How Clayton Kershaw Gets Ahead

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:

  1. fastball
  2. fastball
  3. fastball
  4. fastball
  5. fastball
  6. fastball
  7. fastball
  8. fastball
  9. 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…

chart2

… 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:

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-10-26-39-am

“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.





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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phoenix2042
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phoenix2042

I would love an exploration of why his down the middle pitches tend to not be punished. Obviously it’s a skill, since he’s always done it, but what is the skill? Deception in delivery? Spin rate?

nenright
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nenright

I think the article he mentioned has that, though I can’t find it.

If I had to guess, it’s probably that they think a curve or a slider is coming. He likes to throw curves that start middle-middle and end near the dirt, as well as sliders that start middle-middle and end backfoot-ish.

Because he throws those three pitches at similar starting points with the same release point and arm speed, hitters are pretty much just guessing at what’s coming. Look at the last two pitches of the Contreras at bat. He looks like he’s frozen on both of them in that he originally thinks they’re offspeed, and by the time he realizes he guessed wrong, it’s by him.

That’s my guess.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

You think after 4 or 5 first pitch fastballs in a row they wouldn’t keep guessing something else. It’s probably more important that the cubs may be the most disciplined ream in baseball history.

phpope
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phpope

Agreed. I guess it’s hard to change your entire batting approach for one pitcher, but given how effective Kershaw is when he gets ahead in the count, I’m not sure if trying to run up his pitch count through being patient is the best strategy.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Kershaw is an extreme case but it’s a general problem with good pitchers who throw strikes. That’s why teams which rely on walking a lot tend to do much better in the regular season than in the playoffs, whereas free swinging teams like the royals last year tend to do ‘surprisingly well’ in the playoffs.

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

There is no data to support this. Hand picking the royals doesn’t count, I.e the 2004 red Sox for teams that walk a lot. You can make a better case for contact orientated teams(not striking out) imo.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Okay, the giants in 2010-14, their 3 world series wins and 10 postseason series wins. . Check the data for those years and you’ll find the giants were among the least in walks and the least in strikeouts, like the royals last year. If you swing a lot, you don’t walk much or strike out much because you hit the ball early in the count. Then check how teams which walked the most and see how they’ve done in the playoffs, not cherry picking, all the teams.

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

The giants didn’t strike out, they were a contact team as I mentioned. So you proved my point…

phpope
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phpope

Just looking at the PITCHf/x data, his fastball has an extremely high z-mov rate, and very little horizontal movement compared to most other elite starters. So with his excellent control, I guess hitters just have a more difficult time adjusting and getting good wood on the ball, and end up swinging under the ball a high rate. Which seems right when looking at his IFFB rate on FBs.

So basically, even when he makes a mistake and locates a fastball middle-middle, the abnormal movement (or to put it another way, the lack of movement both vertically and horizontally) means those mistakes being punished less often than most other pitchers.

phpope
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phpope

Sorry, that should read “Which seems right when looking at his IFFB% and HR/FB rate.”

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

The cubs are very disciplined and the team is very committed to working the count. This has been the narrative all year.

rbemont
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rbemont

Couldn’t we ask the same thing of Jensen? Grandal kept wanting the ball up or up and out, and KJ kept throwing center cut and the cubs couldn’t hit it. The most Bryant could offer was 2 feeble quasi-check swings.

I’m guessing the cub batters were expecting more waste pitches than they saw.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Again, the whole point of the cubs’ offense is to be disciplined and look for walks, which gives them great stats against teams like the reds and the brewers but is completely ineffective against pitchers who throw strikes.

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

That was the red Sox m.o under theo as well, what you are deducting from that approach is wrong. They just didn’t square up kershaw on a given night, that happens to a lot of teams.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Hmm, didn’t happen to the nationals either time they faced kershaw last week.

Bip
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Bip

The article was about kershaw and featured data from a whole season’s worth of PA. You are drawing conclusions, here and above, from handpicked samples and individual games. It’s annoying that you don’t see what is wrong with that.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Just check how teams who’ve led the majors in walks have done in the postseason. I already have but apparently you haven’t. Go ahead, check.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Yep, and 2007 is the only time in a loooong time that the team which led the majors in walks didn’t bomb out in the playoffs. It’s a great m.o. for running up scores and run differentials in the regular season, it’s a terrible m.o. for winning in the playoffs.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Well check out how that m.o. works in terms of winning World Series. The 2007 team is the only team which has led the league in walks and won the World Series in a loooong time. Focusing on walking is a great m.o. for running up scores and run differentials against weak pitchers in the regular series. It’s a terrible m.o. for succeeding in the postseason. Just check the records.

htiek
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htiek

This is an inaccurate assertion, as it ignores the 2013 Red Sox (5th at 9.1%), 2011 Cardinals (8th at 8.7%), 2009 Yankees (4th at 10.3%), and 2008 Phillies (8th at 9.3%). If you want to argue that there’s no direct correlation between regular season BB% and postseason success, then fine. There are certainly counterexamples that you can provide, the most extreme of which would conveniently be last season’s World Series champions as well as three lower rates put up during the regular seasons in which the Giants won their three titles. We’re also ignoring all the caveats which come into play when considering the inherent randomness of postseason results, of course. However, you can’t ignore the data points which don’t align with your argument for the sake of, well, your argument.

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

Yup htiek. Like I said, strikeout rate is a much better argument for postseason performance. Walks aren’t really good or bad as a predictor.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Okay, I counted all the playoff matchups since 2000. Of those cases where there is at least a 0.5% difference in hitter’s BB%, the teams with FEWER walks has won 58 out of 98 times, that’s 59% of the time. If the difference is at least 2.0%, the teams with fewer walks has won 14 out of 21 times (67%). If the difference is at least 3.0%, the team with fewer walks has won 4 out of 5 times (80%). You can check for yourself.

I’m not saying low strikeout rate isn’t important. I’m saying low BB rate (for batters) is also important, for the reasons which I mentioned.

htiek
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htiek

There might be something there! I’m not saying that there isn’t. My issue is that you’re presenting something as an objective fact (in this case, the idea that a team which walks less is better than a team which walks more in a playoff scenario) when it isn’t. It’s a result which has occurred in a certain way, which you’re molding to fit a narrative which you’ve been espousing all season long by citing things like the results of five series with an arbitrary cutoff in BB% differential as if that bears any genuine statistical significance.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Well I did just present some data supporting what I said, obviously it isn’t proof but it certainly does look like there might be something there. And I don’t know which part of my narrative you’ve been following and which part you haven’t, but regarding the Cubs’ hitting my narrative has been the same all year. In terms of being ‘the best team in baseball’–which I believe means not just having an impressive regular season record but performing in a way which suggests they are the most able to win against the other top teams
–they are not nearly as good as they might appear because of their huge reliance on walks. I didn’t make up this narrative because I wanted to trash the Cubs, this is something which I’ve believed for some time. I would argue with A’s supporters that the A’s strategy of maximizing walks was related to their constant playoff failures and last year I posted here a lot about the Blue Jays who I think are overrated in the same way. The Cubs’ fit into my BB narrative, not the other way around.

ChippersJonesing
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ChippersJonesing

98-mile-per-hour cutter.

The Foils
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The Foils

that’s like comparing apples to frisbees

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

Bryant took 2 pitches and let it rip on the 0-1 swing. Were you watching the same game?

The Foils
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The Foils

The most consistent explanation given by hitters is that the fastball is incredibly hard to pick up and time. Deception in the delivery.