Dodgers: The Kershaw Question: Just How Different Is He?

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 03: Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the third inning of a game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on May 03, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 03: Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the third inning of a game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on May 03, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /
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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 15: Clayton Kershaw #42 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in his first game of the 2019 regular season against the Cincinnati Reds during the sixth inning on Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium on April 15, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. All players are wearing the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

(The Best Explanation) Velocity, Contact Rates, and HR/FB

For the final potential explanation, I decided to turn to contact numbers and to compare them era vs. era vs. era with his velocity and pitch value scores. I was hopeful that this would determine whether or not Kershaw’s stuff has gotten worse, and if consequentially he has given up more hard contact and more home runs.

First, let’s compare his velocity across time, just to prove the precipitous decline the media has pushed for the past two seasons. From 2009 to 2011, Kershaw averaged 93.97 mph on his fastball according to Pitch Info across three seasons; from 2012 to 2016, he averaged 93.78 mph; from 2017 to 2019 he averaged 91.6 mph. The real dip, as noted by observers around the league, came in 2018 and thus far in 2019, with a drop from 93 mph in 2017 down to 91.4 mph and 90.4 mph in 2018 and 2019.

So yes, his velocity has dipped.

Now let’s see if his contact allowed has changed. We already know he does not give up more flyballs or groundballs now than he did between 2012-2016, so now I wanted to look into if he is giving up more hard contact or is inducing less soft contact. From 2009-2011, Kershaw gave up the third-least hard contact in the league, checking in at 22.6% behind on Jon Lester and Roy Halladay. From 2012-2016, he was 12th best at 26.4%.

Interestingly enough, from 2017-2019, Kershaw gave up 33.1% hard contact, placing him 32nd in all of baseball. Thus, over time he increased the amount of hard contact he has given up by around 4% per each passing era, even though velocity has not decreased over each era.

So we know that his velocity has dipped, but that it also is not the sole cause of his increase in hard contact allowed. We also know that hard contact rate around the league has increased as each era has passed. From 2017-2019, Dallas Keuchel led the league in suppressing hard contact with a 26.8% rate, a percentage similar to Kershaw’s 12th-best mark in the 2012-2016 era, demonstrating how hard contact, in general, has become harder to come by.

Thus, it seems that as Kershaw has aged, he has given up more hard contact, both in terms of raw numbers and in terms of relative to the league context.

So what now? Let’s check out another contact value, HR/FB rate. From 2009-2011, Kershaw led the league with a 5.7% HR/FB rate and from 2012-2016, Kershaw was tied for the best mark in baseball with a 7.6% HR/FB rate. From 2017-2019, Kershaw has the 62nd best HR/FB rate at 14.5%, sandwiching him between James Shields and Mike Leake, two pitchers notorious for giving up home runs over this span.

More from Clayton Kershaw

From 2012-2016, this 14.5% figure would have ranked Kershaw 7th-worst out of all qualified starters and from 2009-2011 this mark would have been tied for the worst in the league. This goes to show the real problem with the new look Kershaw: the league-wide home run surge has affected his game more than it has others, bloating his ERA despite his improved walk rate and his consistent strikeout rate.

In conclusion, Kershaw has given up more hard contact, and consequently more home runs per fly ball, in the last three seasons than he had at any point in his career, both in the contexts of raw numbers and the league in general. Despite allowing a similar contact profile in terms of groundballs and flyballs, the flyballs he now allows are being hit harder and for home runs more often than at any point in the previous decade of Kershaw dominance.

If there is a way for Kershaw to workaround this flaw, it has been to strike out lots of hitters and walk fewer, something he has been able to keep consistent from his 2012-2016 run as an ace up until today.

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If Kershaw can find a way to limit the number of fly balls he allows or the amount of hard contact he serves up (which is more difficult), potentially through altering his pitch mix or by throwing lower in the zone by adding a sinker, or perhaps even by adding a two-seam fastball or a cutter to miss more barrels, we could see an even more sustainable return to “ace hood” than that which he is currently providing the Dodger faithful. But in general, the best way to dampen the effect of your HR/FB rate on your ERA is to decrease the number of flyballs you allow.