Richard Mackson / USA Today Sports
The subject of this article was chosen by the blog’s followers, who decided that of last week’s top pitchers, Clayton Kershaw would be the most interesting subject of a full-length article.
The title of this piece has been spoken or thought by fans around baseball in the last couple years. Kershaw has the best ERA among active starters by more than 0.40, and when Mariano Rivera retires at the end of the year, Kershaw will have the best ERA among all active players. Kershaw’s WHIP has not been above 1.05 since 2010, and he has never had an ERA above 3.00 in a full season. Kershaw has always been unhittable: he’s led the league in H/9 in three of his four full seasons, and is leading it again this year. If there has ever been a concern with him, it was with his control. From 2008-2010, he averaged 4.2 BB/9. This limited him to 5.82 IP/start in those years, keeping him from reaching his full potential. The chart below shows how Kershaw has improved his control in nearly every year he’s been in the league. After a slight step back in 2012, Kershaw has gotten back to the elite control and efficiency that characterized his 2011 season.
The pitch that has gained Kershaw the most recognition is his curveball. Few people would contest that it is the best curveball in the league. He is way ahead of the rest of the league in both batting average against and slugging against. Notably, Gio Gonzalez and Kershaw are the only pitchers who appear on both lists, and Gonzalez’s AVG against and SLG against are different, meaning that of the BAA leaders, only Kershaw has not yet given up an extra-base hit on the curveball.
It has improved even relative to last year (except in whiff rate, for some reason. This could be because he’s throwing it more when he’s ahead in the count this year, so batters swing weakly and make contact, but weak contact. This would also explain why no one has an extra-base hit off the curveball this year).
In addition to his baffling curveball, Kershaw’s slider regularly makes hitters look silly. The pictures below show all the locations of a Kershaw breaking pitch that a hitter has swung at and missed since 2010. Yes, there are that many pitchers around the ankles that batters have whiffed at. The top picture is sliders; the bottom picture is curveballs.
If there is one concern with Kershaw this year, it’s that he is due for a change of fortune on batted balls. His BABIP, which has been remarkably stable for his entire career, has plummeted 35 points this year. His BAA on groundballs is .168, about 65 points below league average, and his batting average against on line drives is .600, about 150 points below league average. While this obviously means that future expectations have to tempered a bit, the correction Kershaw experiences should not be too dramatic: his HR/FB rate has been in line with his career average, and his LOB% has also been pretty standard, if perhaps a tick too high. The chart below shows Kershaw’s luck-reliant statistics along with his FIP, which demonstrates that even as his number have fluctuated a bit from year to year, his peripherals have been consistently outstanding.
Lastly, since this article corresponds to our BSports Top Performers of the Week article here, let’s take a look at the two starts that earned Kershaw top honors. Surprisingly, many of his statistics were not all that impressive, especially compared to his usual numbers. His fastball averaged 91.7 mph, compared to 92.4 the rest of the year. His groundball rate was only 40%, and his line drive rate was a bloated 31%. He struck out only 11 batters in 17 innings (although to his credit, he walked only one and 71% of his pitches were strikes), and benefited again from great luck: batters hit only .500 on the 14 line drives off him, and not a single ground ball (out of 18) went for a hit.