What If Clayton Kershaw Weren’t So Predictable?

Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet.

You’re probably aware of his ability, and his hardware, which includes three Cy Young Awards, six straight top-five Cy Young finishes and an NL MVP trophy. But here’s the thing: he could be better.

Consider this fascinating nugget unearthed by Daren Willman:

Kershaw, as Willman notes, never threw a curveball when behind in the count last season. And that’s not all: as Jeff Zimmerman discovered in a December post at RotoGraphs, Kershaw has also been reluctant to employ his other breaking pitch, the slider, in hitter’s counts. A visualization made by Zimmerman of Kershaw’s pitch mix by count reveals the difference between it and the balanced approach utilized by Johnny Cueto. Cueto is willing to throw almost any pitch in any count. Kershaw, on the other hand, becomes extremely reliant on his fastball when he falls behind.

Overall, Kerhsaw threw curveballs at a 15.6% rate last season and at 13.2% rate for his career. It’s his third pitch, but it is also his greatest velocity-separation offering. He rarely throws a changeup. But while Kershaw rarely throws his slider in hitter’s count, he never throws his curveball.

And it’s not just fluky, one-year, phenomenon. Here are the total number of curveballs Kershaw has thrown in his career when facing a 1-0 count…

And a 2-0 count…

And a 3-0 count…

Nothing there! For his career, Kershaw has thrown 243 pitches on 3-0 counts. He’s thrown 242 fastballs and one slider.

For good measure, here’s his total curveball usage when facing a 2-1 count…

And when facing a 3-1 count…

It’s not as if Kershaw shouldn’t lean on his fastball. Since 2008, it’s produced the most linear-weight runs among all major-league fastballs (191.2) followed by Cliff Lee (141.1), Kenley Jansen (106.9) and David Price (101.6). But he also has the game’s second-best slider by that measure since 2008 (112.9) and fourth-best curveball (57.4). So it’s not if Kershaw lacks quality secondary pitches. We know these are excellent pitches. Said Vin Scully of Kershaw’s curveball “holy mackerel,” dubbing it “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Kershaw’s former personal catcher, A.J. Ellis, characterized the left-hander’s curveball as “unique in all of baseball.”

In 2016, Kershaw had the game’s fifth-ranking fastball (21.5), third-best slider (24) and 12th-best curveball (5.5) among starters who threw at least 100 innings. But when he gets behind, Kershaw trusts his fastball, and he trusts the pitch like few other arms in the game. Still, as great as Kershaw is, it stands to reason he could become even more dominant if he became less predictable.

There have been some attempts, such as this FiveThirtyEight piece by Neil Paine, to explore game theory as it relates to optimal pitch mix. Write Paine in that piece:

For the entire population of pitchers I looked at, a one-standard-deviation increase in optimality results in an earned run average about a quarter of a standard deviation lower. It’s not a huge effect (it only amounts to a handful of runs per season), but it does suggest that a pitcher can reap some benefit from trying to find an equilibrium that evens out every pitch’s effectiveness.

And an optimal pitch mix, for Kershaw, would of course be less fastball-oriented in hitters’s counts.

Consider: in 3-0 counts over the course of Kershaw’s career, opponents are slugging .800 with a .600 batting average versus the 242 fastballs he’s thrown in those 243 counts. You would assume that, if batters know what pitch is coming with 99% certainty, they would have better odds against it — even against a pitch as effective as Kershaw’s fastball. Batters can isolate not only zones, but also pitch type, in favorable counts.

In 3-1 counts for his career, Kershaw has thrown his fastball 462 times out of 526 total pitches, according to Brooks Baseball. Opponents have hit .308 with a .546 slugging mark against his fastball in those situation.

In 2-1 counts, Kershaw remains fastball dominant and opponents have hit .345 with a .525 slugging mark against the pitch.

Of course, there are dramatic swings in offensive performance when hitters are ahead in the count compared to behind. MLB hitters slashed .341/.342/.579 in 2-1 counts last season, in line with Kershaw’s career numbers with his fastball in such counts. But this is Kershaw. He typically isn’t near league average in anything.

Consider tOPS+, via Baseball Reference, a measure that quantifies how well a player performed in a specific split compared to his own overall performance:

Kershaw tOPS+ by Count
Batter ahead Even count Pitcher ahead
League (2016) 173 92 40
Kershaw (career) 198 102 22
Kershaw (2016) 181 140 22
SOURCE: Baseball Reference

Now, Kershaw doesn’t fall behind often. He walked less than a batter per nine innings last season. On 425 occasions last season, Kershaw faced a count that was even or in his favor. Only 119 times did he face a situation where the batter was ahead in the count. MLB hitters still posted an anemic .657 OPS when they were ahead in the count, but when Kershaw was ahead it was an astounding .290 mark. MLB hitters, overall, posted a .998 OPS when ahead in the count last season and a .521 mark when behind.

So as great as Kershaw is, perhaps with an added element of unpredictability he could be even better.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

Honest question here, since this is the first time I’m hearing about tOPS+: wouldn’t this metric have a tendency to be skewed for pitchers who are ahead/behind in the count more often than average?

The fact that his tOPS+ when behind in the count is worse than league average seems to be a natural outcome of Kershaw’s tendency to work ahead in the count more frequently than the average pitcher – thus skewing the data set that makes up his “own overall performance.”

On the flip side, I would expect pitchers with control issues to have lower tOPS+ scores when working behind in the count, because being behind in the count is relatively closer to their natural state.

7 years ago
Reply to  Lloyd

It’s hard to get at the “batter ahead tOPS+” data by pitcher on the B-R website, but looking at it by team seems to support my suspicions that situational tOPS+ can be skewed. In 2016 the two teams with the highest/worst tOPS+ in “batter ahead” situations were the Cubs and Dodgers. The two best were the Rockies and Twins…