Is Clayton Kershaw Poised to Dominate October, Carry Dodgers to Title?
One of the greatest regular-season pitching performances in recent memory has come to a close.
Ace lefty Clayton Kershaw fired six innings of shutout ball against the Colorado Rockies on Friday night to lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to an easy 11-0 win. He allowed four hits and no walks with eight strikeouts. Factoring these numbers in, his final regular-season numbers look like this: 33 starts, 236.0 innings, 232 strikeouts, 52 walks, .195 BAA and a 1.83 ERA.
He's the first pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2005 to finish with an ERA under 2.00, and he's only the 11th since 1981 to do so.
A season for the books if there ever was one, but it's not over quite yet. If Kershaw wants to make his season one for the ages, there's one dragon left for him to slay: October.
The Dodgers are rolling into the postseason with weapons galore, from Hanley Ramirez to Yasiel Puig to Adrian Gonzalez to Carl Crawford to Zack Greinke to Kenley Jansen and to what might be a reinvigorated Matt Kemp. No opposing players look at names like these and have an easy feeling.
But Kershaw? He's the guy. His golden left arm could be an automatic win machine for the Dodgers in October. Put enough of those in the bag, and the Dodgers may soon be celebrating their first World Series victory since 1988.
And try as I might, I couldn't come up with any good reasons for why Kershaw might not be up to it.
It crossed my mind for, oh, maybe two-and-a-half seconds to make something of Kershaw's postseason track record. He pitched in October in 2008 and 2009, posting a 5.87 ERA in five appearances. Hardly the sort of performance befitting of an ace!
But yeah. Two problems. One is the ol' small sample size thing, as Kershaw compiled that 5.87 ERA in five appearances that spanned only 15.1 innings. Three of those five appearances came in relief.
Then there's the second problem with daring to make anything of Kershaw's postseason track record: It was made at a time when Clayton Kershaw wasn't yet Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw was 20 years old in 2008 and 21 in 2009. He was a real-life answer to Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn both years, walking 4.3 batters per nine in '08 and 4.8 batters per nine in '09. The latter was a largely successful season due to Kershaw's keen abilities to miss bats and limit hits, but stressful times were always just around the corner when he was on the hill.
In the past four seasons, Kershaw owns a mere 2.5 BB/9. He's effectively cut his old walk habit in half, which my basic knowledge of baseball tells me is a "positive" trend.
It must also be noted that Kershaw was still getting to know a good friend of his the last time he pitched in the postseason.
As Grantland's Jonah Keri told the tale, it wasn't until June of 2009 that Kershaw started using a slider in games. His use of his slider has ballooned in the four years since, and I'd wager it's a pitch that's now just as feared as his curveball. Per Brooks Baseball, hitters own just a .152 average against Kershaw's slider since the start of the 2010 season.
There's another part of that Keri story that stands out, and it has to do with Kershaw's, shall we say, intensity. The key bits read:
Talk to Ellis, other Dodgers teammates, beat writers, and everyone else around the team, and they'll all describe Kershaw as pathologically determined to win.
In his mind, it makes sense to be a beloved, happy-go-lucky teammate four days out of five, only to bite teammates' heads off on days when he's starting if they bring up anything — movies, dinner plans, anything — that doesn't relate to that night's start.
Let's go ahead and draw up a list of qualities you want in a guy who's poised to lead your pitching staff in a quest for a World Series title. The idea guy would:
- Not be prone to getting himself in trouble.
- Have an arsenal of overpowering stuff.
- Have a burning desire to smite everything and everyone in his path.
So basically, Clayton Kershaw. Maybe he had the intensity before back in 2008 and 2009, but he didn't have a complete arsenal yet, and he certainly didn't have the ability to keep himself out of trouble by keeping his wildness in check. He wasn't well-equipped for postseason duty. He is now.
With this avenue sealed off, I had to resort to turning my game of "Find Reasons to Doubt Clayton Kershaw" into a matter of nitpickery. Sure, he ended the season on a high note with his performance against the Rockies, but maybe he's developed a weakness in recent days/weeks/months that could bite him in October. There's gotta be something, right?
I'll spare you from having to take a wild guess: Not really, no.
The first thing I did was draw Kershaw's monthly splits on FanGraphs and focus on the top indicators of pitching quality. You know, things like strikeouts, walks, ground balls and home runs. All things that a pitcher can influence to some degree or another.
Here are those key numbers by month for Kershaw, with FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and ERA thrown in for good measure.
One thing that stands out is that Kershaw has been better in every category except for HR/FB rate in the second half of the season. And while his ERA for September is not his best, it's also not his worst. September was also one of his best months for FIP, and he did just fine in the strikeout and walk departments.
With yet another avenue to doubt Kershaw sealed off, I said to myself, "OK, well, maybe his stuff has lost something. Maybe he's not packing the same ammunition that he was packing earlier in the year."
I went to Brooks Baseball and checked out Kershaw's velocity numbers. Then I made another table:
|Split||FB Velo||SL Velo||CB Velo|
Throughout the season, there's been very little fluctuation in the speed of any of Kershaw's pitches. On the contrary, he's gained velocity. He's been throwing harder in September than he was in April, and he's been throwing harder in the second half than he was in the first half. He's set a new career high for innings this season, but his arm wouldn't appear to be losing any of its strength.
This would be yet another avenue to doubt Kershaw sealed off. So I then said to myself, "OK, so his arm is fine, but is his stuff fooling hitters as effectively as it has been all season?"
Here's where, somewhat relieved, I finally found a nit to pick.
What I wanted to do was see if any of Kershaw's pitches have been finding bats more often in recent days. For that, I went to Brooks Baseball and dug up some whiff/swing numbers.
|Split||FB Whiff/Swing||SL Whiff/Swing||CB Whiff/Swing|
We didn't see a whole lot of fluctuation in the other two tables. Here, we see all sorts of fluctuation, but only one red flag. Do you see it?
It's the whiff/swing rate on Kershaw's slider this month. The lowest it had dropped before September was into the mid-30s. It's been in the mid-20s this month, and the extra bats finding it have done some damage.
Before September, opponents hit .176 against Kershaw's slider with a .114 ISO (Isolated Power) and four home runs. In September, opponents have hit .333 against it with a .292 ISO and two home runs. Before September, the horizontal movement on Kershaw's slider was well over three inches. In September, it's been under three inches.
...And it's all thanks to a couple of bad games.
Here's some September slider info:
|vs. San Francisco||9/13||3.15||5|
|at San Diego||9/21||3.12||4|
Against the Rockies and Reds, Kershaw had a flat slider, and it wasn't fooling anyone. Against the Giants and Padres, his slider was less flat and fooled a few more hitters. If it was the other way around—i.e., if Kershaw's slider was getting flatter rather than sharper—there'd be a reason to worry. But, well, that's not the way it is.
Another thing worth noting: Both of the homers hit off Kershaw's slider this month were by the same guy several innings apart. Jay Bruce did the honors, first on a flat slider down in the lefty hitter's happy zone, and again on another flat slider that was right over the heart of the plate.
Yet another thing worth noting: Kershaw's slider continued to look good against the Rockies. Brooks Baseball) has the average horizontal movement of Kershaw's slider on Friday night at 3.53 inches. That's the best horizontal movement on it he's had all month, and it's even better than his season average of 3.34 inches.
Will Clayton Kershaw lead the Dodgers to a World Series title in 2013?
Here's where I abandoned my search for reasons to doubt Kershaw. I didn't see everything, but I figured I'd seen enough.
What I knew at the beginning was that Kershaw had just put together one of the best pitching seasons in recent memory. What I then figured was that he's much more cut out to excel in October than he was the last time he dipped his toes in. And outside of a brief lapse with one of his key pitches earlier this month, it's scary how much of a model of consistency Kershaw has been over the past six months.
He ought to be able to keep doing his thing for one more month. If the Dodgers fail to win the World Series this year, something tells me it won't be because of their ace.
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