Los Angeles Dodgers v Arizona Diamondbacks

Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. There, I said it. The 2011 Cy Young award winner might have won a second straight award in 2012 were it not for R.A. Dickey‘s career year. Here in 2013, Kershaw has all but wrapped up more silverware, though he and his first-place Dodgers have designs on more than just individual accolades.

Kershaw is the total package – he has great control and an assortment of superlative offerings. Fastball, curveball, slider – he can miss bats and throw them all for strikes in just about any count. He’s about to rack up his fourth consecutive 200 inning season. He’s a leader in the clubhouse and a well-spoken advocate off the field. He is about to become very, very well paid for what he does because, well, he does it better than just about anybody in the game.

Getting Blanked caught up with Clayton Kershaw to take about how he prepares and how he adjusts to the poor, overmatched lineups he leaves in his wake.

The above highlight pack shows Kershaw at his very best – any pitch in any count, with both command and control. He can drop that filthy curveball into the strike zone with two strikes or he can zip the mid-nineties heat past any hitter who might cheat and look off-speed.

Veteran infielder Mark DeRosa credits Kershaw’s “maturity level on the mound and ability to pitch and manipulate hitters” as the key traits that make him the kind of pitcher he would want to build a franchise around. Manipulating hitters is the kind of thing a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw does better than most – setting batters up from pitch-to-pitch and AB to AB.

Getting Blanked – You just finished your bullpen session, what do you typically work on between starts like this?

Clayton Kershaw – If there was something bad in the game before we try to emphasize that but, for the most part, you have your set routine you do. If there’s one thing you need to work on you give it the attention it needs.

GB – Is this something you discuss with your catcher and pitching coach, areas for improvement from start to start?

CK – Sometimes the pitching coach might see something you don’t or somebody else might have picked something up on the film, mechanically or whatever but it is definitely a joint effort.

GB – How much video prep work do you do in between starts?

CK – Probably right in the middle – not on the high end, not on the low end (of time spent watching video). Trying to get a feel for the other team, what they’re trying to do. Watch some other lefties pitch against them. Really just try to get a feel, not overanalyze anything.

GB – Do you look more at your history with a hitter or what they’re doing recently?

CK – I’m kind of more recent. I don’t really watch myself a whole lot. Just look at what the team’s been doing lately, watch some lefties that they’ve faced lately and trying to get a bit of a feel that way.

GB – Do you use some of the stuff you might learn in your video work to build your plan?

CK - Not necessarily what other pitchers are doing, I’m just looking at the hitter and their approach. I focus on what they’re trying to do, how they look in the box, trying to gain familiarity. I’m not too worried about what other pitchers do. Mostly trying to get a feel for the lineup as a whole.

GB – Because all the time and thought put into “game plans”, is it possible to get stuck into one way of approaching a batter or lineup?

CK – As a starter, you’re hopefully going to face guys three or four times. You can’t think “here’s how we will pitch him every time” and expect it to always work. You need different ideas and game plans. Once the game starts, you get a feel on your own for what’s working and what’s not and what you need to improve on. A.J. (Ellis, the Dodgers starting catcher) and Honey (Rick Honeycutt, LA’s pitching coach), they do a lot of homework and they’re really good at building a good game plan.

[A.J. Ellis offered some additional insight on the process he and his pitcher go through as they game plan his starts and work their way through a lineup.]

A.J. Ellis – Clayton gives us too much credit. He’s a student of the game. He knows before we even step into the meeting what he wants to do against these guys. Something might stand out that might have fallen through the cracks but that’s rare. He has a really good idea of what he wants to do against a guy. He takes his job extremely seriously and puts the time in, which is great.

We look at how these hitters have been doing against left-handed pitchers, In their previous month or two months to get a feel for them. If anything really sticks out, if there’s a guy who hasn’t had a hit on a curveball in two months or a change up. Try to find out where a guy likes the fastball, which side of the plate. But then you want to make sure you work towards Clayton’s strengths and what made him what he is.

Even if a guy has great numbers against left-handed sliders it doesn’t mean Clayton isn’t going to throw him a slider because Clayton’s slider just a different animal. We just match it up and look a little deeper, try to find if there’s any personal history between the two guys. We go on the computer and check out any previous head-to-head match ups. I talk to Honeycutt about what he sees or what he’s thinking and then we take it to Clayton.

The “different animal” slider Ellis mentions was the final addition to the Clayton Kershaw arsenal. It might have been the pitch that took him from “very good” to “best in the game.” Adding another offspeed offering, one thrown much harder than his big curve, makes him that much tougher on left-handed hitters (Kershaw heavily favors the slider over the curve against left-handed batters). Against righties, he can bore the slider in on the hitter’s feet or drop in the curve, either for a called strike or in the out of the zone, looking for a swing-and-miss.

Curveball – dropped in or buried

Reading through Kershaw’s answers, he repeatedly comes back to the term “feel.” With two strikeout pitches (to go alongside his fine fastball and deceptive delivery), feel is very important to Clayton Kershaw’s success. If one pitch “feels” better than the other, he can go with whichever works best in that moment. If they’re both working, well, the opposition is in for a very long night. By reading swings and approaches, Kershaw and his catcher know when it is time to switch it up and when it is time to stick with what’s working.

Slider – On the backfoot or in the back door

As Ellis mentions, these pitches are not run-of-the-mill offerings. Righties are hitting an unbelievable .087/.091/.108 versus Kershaw’s curve since the start of the 2011 season. Lefties flail at his sliders to the tune of a .150/.204/.259. He’s really tough to hit!

GB – As the game progresses, you have discussions in the dugout about what’s working or what needs tweaking?

CK – If we see something on film doesn’t look right in the game we change it up. You have to be open to that.

AJE – [we] try to read the swings of the hitter and how they approach their at bats. Clayton, he has such great strikeout stuff so hitters are trying to be more and more aggressive on him early in the count. He’s been able to get a lot of cheap, early in the count outs. Which is great when you get the outs because it keeps his pitch count low and doesn’t show as many pitches to the hitters. So maybe later in the game they haven’t seen the curveball yet because the swung at the first pitch the first couple times.

On its face, this seems like one of those things that a teammate might say that isn’t exactly true. It is, however, something worth considering. Kershaw’s strikeouts per nine rate is down this season, though his K rate is nearly identical to last season (a hair over 25% of batters who face Clayton Kershaw strike out). Batters aren’t chasing the first pitch more this season, though they appear much more aggressive when behind 0-1.

A minor detail but one which could manifest itself in a particular place: the rate at which Kershaw piles up Wins Above Replacement. By Fangraphs WAR (based on the relationship between strikeouts, walks, and home runs), Kershaw’s WAR ranks second in baseball, below Matt Harvey and equal to Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer. Baseball Reference calculates WAR another way, this time considering runs allowed per 9 innings, Kershaw jumps to 7.3 Wins Above Replacement when considering the runs he allows, rather than how many he should allow, head and shoulders above the rest of baseball.

Long story short: when you’re as good as Clayton Kershaw, opposing hitters have to alter their approach to adjust to what you do well – better than just about anybody else, really. Clayton Kershaw might not rack up as many strikeouts as his ample skills suggest because hitters are so mindful of getting into those situations. The end result remains the same: Clayton Kershaw keeps runs off the board for his team.

Opposing hitters are playing right into Kershaw’s hand but what choice do they have? Against a pitcher with so many exceptional offerings and pinpoint control, you are damned if you and damned if you don’t.

AJE – We try to be aggressive and try to get ahead. When he gets ahead 0-1, it just sets up the entire at bat. He’s as good as anybody in baseball as far as getting ahead and staying aggressive and keeping guys on the defensive.

A.J. Ellis isn’t lying when he says Kershaw best pitcher at getting ahead and staying ahead. Since the start of the 2011 season, no pitcher in baseball allows a lower OPS after throwing strike one.

From 2011 to 2013, After 0-1 , (requiring GS≥45), sorted by greatest On-Base Plus Slugging

Rk I Player Split From To OPS OPStot ERA BB SO BF WHIP SO/BB BAbip
1 Clayton Kershaw After 0-1 2011 2013 .433 .551 1.53 49 483 1319 0.700 9.86 .247
2 Stephen Strasburg After 0-1 2011 2013 .471 .608 2.29 34 254 659 0.781 7.47 .267
3 Yu Darvish After 0-1 2012 2013 .491 .628 2.10 37 300 723 0.789 8.11 .279
4 Matt Cain After 0-1 2011 2013 .494 .628 2.45 46 349 1238 0.806 7.59 .245
5 Felix Hernandez After 0-1 2011 2013 .509 .642 2.22 51 446 1287 0.846 8.75 .289
6 Gio Gonzalez After 0-1 2011 2013 .521 .632 2.45 69 355 1076 0.955 5.14 .288
7 Chris Sale After 0-1 2011 2013 .526 .635 2.10 28 295 867 0.841 10.54 .284
8 Roy Halladay After 0-1 2011 2013 .529 .654 2.48 22 278 904 0.846 12.64 .286
9 Adam Wainwright After 0-1 2012 2013 .529 .667 2.71 24 259 816 0.895 10.79 .311
10 Justin Masterson After 0-1 2011 2013 .532 .680 2.75 60 333 1167 0.935 5.55 .274
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/19/2013.

Just looking at 2013, he leads the way as well, holding hitters to a .354 OPS. That’s on base PLUS slugging of .354. Wow. Again: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Fall behind Clayton Kershaw and face certain death.

Maybe you’d like to put the first pitch in play against him? Good luck. Hitters only manage a .567 OPS against Kershaw’s first pitch, compared to .906 league-average OPS on the first pitch.

GB – Is there is a guy you like to watch, another pitcher like to keep your eye on?

CK – You get good game plans from guys…some of the lefties around the league. Hamels and Lee in Philly, those guys are good to watch as they pound the strikezone and throw their fastball to both sides of the plate. Guys like that are always good to watch.

Some stats via Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, Brooks Baseball, and ESPN Stats & Info

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