A few hours from now, Clayton Kershaw will take the ball in Chicago, hoping to help the Dodgers move on to the World Series. Even though the Dodgers lost last night, being able to turn now to Kershaw makes everything better, as he still deserves the benefit of the doubt, any recent struggles aside. Now, I want to take only a couple minutes of your time. Kershaw has already started once in this series. He made Javier Baez make this face.
That’s Baez’s expression after striking out looking. Did you know that it’s possible for Javier Baez to strike out looking? Kershaw made it happen for just the ninth time in 2017. And while it’s possible Baez could’ve been thinking about any number of things — or about nothing at all — maybe he was simply caught off guard. Because Kershaw showed him a little two-strike twist.
Here are two screenshots. The lower one is from the pitch you just watched. The upper one is from the pitch immediately preceding it.
Facing Baez, with the count 2-and-2, Kershaw changed his arm slot. He didn’t go completely sidearm, but considering that Kershaw is usually very much over-the-top, what you’re seeing is a drop-down ambush. Kershaw showed it to Baez. In the same game, he went to it two other times. This is the Rich Hill inspiration. Every so often, Hill will drop down, himself, and Kershaw thought it was a neat trick. So he’s folded it in, from time to time.
I wrote about this in June. Kershaw introduced the drop-down slot late in 2016, and here’s a summary of how it worked at first. When Kershaw dropped down last year, he threw exclusively fastballs. This year he’s mixed in a few breaking balls. He threw one to David Peralta in the NLDS.
But here’s what I find most interesting. We knew last year Kershaw was trying this out. We knew earlier this year he’d brought it back. Then it…it just quietly went away. It’s only recently come back again. Here are all 29 of Kershaw’s 2017 appearances, showing the number of pitches in each game thrown from the alternate angle.
There was nothing, then there was a flurry. Over a streak of seven starts, Kershaw dropped down a total of 35 times. But with the 35th attempt, Kershaw allowed a home run to Jay Bruce. And then the experiment disappeared. Nothing, for eight games in a row. Then a one-off, followed by another three games of nothing. Then the playoffs began. Kershaw dropped down twice against the Diamondbacks, and he dropped down thrice in his first game against the Cubs. It’s back, just in the nick of time. Maybe that’s an exaggeration. Forget the second part. But, it’s back, anyway.
It’s still not clear if this is actually a successful tactic. When Kershaw drops down, he doesn’t become a strikeout machine. But this is Clayton Kershaw, and we’re in the playoffs, so I’d say this qualifies as automatically interesting. And it’s another thing for you to watch for tonight, as Kershaw tries to last as long as is possible. He’s already got his normal fastball, slider, and curve. He might throw in the odd second arm slot, just to keep the Cubs a little extra uncomfortable. It didn’t go so well in his last NLCS, but, this is a new playoffs, you know. Kershaw would like to forget about history.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.
Something interesting is that Kershaw gets better velocity on these pitches. He just hit 96 and frequently hit 95 in the regular season when he did this.