Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet right now. He is the clear front-runner for his second NL Cy Young Award in just three seasons.
He led the MLB in numerous categories–most notably pitcher WAR (6.5) and ERA (1.83).
Well, with the St. Louis Cardinals’ NLCS lead down to just one game going into the pivotal Game 6, I decided to look deeper into Kershaw’s numbers to see if I could find any possible trends that the Cardinal offense could exploit on Friday night at Busch Stadium.
Repertoire and Tendencies:
1. Fastball: avg: 93.4 MPH, thrown 60.3% of the time
-average tail: 0.89 inches
2. Slider: avg: 85.7 MPH, thrown 24.6% of the time
-average break: 3.35 inches
3. Curveball: avg: 74.4 MPH, thrown 12.6% of the time
-average drop: 8.35 inches (Wainwright’s? 9.36 inches)
4. Changeup: avg: 86.0 MPH, thrown 2.4% of the time
-average tail: 7.00 inches
My own table; Data from BrooksBaseball.net
As you can see, regardless of what side of the plate the hitter is on, Kershaw likes to start out at-bats with his fastball. If he falls behind in the count, he throws his fastball. When the count is even, he still throws his fastball the majority of the time. In short, it is safe to say that he is predominantly a fastball pitcher. His fastball is not overpowering anymore (93.4 MPH on average) and is of the four-seam variety so it does not have very much movement. Thus, he relies on his pinpoint control to get hitters out.
Well, if you are constructing a lineup to best succeed against a fastball pitcher like Kershaw, wouldn’t you want your best fastball hitters in the lineup? I know that he is a left-handed pitcher, but a four-seam fastball is a four-seam fastball no matter which arm throws it since it has very little movement to it–his moves on average just 0.89 inches horizontally.
A quick side note for the Cardinals, if they have two strikes against Kershaw, there is really no need to be worried about his changeup. Based on the numbers, he did not throw a single changeup with two strikes in all of 2013. Thus, if the ball looks straight out of his hand, it will likely be a fastball. Sure, he probably knows this and could pull a changeup out of his back pocket, but the Cardinals have to to look for whatever advantage they can possibly get when facing a future Hall-of-Fame pitcher like Kershaw.
My own table; Date from BrooksBaseball.net
Well, the fact that he is fastball pitcher is good news for the Cardinals. Their lineup is full of fastball hitters. To be honest, this is likely why the Cardinals have had some success against him so far in 2013 and throughout his career. He is 4-5 with a 3.75 ERA against St. Louis–his highest ERA against any team in the National League. At Busch Stadium in particular, he is 2-3 with a 3.65 ERA.
Matt Adams and Yadier Molina have “torn the cover off the ball” against fastballs in 2013–hitting .361 and 357 respectively. Matt Carpenter and David Freese aren’t too shabby themselves–Carpenter at .316 and Freese at .311. Carpenter will obviously be in the lineup batting leadoff, and I think Freese should be, too, regardless of his recent struggles at the plate. Descalso has had most of his success (.297) against the fastball this year as well, but his defense at shortstop is just not good enough to warrant a start in Game 6. Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday have not been the best against fastballs this season, but their veteran presence combined with their ability to hit the long ball makes them locks for every game in the playoffs.
Finally, the Jon Jay versus Shane Robinson argument that has been all over social media since Jay’s costly defensive lapses in Game 3 of the NLCS. Well, as the data shows, Jay is a much better fastball hitter than Robinson–.286 to .232 in 2013 and .321 to .273 in their careers. But, what about Jay’s arm? Yeah, Jay’s arm is weak, but I broke down the numbers to see just how bad it was compared to Robinson’s, and this is where it got a little interesting. Jay gets one outfield assist every 258 innings. This is not very good at all. However, Robinson is not that much better–recording one outfield assist every 243 innings. Thus, Jay’s arm is not very good, but statistically-speaking, Robinson’s is not much of an improvement. What about range? Clearly, Robinson has more range than Jay, but is this enough to start him over Jay when his offense, especially against the fastball, is inferior? In my opinion, it is not.
UPDATE (5:00 PM 10-18): Shane Robinson will be starting in center for the Cardinals and will be batting seventh. Even though I am quite the Jay supporter, I can understand this move. If it helps the Cardinals reach the World Series tonight, then I am all for it.
Should Matheny shuffle the order around against Kershaw? Sure, it couldn’t hurt, but should he replace proven fastball hitters with unproven hitters in attempt to ignite the team? No. In my opinion, based on the numbers, the players highlighted in yellow should be in the starting lineup for the Cardinals. The order in which they hit? I will leave that up to Matheny to decide. In the NLCS, the overall problem for the Cardinals has been the offense (2.4 runs per game), not the defense. This is why it is in the team’s best interest to have their best fastball hitters in the lineup versus Kershaw.
Home Runs Allowed by Kershaw in 2013:
Kershaw has allowed only 11 home runs in all of 2013 and has not allowed one since September 8th (40 days ago)–when Jay Bruce crushed two against him–both on hanging sliders up and over the middle of the plate. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the only player with a home run against Kershaw is Allen Craig, but this just means the rest of them are due for one, right?
Well, of the 11 homeruns he allowed, eight of them came against right-handed hitters, two against left-handed hitters, and one against a switch hitter (who obviously batted right-handed against the left-handed Kershaw). Seven of them came off his fastball and four off his slider. The most common sequence that resulted in a home run was a four-pitch sequence–fastball, fastball, slider, fastball–occurring on four of the 11 (36.4%) home runs.
Finally, only one of the 11 homeruns came on a pitch low in the zone. I do not advocate swinging for the fences–especially with the type of offense St. Louis has and the pitcher Kershaw is–but if they truly feel the need, they should probably only do so on pitches in the middle or upper parts of the zone.
Swing Percentages against Kershaw:
For 2013, hitters are swinging at 33.1% of Kershaw’s pitches that are out of the strike zone. The Cardinals need this swing percentage to be much lower if they want to have continued success against him and move on to the World Series. What I am basically saying is that when he does throw a ball–he does not throw many–do not swing at it. If the pitch looks nasty out of his hand, you are better off not swinging because it will likely dip out of the strike zone, and if it doesn’t, you likely had no chance of making solid contact anyways. Why is this a big deal? The table below explains why. He is nearly un-hittable when ahead in the count; while he is much more hittable when behind in the count.
My own table; Data from Baseball-Reference.com
Sure, Kershaw is the type of pitcher that dictates the count, especially when he is in a groove, but the Cardinals cannot make it easy on him and must avoid expanded their zones early in counts and early in the game.
Probably Just Anomalies But Still Worth Noting:
In 2013, opponents are hitting .373 (22 hits in 59 ABs) with two doubles and one homerun on a 1-1 count. Opponents are hitting .364 (12 hits in 33 ABs) with a triple and four home runs on a 2-1 count.
The Cardinal offense is in for a late-October treat on Friday night (pending the weather obviously). Beating a Cy Young and future Hall-of-Fame pitcher four times in a row in one season would be quite the feat. The fact that the game is being played in St. Louis will be a huge advantage–they are hitting .274 at Busch Stadium while only .221 at Dodger Stadium. I really do hope the weather holds off or they wait until Saturday to play the game because it would be a shame to waste a pitching match-up like this one for a possible series-clinching game.
Kershaw could very well dictate the pace by pumping in strike after strike after strike in Game 6. However, until he proves that he will throw pitches in the strike zone, the offense needs to bring an approach similar to the one they used in Game 3 of the NLDS against Francisco Liriano–working the count by not expanding their zone. Also, unless there are two strikes in the count, I would likely lay off all of his breaking pitches considering opponents are hitting a combined .150 on his curveball and slider in 2013.
Until next time…
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