Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, and I’m not even going to waste your time backing that up with evidence. It’s true. You know this to be true. We’ll accept that and move on. There’s no shortage of reasons why Kershaw is so good, but a pretty good shorthand is that there are four things a pitcher can do that are of the utmost importance, and he’s great at all of them. He gets strikeouts (first in K%), limits walks (seventh in BB%), avoids the longball (third in HR/9), and keeps the ball on the ground (14th in GB%). If you can do all that, the rest of it doesn’t really matter.
It helps, of course, that has three dominant pitches. His fastball ranks second in baseball in our pitch values. His slider is the best. His curveball is fifth-best. This is completely unfair, and that’s part of the reason his walk rates are so low. Since he’s got three pitches that are basically unhittable, he has little reason to nibble around the corners. Only three pitchers have a higher Zone%; only three pitchers have a higher first-pitch strike percentage. (Unsurprisingly, Phil Hughes leads both lists.)
No one’s found a way to beat him, not reliably, anyway; in his 27 starts this year, only once did he allow more than three earned runs. But it doesn’t mean hitters aren’t constantly trying to figure out how, because “simply waiting until he retires in 12 years or so” seems like it might take some time. So they’re doing something that may seem counter-intuitive: They’re swinging as soon as they can. After years and years of being told “be patient, work the count, get into the bullpen,” — not a terrible thought, since the Dodgers bullpen beyond Kenley Jansen & J.P. Howell is more than a little problematic — hitters are abandoning patience and are simply trying to attack Kershaw early.
That’s been true for the last few years, but especially so this year:
That data was all culled from Baseball Savant, and it’s also useful to know where that places Kershaw among his MLB peers:
In the nearly-completed season of 2014, no pitcher in baseball has had more first-pitch swings against him. Hughes is second, as you’d expect, because this necessarily requires a pitcher who is throwing strikes, so you’re never going to see an Edinson Volquez high on a list like this. Maybe you’d think that a hitter knows he has little chance to do anything productive against Kershaw, and would rather spare himself the pain and just get back to the bench as quickly as possible. That’s probably not true, but I wouldn’t entirely rule it out.
Some of this is about Kershaw, but a lot of it isn’t. Dave Cameron has written a few times about how after years of the “work the count” approach being the rage, we’ve probably reached the point of diminishing returns. Hitters should swing more often at the first pitch, because if the pitcher thinks you’re just going to allow him that first-pitch strike, then that over-the-plate 0-0 offering might be the most hittable pitch you’re going to see.
Over the last few years, the first-pitch take has all but lost its advantage over the first-pitch swing, and an overly passive approach to attacking hittable 0-0 pitches could be part of the culprit.
Being selective shouldn’t be equated with standing there watching a centered, elevated fastball get called for strike one, but maybe major-league hitters have indeed become a little too willing to take a good first pitch, only to strike out before ever seeing another meatball again.
In the chart above, you can see that the trend is maybe, ever-so-slightly, starting to turn in the other direction, but since it’s by such a small amount — less than one percentage point increase in the last five seasons — it’s difficult to say anything meaningful about whether that’s true. The point is, even if it’s not happening yet, there’s ample reason to support the idea that the trend of patience has gone too far, and that hitters should swing earlier.
From 2011-13, when Kershaw had moved past his “I am a very, very good pitcher” stage of 2009-10 and into his “I will destroy everyone in my sight” phase that we’re currently enjoying, he’d generated a small amount of extra first-pitch swings, generally in the one percent range. Since he was usually throwing more first-pitch strikes than the league average, that makes sense. But this year, that number skyrocketed, and he’s now getting four percent more first-pitch swings.
So why the change? Maybe it’s not that complicated. It’s because if you’re getting down in the count and he gets to throw that curveball or slider at you, you’re doomed. As catcher A.J. Ellis told the Los Angeles Times in July, part of what’s made Kershaw’s 2014 so impressive, even compared to the multiple Cy Young years he’s had, is the consistency on both of those breaking pitches, which, again, are both in the top five in baseball:
But from his view behind home plate, catcher A.J. Ellis said he has noticed a change.
“The biggest thing for me has been the consistency of the breaking balls,” Ellis said. “Usually, he’ll have his ‘A’ slider but maybe his ‘C’ or ‘D’ curveball or vice versa, where the slider’s not working but the curveball is. During this run, he’s had an ‘A’ curveball and an ‘A’ slider this entire time. They’re both just electric strikeout pitches, which is why I think you’re seeing him have strikeout totals that have been unmatched in his career. He gets to two strikes, he could go either way.”
We have Brooks, so we can see how doomed:
|Kershaw, 2014, With two strikes|
There’s just nothing good that comes from that. Don’t let Clayton Kershaw get two strikes on you. Just don’t. Don’t do it. Total, hitters have a .117/.159/.180 line when down two strikes to Kershaw, regardless of how many balls. It doesn’t end well, so you can see why they’d want to avoid it so badly.
I’m not going to show you every single ball/strike combination here — you can easily find that at Brooks or B-ref, and it’s not like there’s a time where Kershaw is ever really vulnerable — but since the point is first pitches, let’s show the 0-0 results, and something interesting happens there:
|Kershaw, 2014, 0-0 count|
Obviously, even the great Kershaw isn’t getting any strikeouts on the first pitch, so ignore that column. What’s interesting is that despite the fact that he’s been steadily decreasing his fastball usage overall in favor of his elite slider, the first pitch of a plate appearance is overwhelmingly going to be a fastball — 85% this year, in fact.
So if you’re a hitter, you know three things about Kershaw:
1) He’s very likely to throw you a fastball on the first pitch
2) More often than not, that pitch is going to be in the strike zone
3) Heaven help you if you get behind in the count and have to face that slider or curve
With those items in mind, it makes a lot of sense to swing early against Kershaw, because that first-pitch fastball might just be the best prayer you have, and you can see in that last chart that hitters have had at least some amount of success when trying that approach.
It’s a good plan, for good reasons, and we can see that more hitters than ever are trying it. But does it matter? Only if you can make it matter. Looking at the ultimate outcome of plate appearances against Kershaw this year, hitters who swung at the first pitch have a .532 OPS. Hitters who didn’t have a .516 OPS, which isn’t much of a difference. Since they have a .761 OPS when the 0-0 pitch is the only pitch of the plate appearance — which really isn’t so bad — that means that the ones who have tried and failed to jump on the first pitch aren’t any better off than the ones who watched. And, of course, giving Kershaw quick, low-pitch plate appearances allows him a better opportunity to stay in the game, so that you’re still stuck with him in the late innings rather than getting to feast on Jamey Wright or Chris Perez or Brandon League or whichever other non-Jansen/Howell member of the soft Dodger bullpen would be in there.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of good reason to try to attack Kershaw early, and some small evidence that it works. Of course, it’s all easier said than done. Even if you want to argue that Kershaw’s fastball is merely his third-best pitch, it’s still one of the absolute best in the major leagues. Even when he’s not great, he’s great. It’s just not fair.