This post is going to come off as presumptuous for two reasons. First, it’s pretty presumptuous that anyone can give any advice about beating Clayton Kershaw. After all, he’s Clayton Kershaw! One of the best pitchers (if not the best) of his generation! Second, as with the Hyun-Jin Ryu post before it, it presumes that whatever Kershaw did in the regular season is going to continue being his gameplan. As we saw last night, Ryu and the Dodgers evolved their strategy to some extent. Ryu threw fewer first-pitch fastballs than usual, and only some of his plate appearances going through the lineup a second time featured broad attempts to expand the zone. (But, for what it’s worth, there were times where he also had a very expected approach on a hitter, such as the Nick Markakis PA in the first inning, and the Braves didn’t really demonstrate that they had gameplanned all too well for him based on his regular season tendencies either.)
So, with that said, here are some things to know (and that the Braves hopefully know) about Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw has aged, but he has also evolved
The Clayton Kershaw that will take the mound tonight is not the same one that posted ridiculous league-dominating numbers between 2011 and 2016. He’s not even the same one that had a 72 FIP- and 66 xFIP- last year. That doesn’t mean he’s not still very, very good — but he no longer eviscerates opposing lineups to the same degree. The current Kershaw features his lowest strikeout rate and worst FIP- since his rookie season, and a big reason why is because he’s simply not throwing as hard. After maintaining a pretty consistent year-in, year-out average fastball velocity of 93-94 mph his entire career, it fell all the way to 91.4 this year, a dramatic decline that is vastly out of line with anything prior. For the first time in his career, since his rookie season, Kershaw’s fastball has been below-average on a runs basis.
But, as mentioned, Kershaw is still (very) good, and that’s because he’s been able to adapt. He began increasing his slider usage dramatically in 2016, and after a small further increase last year, has really up-jumped the amount of times he throws it this year. So far, the 2018 season has been his first where he’s thrown it more than his fastball — 41.0 percent to 41.9 percent. This change has somewhat altered the way batters fare against him. They’ve started chasing less and swinging at strikes more, but the very dramatic differences have been increased contact rates. In 2015, Kershaw hit his apex by allowing contact on just 69 percent of his pitches; this year, it’s all the way up to 78.5 percent.
Flip the script, use his evolution against him (or at least don’t let it beat you)
There’s another way to express all this, and Brooks Baseball does it very elegantly. There are many ways to express the data below, but I used Brooks’ “Scout” view to do so — because it conveys my point very well.
Ignore the sinker and changeup rows to start. All of this is on your standard 20-80 scouting scale. You can see that Kershaw’s fastball is... okay, with a dead-average whiff rate. It allows a lot more line drives than expected, and doesn’t really have much else that’s great about it, other than a somewhat-elevated pop-up rate. But now, look at his slider. A slider is generally supposed to get whiffs, but Kershaw’s doesn’t, not anymore. The whiff rate is very low. But, to compensate, the grounder rate is ridiculous (75 on the 20-80 scale) and the fly ball rate is pathetic (26 on the 20-80 scale).
Location-wise, there’s nothing too special about where Kershaw locates his slider, which he throws more often to righties than to lefties (he de-emphasizes his fastball against righties, not his slider).
Yet, here’s the launch angle that righties actually get off Kershaw’s slider.
As you can see from above, many of these sliders are coming in belt-high, and either down the middle or on the inner third. I know that “elevate Kershaw’s slider” is basically the textbook definition of a phrase that’s easier said than done, but that’s exactly what the Braves are going to have to do.
Quit waiting for walks (but don’t chase everything either)
On the one hand, this kind of doesn’t need to be said. The Braves aren’t exactly a patient hitting team (unlike the Dodgers, yeesh; the Braves were 19th in MLB in offensive walk rate while the Dodgers were first). As indicated above, Kershaw’s velocity and ability to get swings and misses has severely declined. Yet, he’s still a very good pitcher. Why? Because his command and control are fantastic. Among the field of 155 starters with the most innings this year, Kershaw has a bottom 10 walk rate, and a top 25 zone rate.
On the one hand, that means the Braves can’t hope that Kershaw is going to nibble himself into oblivion — he simply won’t. On the other hand, though, they can’t go up hacking either, because he and the Dodgers are way too smart to develop a strategy that doesn’t bank on the Braves’ propensity for (weak) contact outside the strike zone. The Braves have baseball’s third-highest o-contact rate. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s more of a mixed bag, but it can be exploited. That’s exactly what Kershaw did against the Braves at SunTrust Park in July. In that start, he elicited:
- The second-highest o-swing rate against him this year
- The second-highest z-swing rate against him this year
- The highest overall swing rate against him this year
- The eighth-highest o-contact rate against him this year
- The fifth-lowest z-contact rate against him this year
- All while throwing the sixth-fewest pitches in the zone in a start this year (and the seventh-fewest first pitch strikes).
Again, this falls into the “easier said than done” camp, but the point is just that the Braves should pick some type of pitch or pitch location or something they can drive, and go with that. Defensive swings, especially in non-two strike counts, are basically pointless, as is getting overmatched because you gave him needless strikes by swinging at junk early in the count.
I realize that this is really akin to just saying, “Do good stuff, don’t do bad stuff.” It’s not exactly #analysis. But it’s Clayton Kershaw on the mound, you’re not going to beat him by not bringing your best approach and execution to the ballpark.
For the record, he threw in that one start against the Braves earlier this year, Kershaw allowed one run in seven and two-thirds with eight strikeouts and zero walks. The Braves essentially managed nothing against him all game except for the second inning (double, single) and the eighth (two singles). In that game, the Dodgers showed they knew how to beat Mike Foltynewicz, taking him deep twice and scoring two more tack-on runs on a Kershaw single, in what was kind of a preview of last night’s game.
Expect the usual sequence, but don’t look for fastballs strikes when ahead (look for sliders instead)
There’s no guarantee Kershaw is going to follow this gameplan tonight, but his sequences haven’t been all that confusing. He’s probably going to start with a fastball. If that fastball is in the zone, the Braves should try to crush it. If the count is even, he’s probably going to try to get ahead with the fastball. If that fastball is in the zone, the Braves should try to crush it. If he’s already ahead in the count, he’s going to throw more curves (especially for strike two) and more sliders (especially for strike three). The Braves should worry less about the fastball and more about the slider when behind in the count... and try to crush it (by elevating it!).
The only semi-unorthodox thing about the pitch usage table below is that Kershaw prefers to use his slider to get back into the count. That may be how he’s bamboozled hitters, especially righties, into making weak groundball contact against his belt-high sliders so far: by throwing them in hitter’s counts.
This doesn’t mean he’s definitely going to do the same tonight, but the Braves should be ready for the possibility. If they can make him think twice about throwing sliders for strikes and force greater usage of his not-quite-so-good-anymore fastball, they may have a chance.