A Look At Clayton Kershaw’s Early Season Problems

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One month into the Dodger’s 2015 season and Clayton Kershaw only has one win in his first six starts. His ERA is an uncharacteristically high 3.72. That’s caused many Dodger fans to wonder what’s wrong with Kershaw? In short nothing is wrong with him. However there is something off with his pitching so far this season, and I would like to discuss what the issues could be.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There doesn’t seem to be anything physically wrong with him. I think if there were, the Dodgers would have pulled him right away. Some Dodger fans are claiming that it could be the line drive that hit him in the jaw during spring training. Maybe his tooth is still bothering him after having a root canal? I doubt it’s that. Some have even claimed that it might be a mental issue caused from worry about his newborn baby girl. Yes Clayton and his wife just had a baby girl, and no that has nothing to do with how he’s pitched this season.

The problems with Kershaw are nothing psychological. So let’s stop that ridiculousness right now. We have no idea what goes through his head, and none of us are qualified to make that determination. Ok maybe a few of you reading are doctors, however I still stand by my statements. Let’s not play arm chair psychiatrist. The problem is not in Kershaw’s head.

The problem is in Kershaw’s lack of off-speed pitches, and adjustments being made around the league. Hitters are jumping on Kershaw’s first pitch, and Kershaw seems to be throwing more fastballs than ever before. The league has made an adjustment, and Kershaw will have to adjust back. Even the greatest players have to make adjustments.

Let’s take a look at some numbers to back up this hypothesis.

Kershaw is 1-2 with a 3.72 ERA in six starts, and his FIP is 2.80. His strikeout to walk ratios are fine. Actually they are excellent as usual. Kersh has whiffed 51 and walked just 7 in 38.2 innings. His strikeout and walk rates are on par with his normal numbers. He has an 11.9 strikeout per nine rate, and 1.6 walks per nine. Last year his strikeout rate was 10.8, and his walk rate was 1.4. So those are not the problem.

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  • If we look at his hits per nine rate, we can see a noticeable difference. Normally his hits per nine rate is around 6.8, and last year it was 6.3. Kershaw normally gives up about 6 hits per nine innings. This year his hits per nine rate has gone up to 8.6, with a WHIP of 1.138. Kershaw has allowed 37 hits in his 38.2 innings pitched, and five home runs. So why has he been more hittable than ever before?

    If we look inside those numbers, we see that the league is jumping on his first pitches. The scouting reports generally say that if you fall behind Kershaw you’re done, so best to swing at the first pitch. As a matter of fact when Kershaw has two strikes on a batter, it’s almost a guarantee he’s going to get that guy out.

    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    According to the numbers, When Kershaw has two strikes on the hitter this season, the league is hitting .141 (11 for 78) with a .481 OPS against. That’s right on par with his career numbers, as hitters are batting (career) .143 against Kershaw when he has two strikes. When a hitter does not swing at the first pitch against Kershaw this year, they are batting .218 with a .548 OPS against. When Kershaw has two strikes on you, you’re out.

    However when a batter swings at the first pitch, the numbers are completely different. Hitters are batting .407 when they put the first pitch from Kershaw in play, and when swinging at the first pitch, they have a .300 batting average.

    So the league is first pitch swinging on Kershaw a lot. Is Kershaw actually throwing more fastballs this year? The numbers actually say no. He’s throwing less fastballs than his career average, but more than he did last year. However he is throwing less of his sliders than usual. Kershaw is throwing 57.4 % of his pitches as fastballs, compared to just 55.4% last year. His career average is around 65%. He is throwing his curve more than last season, 15.8% compared to 14.3%. His slider has dropped from 29.4% in 2014, to 25.7% this year.

    Kershaw has been getting more ground balls this season. His ground ball rate is around 52.6%, which is up from his career average of 45.2%. Although you can see that his line drive rates are very high this year. Kershaw has a 24.2% line drive rate, compared to last year’s 19%. More hitters are getting line drives on Kershaw’s first offerings.

    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    I don’t usually believe in the BABIP stat, but if you look at it and the increased line drive rates you can see that some bad luck combined with first pitch line drives have hurt Kershaw. His BABIP is at .348 this year. Last season it was .278. Batters are making more contact on his pitches outside the zone as well, with a 59.8% O-contact. In 2014, hitters had a 55% O-contact against him.

    In case you were wondering, his fastball velocity has not dropped. So it seems to be a combination of things. Batters have adjusted and are swinging on first pitches. Kershaw is throwing more fastballs than usual. Not a lot more, but slightly more, which is enough to notice some skewed results. Guys are swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, and Kershaw has been giving up more line drives this year than normal. Yes he has also had some poor luck on batted balls as well.

    Kershaw is a three pitch, fastball/slider/curve guy. He has a good fastball, but when his off-speed pitches are sharp is when he’s dominant. When you have Kershaw throwing that killer curve along with his knee-buckling slider, and he mixes in his zippy 94-95 fastball that’s when Kershaw is most effective. Plus add in his impeccable command, and you have the best pitcher in Baseball. An adjustment is needed.

    As I have said before, Baseball is a game of constant adjustments. Pitchers make an adjustment, and then the hitters make an adjustment as well. Than pitchers make a counter adjustment to the hitter’s adjustment, and so on and so forth. It goes on forever.

    The important thing to remember is not to panic. Have trust in Clayton Kershaw’s abilities which are better than anyone else in Baseball. He can’t win Cy Young awards every season, and he’s not some robotic pitching machine. He’s human, he is going to make mistakes, and he is going to give up some runs.

    It is also important to remember that Kershaw has had four consecutive dominating seasons in a row. He’s bound to have a mortal season at one point.

    What I am trying to convey to you all is this….

    Stop worrying about Clayton Kershaw. He’ll be fine.

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