Here’s a thing: last year, Clayton Kershaw was tied for baseball’s fifth-lowest walk rate by a starting pitcher, out of 78 pitchers. Then, this year, only one guy (Mike Fiers) has dropped his walk rate more substantially than Kershaw. That’s the nerdy and complicated way of saying that Clayton Kershaw has walked four batters this season. He’s made eight starts, he’s completed 62 innings, he’s faced 225 (!) batters, and he’s walked four of them. Four. He’s also struck out 77. And you know how many he’s walked? He’s walked four. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
Is Clayton Kershaw actually getting better? It’s a scary thought. It’s one that’s hard to fathom. I also wouldn’t put it past him. For what it’s worth, Kershaw’s past the point in the season in which walk rate becomes a reliable indicator of past performance, and these eight games are a level of walk stinginess that we’ve never seen from him before:
Following every valley, of course, comes a peak, and Kershaw probably isn’t going to run a 1.8% walk rate the entire season. But given the relatively acceptable sample, the career-high zone rate, and the extent to which Kershaw has avoided the free pass, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that he may be (somehow) demonstrating an even more improved control of the strike zone.
Anyway. Four walks, yeah? That’s not too many. That’s enough to take a good look at them all in a blog post and see if there’s anything going on. This was a pretty poor segue. It’s Friday.
Walk No. 1
- Date: 4/4/16
- Batter: Yangervis Solarte
- Projected BB%: 7.1
Huwhat? What’s that there? He missed bad with the first-pitch fastball, yeah, but what’s that 1-0 pitch?
You can see it, right there. You can see it in their body language. Both Kershaw and A.J. Ellis are so taken aback by the pitch being called a ball that it literally stops them in their tracks. And, I mean, look at the glove. They fell behind, and Ellis called for a fastball to get them back into the count, and put his glove where fastballs get called for strikes. He didn’t have to move the glove.
Just for fun, I grabbed the PITCHf/x coordinates of this pitch, and I compared them to every four-seam fastball Kershaw’s ever thrown against a right-handed batter in his career. Then I filtered out every pitch with a swing, and took the 50 most similar pitches, because that’s a nice round number. The cluster of pitches looks like this:
Of those 50 pitches, 32% went for strikes, and the rest went for balls. Actually less than I was expecting! But still. It’s a borderline strike, and maybe even more than that. One in three times, Kershaw gets that call, and so one in three times the count evens up at 1-1. Kershaw’s been three times more likely to walk a batter after 2-0 than after 1-1 in his career, so it’s a pretty monumental swing. Didn’t get the call. Oh well. Still gotta finish the at-bat.
The third ball featured this check swing:
Which is definitely not a swing, but is also about as close to a swing as a batter can get without actually completing the act, and then ball four looked like this:
Close pitch! Ball, but close pitch. It’s a walk. Kershaw definitely walked that guy. As far as walks go, though, it wasn’t a very walky walk. Lotta ways this at-bat ends in something other than a walk with those same pitches in that same order.
Walk No. 2
- Date: 4/9/16
- Batter: Hunter Pence
- Projected BB%: 8.5
OK. So. That first pitch? That first pitch had an entire article written about it, because it was the year’s worst called ball, and it’s a ball that’ll be hard to top. So, there’s that. But how about the next three pitches!
Using that same (admittedly crude) methodology from before, the first pitch is called a strike 98% of the time, the second pitch is called a strike 72% of the time, the third pitch 14% of the time and the fourth pitch almost never. So, one guaranteed strike, one should-be strike, and two near misses that also can’t really be argued against as balls. All things the same, Pence really should’ve been down 0-2 in this count. He was up 2-0, and then was up 4-0. Walk.
Walk No. 3
- Date: 4/21/16
- Batter: Freddie Freeman
- Projected BB%: 12.2
Kershaw just let this one get away. The 1-0 curve taken for a ball is called a strike 38% of the time, so one-in-three times this count is 0-2 rather than 1-1, but the next three pitches just got away from him. The thing about watching Kershaw throw a single bad pitch is that he finds throwing a single bad pitch to be completely unacceptable:
Walk No. 4
- Date: 5/12/16
- Batter: David Wright
- Projected BB%: 11.4
First pitch is borderline, but is only a strike about 10% of the time. Then Kershaw gets ahead with two strikes, and Wright takes a really good 1-2 slider. That’s all him. Kershaw misses the next two pitches and Wright earns his walk.
* * *
Clayton Kershaw’s been nearly perfect this year. The pitcher who was already thought to be just about perfect before any of this is running a career-best ERA, a career-best FIP, and a career-best xFIP through eight starts, and he’s shaved his already-elite walk rate more than every pitcher in baseball except for one. He’s unthinkably walked just four batters out of 225, and a closer look into those walks reveals one walk that featured two borderline strikes and a check swing, another with the season’s worst-called ball plus another missed call, another with a borderline 0-1 call that could’ve swung the count, and a really good at-bat by David Wright with a couple bad misses by Kershaw.
Of course, I can’t reasonably cite his 77 strikeouts during this exercise without conceding that Kershaw’s also benefited from some calls this year, and he’d probably be the first one to admit that he still made at least one bad pitch in each of these at-bats that contributed to the walk as much as anything. The calls go both ways for everyone. But the point is: Kershaw’s remarkably only had four walks this year, and none of them were bad walks. One of them even was flat-out unlucky. It’s hard enough to imagine that number, four. Harder yet to imagine that it could be lower.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.