For just about any other pitcher, Clayton Kershaw’s 2017 production would be career bests. However, the Dodgers’ ace isn’t just any other pitcher, so it is fair to question his dip in dominance.
Eight games started, a 6-2 record, 55.2 innings, a 2.43 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and a 9.2 K/9. Pretty great right? If those numbers were to continue for an entire season, they would make for a career year for just about any pitcher and would garner a CY Young finalist finish at worst. However, when looking at them in context, it’s fair to say that those numbers may be a slight bit disappointing. And that context is Dodgers‘ ace Clayton Kershaw.
Something just seems to be a bit off right? It doesn’t take numbers to realize that he hasn’t rounded into form yet. Maybe the back injury has altered something, or maybe it hasn’t. It just hasn’t been the same Clayton Kershaw.
He’s spiking a lot more balls (especially the breaking balls) into the ground, missing his spots, has decreased his swing-and-misses and is serving up more hits and walks. We just have not seen that signature Clayton Kershaw game where he has a scoreless outing racking up the strikeouts, completely owning hitters throughout the night while they have no chance of putting bat to ball.
He has not had his best stuff through the first eight games which make his numbers even more remarkable.
Now it may be nitpicking, but pardon me, because we have been so spoiled that sub-2 ERAs, WHIPs between 0.70 and 0.90, and strikeout rates near 11 per nine innings have become the norm.
Remember, there are average pitchers, good pitchers, great/elite pitchers, and then there’s Kershaw. Compare his career numbers to any other active pitcher, and you’ll see what I mean. He’s not a three-time CY Young award winner and NL MVP for no reason. And a legitimate argument for five CY Youngs can be made.
Fastball velocity is perfect, so what’s wrong? Well, the eye test and numbers both say that it starts with his slider. Yes, the slider that took him from the perennial CY Young favorite to MVP candidate; the one that took him past the “elite” echelon. It’s been a real game-changer for him because he came into the league with just a fastball and curveball.
When it’s right, his slider is one of the best in baseball, but it really hasn’t been too effective this season. This year, batters are hitting .254 and slugging .365 off of it. Last season hitters had a .139 batting average and .193 slugging percentage off of it. Quite the discrepancy.
Orel Hershiser talked during the broadcast after Carlos Gonzalez lined Kershaw’s slider to center, about how the pitch hasn’t been the same. He talked about how Kersh’s slider has, even more, velocity than years past with less horizontal movement. It’s been a firmer and flatter slider. We all had our suspicions, but last week’s start against the Giants confirmed them.
Statcast may have its flaws, but the numbers it has recorded of Kershaw’s slider are hard to ignore. It has become faster and lost movement. It’s hard to say what’s exactly wrong, but looking at the decrease of the pitch’s average rotation from 2016 to 2017 is a good place to start.
This has made the pitch much easier to make contact with. He’s allowing more hits off of it, but it goes beyond that. Through his eight starts, the breaking ball has a 72.2% contact rate, well above his career average of 58.7%. He’s not only locating it worse; the lack of movement means hitters are simply just seeing it better.
This leads to my next point of how his splits have declined a bit. I want to compare it to last season because it’s the most recent one and happened to be on track to be his best in his career before injury hit. However, his splits from this year due pale in comparison to those from his previous years as well.
In 2017, he has a 3.38 ERA and 1.31 WHIP against lefties. They are also hitting a surprisingly high .289 off him. Last year he had a 0.89 ERA, 0.52 WHIP, and .138 batting average against when facing left-handed hitters. What makes Kershaw so great is his ability to dominate left-handers, but that hasn’t been the case so far.
This coincides with his struggles to put away hitters with the same ease as we are used to seeing. When ahead in the count this season, hitters are hitting .204 off him, and he has a 1.40 ERA combined with a 0.74 WHIP. In the same situations last year, he had a 0.81 ERA, 0.40 WHIP, and .122 BAA. Furthermore, when ahead 0-2 or 1-2, he has allowed a .179/.207/.229 slash line compared to last season’s .104/.112/.139.
You can now see why his strikeout numbers, like everything else, are down. The inability to put away batters quicker also causes him to lose pitch efficiency which prevents him from going 8+ innings. Like previously mentioned, there’s quite a difference from this year compared to seasons prior.
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Lastly, he is allowing more fly balls and hard contact than usual, thus increasing his home run rate.
Remember though; these aren’t terrible numbers. In fact, they are great splits. We’re just talking about a pitcher who has been elite, and then some, for over half-a-decade.
No need to fret though. My friend just recently termed him a “perfectionist, ” and I have to agree. Because of his work ethic, I expect him to round into form and start dominating like we are used to seeing. He also needs to sharpen up and get his lethal curveball back to consistency, but it’s only a matter of time
His finish against Colorado yesterday gives me hope. He retired the last six batters he faced, but one at-bat, in particular, stood out. During the bottom of the seventh, he was facing Carlos Gonzalez, who had two hits off him already.
He made quick work of him, finishing with an 83 mph slider down and away, that CarGo had no chance at, to strike him out. It was more like the slider I am used to seeing. He took off velocity, and it had great movement. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come.