How Clayton Kershaw Gets Ahead by August Fagerstrom October 17, 2016 Clayton Kershaw continued to chip away at the mostly misguided narrative that he’s not a postseason pitcher, throwing seven dominant shutout innings against the Cubs at Wrigley in Sunday night’s 1-0 NLCS Game 2 victory, striking out six while walking just one. Kershaw talked manager Dave Roberts into letting him face the final batter of the seventh inning with reliever Kenley Jansen ready for action in the bullpen. Having thrown just 84 pitches after the conclusion of the seventh, Kershaw certainly would have gone out for the eighth inning if this were regular-season game, and likely would have gotten a shot for a complete-game shutout in the ninth. As his final pitch count indicates, Kershaw was incredibly efficient with his pitches against Chicago’s typically uber-patient lineup, needing just 45 pitches to get through 4.2 perfect innings before Javier Baez’s two-out single in the fifth broke up his bid for perfection. He either got ahead of or retired each of the first six batters he faced, and seven of the first nine the first time through the order. The pitches he threw to those nine batters the first time through the order: Even the two that missed were close. In text form, in case you couldn’t pick up the pitch types from the video, those nine first-pitches were: fastball fastball fastball fastball fastball fastball fastball fastball fastball This isn’t exactly a new development for Kershaw. We talk a lot about Kershaw’s extremes, and one of the perhaps underrated Kershaw outlier tendencies is his reliance on the first-pitch fastball. To measure this, I took every pitcher who faced at least 500 batters this year, using BaseballSavant, and I calculated their fastball rate on the first pitch of at-bats, and on the rest of the pitches in at-bats, and found the difference between the two, indicating the pitchers who most relied on the fastball to begin at-bats, relative to the rest of their arsenal. That leaderboard: First-Pitch Fastball Extremists Name TBF 1P_FB% Non1P_FB% 1P_FB_DIF 1P_Strike% Clayton Kershaw 624 73.9% 31.9% 41.9% 69.7% Aaron Sanchez 815 89.0% 50.3% 38.6% 60.8% Jaime Garcia 743 75.0% 39.5% 35.4% 59.9% James Shields 826 61.4% 26.8% 34.6% 54.7% Marcus Stroman 879 70.1% 36.3% 33.8% 60.9% Carlos Martinez 811 70.9% 37.8% 33.1% 62.3% Jake Arrieta 822 76.5% 45.1% 31.4% 59.0% Francisco Liriano 740 65.8% 34.4% 31.4% 55.5% Adam Conley 584 74.1% 43.5% 30.7% 63.7% Mike Leake 758 69.8% 39.1% 30.7% 62.1% SOURCE: Baseball Savant 1P_FB%: Percentage of fastballs thrown in first-pitch counts Non1P_FB%: Percentage of fastballs thrown in non-first-pitch counts 1P_FB_DIF: Difference between previous two columns, indicating first-pitch fastball reliance 1P_Strike%: First-pitch strike percentage Relative to their overall arsenal, nobody relies on the first-pitch fastball quite like Kershaw. He throws it 74% of the time to begin at-bats, and just 32% of the time after that. You’ll also notice his first-pitch strike rate of 70%, which led all starting pitchers who recorded more than 100 innings this year. In, for example, a Johnny Cueto at-bat, a hitter can be expecting up to five different pitches in any count. In a Kershaw at-bat, the hitters more or less know exactly what’s coming and when — a fastball to start, a slider or curve after that — which makes his consistent dominance all the more remarkable. You’ll also notice all those first-pitch takes in that .gif above. Only two Cubs batters swung at the first pitch they saw against Kershaw, despite his documented first-pitch tendencies. Despite an overall first-pitch strike-zone plot that looks like this… … only six of 24 Cubs batters offered at the first pitch all game. Due to his extreme first-pitch fastball tendencies, Kershaw runs one of baseball’s highest first-pitch swings rates against, at 33%, and has allowed one of the worst first-pitch OPSs — relative to his overall OPS allowed — of any pitcher. The Cubs went up seemingly looking to take, though, making at-bats like the first one Willson Contreras took all the more puzzling: Kershaw got ahead with the fastball, which he always does, but then he stayed ahead with the fastball, too, this time at a somewhat unprecedented rate, at least for 2016. Kershaw said his curveball last night “wasn’t great.” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Kershaw “didn’t really have his curveball today, which should have worked in [the Cubs’] favor.” Kershaw threw just nine curves all night, representing one of his lowest single-game curveball rates of the season. So instead, Kershaw simply worked with the fastball, the command of which Maddon referred to as “outstanding.” Kershaw worked primarily as a two-pitch pitcher last night, throwing his fastball a season-high 61% of the time, the culmination of a late-season trend that’s seen Kershaw relying more and more on his heater, relative to his breaking stuff, since returning in September from the herniated disc in his back that sidelined him for more than two months: “I think that I had decent command of it tonight,” Kershaw told reporters after the game of his fastball. “I think some, there’s some two-strike counts where I think they were probably looking breaking ball and I think I threw fastballs right down the middle on accident, so a couple of those happened to work out, I guess.” Kershaw’s last sentence make it sound like he’s surprised that his fastballs down the middle didn’t lead to any damage, but as ESPN’s Sam Miller discovered for Baseball Prospectus earlier this year, that’s simply status quo for the Dodgers’ lefty. Kershaw throws significantly more pitches right down the middle of the plate than any other pitcher, while simultaneously allowing significantly less damage on those down-the-middle offerings than any other pitcher. In some ways, this was a classic Clayton Kershaw start. He piped first-pitch fastball after first-pitch fastball down the heart of the plate, which he does unlike any other pitcher in baseball, getting ahead of batters with the heat before transitioning to the breaking stuff to put them away. On the other hand, it was unlike the usual Kershaw outing, as the curveball wasn’t there, and he relied on the fastball more than ever. It was unlike the usual Kershaw approach, from the batters‘ perspective, as the Cubs were seemingly content with taking first-pitch fastballs for called strikes, when that’s often the best shot to beat Kershaw. There’s always going to be those subtle differences in approach, though, on both the pitching side and the batting side, particularly in October. Mostly, though, it resembled the typical Kershaw outing for one reason: because Clayton Keshaw was incredible.