Do Not Walk: Looking at Clayton Kershaw’s 2016 Start

The Los Angeles Dodgers have had a rough go over the last few games. Going into Sunday’s game against the lowly Padres (heavily favored, with an excessive -300 line per ESPN), they were on a six-game skid that included Clayton Kershaw’s only loss of the season so far. Most baseball statheads know that Wins and Losses in pitching are largely meaningless stats, but they’re still used to evaluate players by the larger community. Kershaw probably had that in mind yesterday. And what did he say to the gods of losing?

Not today.

He put on an absolute show, massacring a hapless Padres lineup. Granted, San Diego is not a good team, but this was next-level. It’s convenient that the batter’s box already has a chalk outline around it. On top of the pitching, he hit a dribbler into left-center that scored the only run of the day. He literally won the game for the Dodgers, picking up what may be the most-earned W for a pitcher so far this year. He finished with 14 K’s, no walks, and a complete game shutout in 101 pitches (75 strikes). That’s absurd. He’s been one of, or the best pitcher in baseball for nearly his entire MLB career, but he’s come out of the gate this year really hot. So in honor of yesterday’s bloodbath at Dodger Stadium, let’s take a closer look at his early-season numbers and what it means for his season.

Here are Kershaw’s standard numbers though his first six games (probably about ⅕ of his expected starts):

46.0 1.96 0.72 169 30 10 3 3 2 54

If you’re counting at home, those numbers are about on pace with his Cy Young-worthy 2015 campaign, with a few less strikeouts (he’s only  on pace for 270ish this year). A look at his advanced stats says about the same thing. He’s throwing about 69% of his pitches for strikes with a K/9 of 10.57. What really jumps out if you look closely enough, though, is his control. He has been otherwordly, and he’s finding ways to mow down hitters even when they don’t bite. Look at this curveball, for example.
That’s impossible to hit. Jay never had a chance. That gif comes from this wonderful Reddit post, chronicling all 14 K’s from the Padres game. There’s another takeaway here though, one that might not be as obvious: the counts. There isn’t a single time in those strikeouts where Kershaw gets the last swing or call with more balls than strikes called. Not a single hitter’s count. Not a single incidence of pitching himself out of a jam. None of those batters had the advantage in the count when they got put down.

Through his first six games, Kershaw just isn’t missing the zone. He’s using all the same pitches with about the same effectiveness, with the exception of his changeup (about twice the frequency of last year at 1.1%, highest since 2013). They’re just more effective. He’s just not walking batters. He could have a couple rough games and still be on pace for 20-25 BB this year, ten lower than last year’s mark of 42 (31 the year before). His K/BB rate leads the league at a ridiculous 18.00, nearly double the next highest after him among pitchers with at least 30 IP. His BB/9 rate is 0.59 (again league leading) among the same population. The closest after him there is 0.89. The league averages are 1.92 and 3.36.

Check out his heatmap, per FanGraphs. Every single area outside the strike zone is ice-cold, with the exception of directly below-center where you’d expect him to put his sinker, a pitch he uses fairly often.

Right now you’re probably thinking, what if he started other years this hot? He’ll probably normalize. What about his first six starts over the past few seasons? Well, got you covered. Here’s a graph comparing those control stats to his last three seasons along with a couple standard stats for reference.

Stat IP ERA K/9 BB/9 K/BB
2013 41.2 1.73 10.15 2.59 3.92
2014 35.1 3.57 11.72 1.78 6.57
2015 38.2 3.72 11.87 1.63 7.29
2016 46.0 1.96 10.57 0.59 18.00

Even when we compare across the same sample size, this season is still utterly ridiculous. Not only is he maintaining a high strikeout rate as he always has, but he’s keeping it in the zone or tricking batters more than he ever has. The single season for K/BB is 11.63, by the way. The takeaway here is that we might be seeing Kershaw as a whole new monster this year, with velocity, some of the nastiest movement in the league, and an unprecedented amount of control without compromising either (his changeup actually has its highest velocity of his career this year). If he can maintain even two-thirds of this control performance through the season, he’ll deservedly run away with the Cy Young. Basically, if you’re going up to bat against the Dodgers’ ace this year, your best shot is just to hope he misses.

He won’t.

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