years ago
Reply to  tz

Oof you speak too soon my friend.