Pitchers' Duel Diary: Clayton Kershaw vs. History (a.k.a. Pedro Martinez)

In this series for pitching junkies, we anticipate one excellent matchup per week and diarize it to learn something about the practitioners of the Mound Arts. In the process, we also discover meaningful things about ourselves and our lives through the lens of baseball. There is always a lesson at the end. Each pitchers’ duel receives an official 1-10 rating on the Marichal-Spahn Scale, named after the greatest pitchers’ duel ever.

This Week’s Pitchers’ Duel

Clayton Kershaw vs. history, in the form of Pedro Martinez. Normally we focus on a clash between two pitchers, but this week, I feel it’s time to home in on the man trying to post the lowest season-ending ERA since Greg Maddux in 1995. Kershaw’s current mark is 1.72, just beating out Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season (1.74) for best ERA of the millennium. The bad news is that he doesn’t have much room for error, which means that every start has built-in drama. So instead of worrying about Kershaw’s opponent in Monday’s game against the Rockies, I’m just going to go in-depth on the man himself, focusing on his innings and his pitches and his glory. Let’s do it!

The Basics

Bio: Age 25, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, born in Dallas, no college
2013 Stats: 13-8, 1.72 ERA, 2.37 FIP, 8.69 K/9, 5.7 WAR

Pitches: Only your basic four — four-seam fastball, slider, curve, and a very rare changeup. (Brooks Baseball says he threw two sinkers back in May and promptly gave it up, so we’ll ignore that one.) He doesn’t throw too hard, averaging about 93 on the fastball, while his slider and changeup stay around 85. The curve is slower yet at about 74, but with Kershaw, it’s all about the movement. His fastball is unique among lefties in that it barely has any tailing action, moving less than an inch away from right-handed batters, which is the least among all qualified lefty starters. For comparison’s sake, other lefty pitchers like Chris Sale and David Price and Patrick Corbin get anywhere from eight to 12 inches of tail on their fastballs. But if you thought that was strange, consider that the pitch also rises the most of any starter, lefty or righty (note that this measurement is based on expected drop due to gravity from a ball thrown with no spin). That’s the pitch he’s thrown 61 percent of the time this season, and it defies expectations. FanGraphs calls it the most valuable pitch (accumulated throughout the season) in the entire game, which is quite an endorsement.

The slider is the second-most common weapon in the Kershaw arsenal, accounting for almost a quarter of all pitches. The horizontal movement here is average, but again, it stays quite high by MLB standards (seventh). The curve is probably his prettiest pitch, diving down and in on righties, but is thrown only 12 percent of the time, and almost always on two-strike counts. It drops eight inches, which is 16th in MLB, but when you consider how high his other pitches are, the contrast is enough to boggle a batter’s eye. Pound for pound, it’s the most valuable curve in baseball per FanGraphs, and it’s not even close. As for the changeup, you’re lucky if you see it twice per game. Truth be told, you could probably be safe calling him a three-pitch pitcher.

So here we have a rather predictable pitcher who doesn’t strike out many batters and, unlike a Yu Darvish–type player, doesn’t have a ton of variety. So what makes him so great? The answer is probably a mix of odd movement and pinpoint location, which is why you see him compared so often to Greg Maddux.

The Diary

First Inning: Here’s something fun — we’re following the first inning on MLB Gamecast, since the Mets went long on the Extra Innings channel that was supposed to be showing the Dodgers game at four, and the auxiliary channel isn’t working. How quaint! Also, a valuable lesson: The Mets will manage to be annoying even when you least expect it.

Unfortunately, Gamecast doesn’t tell us the type of pitch or velocity, so I we’ll have to wait until the interminable Mets-Braves game ends. It’s 10-5 in the bottom of the eighth, and I would very much like to smash my television right now. All I know for sure is that … holy shit. Clayton Kershaw just gave up THREE RUNS. IN ONE INNING. That is nothing short of insane for the man who hasn’t allowed three runs in a game since July 12. It’s probably a good thing that we’re starting this diary in the …

Second Inning: The Mets are done! The game is ended! Kershaw’s ERA, unfortunately, is back up to 1.84, and he has work to do to start working backing down to Pedro levels.

Charlie Blackmon is up first, and Kershaw starts with a patented move, painting the inside corner with a fastball. The announcers offer another hint as to why he’s so successful; he hides the ball in his glove until late in his lineup, disguising his delivery. Blackmon, though, lines an 0-2 fastball to right, and a bunt from Charlie Bettis is thrown away by Adrian Gonzalez at first … it’s a hot mess in Colorado! But the leadoff hitter, Josh Rutledge, gets the first taste of “good Kershaw” — an inside fastball and two straight sliders he can’t touch. DJ LeMahieu, another righty, gets the same treatment to start, with a fastball that seems to cut in on his hands. It doesn’t — unlike a cut fastball of the Mariano Rivera brand, it doesn’t behave like a screwball and have reverse action — but it goes so close to straight that it probably seems like it does. LeMahieu gets worked to 1-2 on a series of sliders, and then — hold your breath — Kershaw delivers a high curve that drops like a rainbow into the top of the strike zone. LeMahieu just stares, and the crowd boos, but the Root Sports strike zone shows that it was a good call, crossing right under the northern border. Michael Cuddyer lines out hard to center on another fastball up, and Kershaw escapes the early hit and error.

It’s a start. Kershaw averages 7.3 IP per start, which is tops in baseball, and even with the uncharacteristic start, don’t be surprised to see him last deep into this one.

Third Inning: Ol’ Clayton started out with a narrow edge on Pedro’s 2000 ERA, but now, at 1.83, he needs about nine scoreless innings in a row to get back to his level. It just shows how little margin for error he had to begin with.

Also, here’s something interest: Balls don’t break quite as much in the high-altitude Coors Field, which is why the Rockies tend to field young power pitchers. This SI feature is pretty interesting, and indicates that pitchers who rely on junk and location have it tougher. Kershaw is no exception — in 12 career starts at Coors Field before this, his ERA is 4.98, which is his worst at any stadium where he’s had more than three starts. Considering this stat, I would like to congratulate myself for choosing his Coors Field start for my pitchers’ diary. Well done, Shane.

Kershaw starts out Wilin Rosario with two straight sliders for strikes, which is rare, since he throws a first-pitch fastball to both righties and lefties about 80 percent of the time. His fourth pitch is a curve in the dirt, but Rosario bites, striking out. As Nolan Arenado comes up, an interesting new strategy has emerged for Kershaw — he’s throwing lots of breaking balls. Arenado gets a slider and a curve for two straight strikes, and gets a bit lucky by poking a third slider up the middle for a seeing-eye hit. It’s back to the fastball inside for Charlie Culberson, who swings and misses, and he goes back to the well for a double-play grounder to short.

Fourth Inning: Despite the early struggles, Kershaw is getting more than his share of whiffs today. He’s got the sixth-best K rate in the game behind a bunch of strikeout pitchers, which can only be read as a nod to his deceptive breaking action and excellent location. Two other stats back this up — batters swing at almost a third (33.1 percent) of his pitches outside the strike zone, and ignore 34.2 percent of pitches inside the zone. Again, deception plus accuracy. And just for kicks, one more — he allows the fifth-lowest HR–to–fly ball ratio in the game, which is pretty impressive for a guy whose fastball stays higher in the zone than any other pitch of its kind.

Jordan Pacheco leads off for the Rockies, and after watching a slider in the dirt, he turns on an inside fastball and puts it off the top of the left-field wall for a double. The Coors Field difficulties continue. Blackmon, who hit him hard last time and is red-hot, watches a way-too-high fastball and a way-too-low fastball before whiffing on one down the middle and fighting off a slider. But after a way-too-low slider runs it full, he stays with a third straight slider and pokes it to right. That puts men on first and third, with the Rockies already leading 3-2, and now we’ll see if Kershaw can live up to his reputation for getting out of jams.

First off, the Rockies help him out by leaving Bettis, the pitcher, in to bunt. Bettis already has 90 pitches and is struggling, and you know Kershaw will take the free out. That brings up Rutledge at leadoff, and Kershaw paints the outside corner with a fastball. Then he comes low and in, and Rutledge pops out to shallow right – way too shallow for the runner to tag and score. Two outs. LeMahieu is next, and after fouling a low, outside fastball, and whiffing on some high-and-tight juice, he puts up a good fight to run the count to 1-2 before putting good wood on a slider … but it’s right to Ethier, and Kershaw’s out of the jam.

Fifth Inning: Let’s talk about Kershaw’s strength in high-leverage situations. The one thing we can say is that you don’t put up a 1.72 ERA without having an excellent year, and you also don’t do it without having a lucky year. His BABIP this year is .238, which is lower than his previous seasons by far, and numbers like FIP and WAR indicate that Harvey has actually pitched better (though he’s out for the year, so a season-ending comparison with similar IP is now impossible). Kershaw also plays the majority of his games in a pitcher’s park, and doesn’t have to face a DH like Pedro did in 2000 – all advantages. But he still has the lowest WHIP in the game, and the numbers show that he gets better as the leverage of a situation increases … he’s amazing in “late and close” situations, or with runners in scoring position and less than two outs. No amount of luck can explain that kind of strength, and there’s no ignoring the fact that his opponent batting average is the best in the league at .183.

So, fifth inning. Leaving Bettis in to bunt looks even more stupid now that the Dodgers erupted for three runs, and now have a 5-3 lead. And guess who batted in the last two runs? The man himself, Clayton Kershaw! He now leads the league in RBIs for pitchers.

Unfortunately, he hangs another fastball to Cuddyer, who laces a single into center. It seems like scrambling is the order of the day for Kershaw – nothing comes easy. He’s got no fastball command, as two straight balls to Rosario indicate. But he catches him looking on a slider, and after falling behind 3-1, he gets a foul on a fastball and slider before absolutely freezing him with a slider on the outside corner. Kershaw now has 200 strikeouts on the year, his fourth straight year reaching that milestone.

He’s flirted with disaster for too long, though, and Arenado crushes a fastball into the gap, scoring Cuddyer. It’s 5-4, and Kershaw’s quest to beat Pedro takes another hit. Colberson tries to re-create the magic by swinging at the first pitch, but he flies out to center on a fastball. It gets worse against Pacheco, who grimaces at the mound and lines a 2-0 fastball to tie the game at five. Blackmon lines out to end the inning, but the damage is done.

Sixth Inning: By the way, this is the first time all year that Kershaw has allowed five runs in a game. All. Effing. Year. And you thought I couldn’t jinx the man!

Another interesting stat from the gents at Root Sports – Kershaw is 51-0 when the Dodgers give him at least four runs of support. It would literally be unprecedented for him to take a loss in this game. But the Rockies are the Rockies for a reason, and three more runs in the top of the inning gives L.A. an 8-5 lead. And apparently Don Mattingly didn’t want to risk it, because after his worst five-inning stretch all year, Clayton’s out with a chance to steal a cheap win. The bad news is that his ERA rose from 1.72 to 1.89, and it will be a long, hard road to catch up to Pedro. If you thought his margin for error was small before, consider that he’d have to pitch 18 straight scoreless innings to return to Pedro’s level now. This won’t be easy.

THUS ENDS THE DUEL. PEDRO WINS.

Marichal-Spahn Score: 5.4

Not great stuff from Kershaw, obviously, but hopefully you’ve learned a bit about what makes him so fantastic in all his other outings.

This Week’s Lesson

Kershaw is our greatest active pitcher, but Pedro is immortal.

Filed Under: Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere