Here’s What Might Have Happened To Clayton Kershaw in His Two NLDS Starts
By Scott Andes
There was a moment during the Dodger’s NLDS game 4 loss to the Cardinals in the bottom of the sixth inning where everything appeared like it was going to work out. It was the bottom of the sixth, and Clayton Kershaw had just whiffed Dodger 2014 postseason nemesis Matt Carpenter for the second time in the game for the second out of the inning. As Carpenter swung and missed Kershaw pumped his fist emphatically on the mound, with the Dodgers leading by a 2-0 score. Kershaw blew through that inning with a pitch count of 94. It looked like Kershaw was finally going to
sleigh slay his red colored demons, and that everything was going to work out for the Dodgers. And then it didn’t.
The seventh inning came around, you know the devil’s inning, and Kershaw allowed first pitch singles to Matt Holliday, and Jhonny Peralta, again. Holliday’s single bounced off Dee Gordon’s glove like he had cement in it. Peralta’s single ticked off Hanley Ramirez’s glove, seemingly inches away from being caught.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
It was at that moment that A.J. Ellis should have stopped the game and gone out to talk to Kershaw. But he didn’t. Kershaw got a first pitch strike over to first baseman Matt Adams. Then the 0-1 soul crushing home run on a curveball that sailed into the Cardinal’s bullpen ended up being the death blow for the Dodger’s season. Pain. Nothing but utter pain. The Dodgers lost the game 3-2 and the series in four games. Watching Kershaw get hit like that twice in the series was gut wrenching for Dodger fans.
But what really happened to Clayton Kershaw in this year’s postseason? If we look deeper into the numbers we can somewhat figure it out. I suggest that the Cardinals knew something that other clubs don’t about Kershaw’s pitch selection on certain counts. No, I don’t think they were stealing signs, or that Kershaw was tipping his pitches. Although there is a possibility of both that might have happened.
I think what really happened, (and again I am speculating) is that the Cardinals have an excellent scouting department and put together an incredible game plan based on what Kershaw usually throws in certain pitch counts, and a combination of patience, zone hitting, and A.J. Ellis’s poor pitch calling. Let me explain.
Mark Timmons theorizes that the Cardinals could have in fact known something about Kershaw that others don’t. Here’s what he had to say about it…..
"I think that the St. Louis Cardinals operated on inside information. I believe the Cardinals know something about Clayton Kershaw that other teams don’t know.When Grichuck hit the HR, it was plain luck because Kershaw hung a curveball, but he was in total command after that, as he sat down hitter-after-hitter. Then Carpenter hit the HR, and while he may not “own” Kershaw, he owns part of him. He went after the first pitch, and hit it out. So, at that point it was 6-2 and Clayton was tiring due to the heat, but still in control. Then in the seventh, Holliday and Peralta singled. The next hitter was Molina and I was screaming “he knows what is coming.” He hit the first pitch slider for another single. Matt Adams came up and after one swing, hit a slider for another single. Kershaw then blew Kozma away with three fastballs. Next, John Jay singles on another fastball. Then Taveras strikes out on three straight pitches. Next, Matt Carpenter fouled off five pitches before doubling.You can blame it on Kershaw or you can blame it on Mattingly, but it’s deeper than that. It’s the Cardinals approach to hitting against Kershaw – they know he’s going to throw strikes and they are ready to hit on the first pitch, because that may be the best pitch they see. But, it’s still deeper than that."
Now Timmons is half right. The Cardinals were not stealing signs, but they did know what was coming. How did they know what was coming? They read the scouting reports.
The scouting reports say that the first pitch in an at-bat against Kershaw is generally the best chance you have of hitting him. Since he rarely walks anyone, you know you’re going to get something around the plate. The numbers back this up. Kershaw allowed a .291 (32 for 110) batting average against with three home runs on first pitch strikes. When he gets ahead in the count 0-1, the average against climbs to .317 (19 for 60), and when the count is 1-1 batters are hitting .(328) against him this year.
Now if Kershaw gets ahead in the count, he is nearly unhittable. When he is ahead 0-2 batters are hitting .115 (12 for 104). On a 1-2 count, it lowers to .105 (13 for 124), and when the count is 2-2 and or 3-2, batters are hitting just .119, and .125 respectively. If Kershaw gets ahead of you, or has two strikes you are done. As a matter of fact any time Kershaw has two strikes on a hitter this season, the opposing hitters are batting just .114.
Poor Kersh-Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
This is why the counts are so important in Baseball. The counts are everything. That’s why they always say the age old adage for pitchers. Get ahead in counts, and you’ve won half the battle. Of course this is all just speculation on my part, but if you think about it, it makes some sense.
Another thing to consider is Kershaw got very little help from catcher A.J. Ellis or pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. A.J. never went to the mound to talk to Kershaw about pitch selection, and neither did Honeycutt. They just left Kershaw out there to do it all by himself. Even Clayton Kershaw needs a little help from time to time. A.J. should have at least tried to change the pitch selections. Honeycutt should have come out to talk to him as well. I am not sure that either of them ever did.
Mike Petriello of DodgersDigest suggested that Kershaw was just leaving pitches up in the zone, mostly due to fatigue and the rare extreme Los Angeles October heat. He also suggests that his release points changed as he grew more fatigued.
"Six innings of relative consistency. One inning of a big difference. Ask anyone in baseball what an unexpected changed release point for a pitcher means, and they’ll tell you one of two things — the pitcher is trying to adjust to compensate for injury, or he’s suffering the effects of fatigue. There’s no indication that there’s anything physically wrong with Kershaw, and his velocity didn’t really drop in the seventh, so fatigue, on a stiflingly hot day in Los Angeles, certainly makes sense. There’s something of a misconception that the No. 1 indicator of fatigue is not being able to throw as hard, and while that’s part of it, not hitting your spots like you usually do is certainly connected as well."
Now Petriello is an excellent writer and very Baseball knowledgeable, but I think it goes deeper than this. Sometimes Baseball is a little more complicated than the simplest explanation.
Another thing to consider is that Kershaw has a chink in his armor. The third time around the batter order is when he has a lull in his game. The numbers seem to back this up as well. The only time opposing hitters bat over .245 off of Kershaw is in the seventh innings. In that devil inning hitters are batting .258 (23 for 89) with two home runs against him. Somehow that inning seems to be the time when Kershaw can be hit, even if just for a brief moment. It’s enough to have a slight advantage over him in a close postseason game.
Yet another thing to consider is that Mark McGwire, the Cardinals former hitting coach and the Dodgers current hitting coach, preached a zone hitting approach to all of those current Cardinal hitters. Zone hitting is when you look for pitch location rather than pitch type. The Cardinals were looking zone, and they just waited for Kershaw to make a mistake in an inning where he tends to let up just a tad. They knew what was coming, and when he was going to throw it based on scouting reports, game planning, and educated guessing.
Nobody is unbeatable. Even the great Clayton Kershaw. Yes fatigue and inclement weather probably played a part as well, but even the greatest pitcher of all time can be beat if you do your homework, and capitalize on opportunities. The Cardinals waited Kershaw out, and then stuck to their superior game strategy.
The Dodgers never changed their game approaches. The club figured that Kershaw would win based on his otherworldly talent alone. And he almost did in both starts. Which says a lot for Kershaw’s incredible pitching talent, and fortitude. But sometimes it takes more than just raw talent to win in the postseason. It takes something more. It sometimes takes careful planning, game strategies, good scouting reports, patience, and execution. The Cardinals followed that in last year’s NLCS and again in this season’s NLDS. They had to have perfect execution to do it. The Dodgers probably never had a clue.
And the rest as they say is painful history.