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Kershaw dialing down heat, but still dominant

MLB.com @kengurnick

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw is adjusting, as the great ones do.

At age 30, even if Kershaw's fastball isn't elite (as documented by Statcast™), he still is, as documented by a 1.89 ERA and a 1.105 WHIP through three starts this season.

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw is adjusting, as the great ones do.

At age 30, even if Kershaw's fastball isn't elite (as documented by Statcast™), he still is, as documented by a 1.89 ERA and a 1.105 WHIP through three starts this season.

The ability to shift to a late-breaking slider or an over-the-top slow curve is Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt's explanation for what makes Kershaw, Kershaw.

"He's got three pitches he's very comfortable throwing," said Honeycutt. "When he had 300 strikeouts [in 2015], he had 100 strikeouts with each pitch. He's still using each pitch enough. For him, it's his ability to command three pitches and have three weapons he can use at any time. And that's the unpredictability he presents to the hitter."

Video: Rick Honeycutt on giving Clayton Kershaw rest

Honeycutt said Kershaw's inability to master a traditional changeup hasn't mattered, because his curveball serves as a change of pace, with the added challenge for hitters that it dramatically changes planes.

"His curve is still 15 to 18 mph slower, so it's the differentiator, that is his changeup," Honeycutt said. "That's so important for any pitcher, to have that separator in speed. The hitter has to respect that slower speed."

In his most recent start at AT&T Park, Kershaw took a shutout into the eighth inning. He just did it in a way that showed how he can compensate with his bag of tricks. When a fastball pitcher loses his fastball, he's in trouble. Kershaw, though, has options.

"I thought he threw more curveballs [than usual], but he was ahead on a lot of counts," said Giants catcher Nick Hundley. "When he threw those early-count sliders for strikes, that put him in a really good position."

According to Statcast™, Kershaw is throwing fastballs just 43.6 percent of the time this season, a career-low rate. And he's delivering those heaters at a career-low average velocity of 91.3 mph, continuing a downward trend in both categories over the past five seasons:

2013: 60.6 percent (93.2 mph average)
2014: 53.3 percent (93.7 mph average)
2015: 51.9 percent (94.2 mph average)
2016: 46.3 percent (93.6 mph average)
2017: 46.4 percent (92.9 mph average)
2018: 43.6 percent (91.3 mph average)

In fact, this year's 43.6 percent is the 16th-lowest fastball rate (counting four-seamers, two-seamers and sinkers) out of 114 pitchers (minimum 150 total pitches).

As far as 2018, Kershaw has thrown fastballs at a lower rate in each start:

March 29: 49.5 percent (91.0 mph average)
April 3: 46.4 percent (91.8 mph average)
April 8: 34.8 percent (90.9 mph average)

Kershaw's rate on Sunday was the third lowest in a game in his career, with the other two coming in 2015. Opponents this season are 10-for-24 (.417) with a .792 slugging percentage and two strikeouts against his fastballs. Conversely, opposing hitters are 8-for-50 (.160) with a .240 slugging percentage and 17 strikeouts against Kershaw's offspeed pitches.

Of course, maybe Kershaw is just ahead of the trend. Fastball usage is somewhat down overall, but not to the degree that matches him individually.

Here is the MLB-wide fastball (four-seam, two-seam and sinker) usage for starting pitchers in recent years:

2013 -- 56.0 percent
2014 -- 55.7 percent
2015 -- 56.0 percent
2016 -- 53.0 percent
2017 -- 54.7 percent
2018 -- 54.7 percent (through Sunday)

In 2017, the Dodgers' entire pitching staff had a 48.8 percent fastball usage rate, third lowest in MLB behind the Indians and Yankees. They are at roughly the same level this year. So to the degree this is an overall trend, they are at the forefront.

Or think about last year's Cy Young Award winners:

Max Scherzer threw 48.4 percent fastballs (four-seam, two-seam and sinker) in 2017, a career low, his first time under 50 percent, and down from 59.2 percent just two years earlier.

Corey Kluber threw just 42.7 percent fastballs (four-seam, two-seam and sinker) in 2017, a career low and down from 58 percent just one year before.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw