by Daniel Conmy
I must admit that I overvalue the walk a lot, but there is an extreme fascination when it comes to batters walking often or pitchers not walking batters at a high rate. Last season, I talked about some batters and their ability to walk. Today, I will talk about the amazing Clayton Kershaw who really can do no wrong.
Before getting into why Clayton Kershaw is becoming one of the most prolific pitchers in all of history, let's chit chat about a story about how I came to realize my weird obsession with four pitches outside the zone.
Recently at a bar with my friends, I noted that Kershaw walked his seventh batter of the year. One friend, with a lengthy background in baseball understood my reasoning behind such a discussion topic. The other just asked, "Why? It's just a walk." Just a walk? No, this is not just a walk. This is a walk from a pitcher that is on pace for the best WHIP in a single season and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) in history. As I was frantically stating the significance of walking another batter it came to fruition that maybe people just don't care about walks as much as I do. And that's a fair level-headed assumption. I take walks as my holy grail. You cannot give up free passes as a pitcher and as a hitter you should take as many as you can get.
Now, let's jump into the mind-boggling ability of Clayton Kershaw. Before we get too far, let's note that last night was Kershaw's 15th start of the season. That is less than halfway for a pitcher, as aces usually get 33 starts. Barring any injury, we can call this a midseason-ish report because this is clearly going to be very cut and dry as to what to expect for the rest of the season and what he has already done. No, of course not. That is what make projections fun. They are hypothetical marks that a player can get to if they continue on the current trend of the season or can exceed said marks if they continue to get better. Let's get to some number, shall we?
Kershaw is on pace to strikeout 310 batters this year after taking into account his 15th start of the season. Last year Kershaw amassed 301 strikeouts, the first time someone did that since 2002 when Randy Johnson struck out 334. To go along with that, Kershaw is on pace to have the second best field-independent pitching (FIP) numbers since Pedro Martinez's historic 1999 season. After giving up six hits in seven innings against the Washington Nationals, Kershaw raised his walks/hits per inning (WHIP) to .67, which is still better than the best mark by Pedro Martinez. Although these are all incredible numbers, we haven't even begun to discuss my favorite fun fact with this superstar from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Clayton Kershaw has walked seven people all year in 115 innings pitched. That's unimaginable. Even the best pitchers walk people, right? Well Clayton Kershaw did not get the memo. His walk rate is down to 1.7 percent. It is improbable that Kershaw continues to get better, yet nothing should amaze us at this point.
To go along with the amazing walk rate, Kershaw also is absolutely shattering the strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) single-season record with a mark of 20.14 strikeouts to one walk. The next closest pitcher was Phil Hughes who recently broke the record with a 11.63 clip. Kershaw would have to walk the next five batters without recording a strikeout to get to an 11.75 mark.
These are numbers that have conceivably been the result of a change in Kershaw's pitching style. So, did Kershaw change anything this year from his last historic season that can make sense of these jumps to even higher praise? Well, Kershaw is using his slider more often. The Dodger ace is throwing his slider a third of the time. Every year we've seen a slight increase in Kershaw's sliders except for a small dip in 2015. Obviously this trend will not continue and will plateau eventually, but the slider has been such a weapon, that if it is used more, it can lead to more and more strikeouts. We recently saw Matt Shoemaker throw his splitter more frequently, which led to incredible results. Could Kershaw be doing that same incremental increase with his slider? Possibly, but one thing Kershaw can keep constant is the armslot where he delivers his pitches.
From this chart, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, we see very small variations in Kershaw's vertical release point for every pitch from 2007 to 2016. While his horizontal release point has changed a significant amount, all pitches - fastball, slider, curveball - come from the same location no matter the horizontal change. Of course, you have to give or take a few inches with each of these numbers, but can a major league player adjust that quickly and spot the error when Kershaw throws a fastball or when he throws a slider? No player has consistently figured out Clayton Kershaw and that's why is brilliance still remains.