Clayton Kershaw appeared against the Washington Nationals a whopping three times in the five-game NLDS, tossing well over 200 pitches in the process.
Clayton Kershaw also missed about 10 weeks this season, after an MRI revealed a herniated disk in his back.
Despite both of those facts, however, Clayton Kershaw is starting Game 2 of the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs tonight, and he’s an extremely formidable opponent.
If you’ve been following along this postseason, you’ll know that we’ve been profiling the Cubs’ opposing starting pitchers leading up to the game in which they face him, and we won’t stop with Kershaw. We obviously know quite a bit more about Kershaw than we did with some of the other profiled pitchers (Kenta Maeda, Matt Moore), but we’ll take a good look at him nonetheless.
In terms of individuals, Clayton Kershaw is likely the biggest roadblock between the Cubs and their first World Series appearances in nearly 75 years.
But he’s not superman. He does have an ERA, and it’s not zero. Clayton Kershaw is very, very good – perhaps one of the best ever – but teams have beat him before, and the Cubs can beat him this week.
Now, onto that injury. As I said, Kershaw missed about eleven or so games in the middle of the year, but returned at the beginning of September and made five regular season starts before the playoffs began. Let’s check in on his numbers both before and after the injury, to see if anything notable has changed.
Clayton Kershaw: Pre-Injury, 2016
- 16 starts, 121.0 IP
- 1.79 ERA, 1.67 FIP, 2.14 xFIP
- 32.9% strikeout rate, 2.0% walk rate
- .262 BABIP, 79.7% strand rate, 49.8% ground ball rate, 7.4% HR/FB ratio
- .184 AVG against
Clayton Kershaw: Post-Injury, 2016
- 5 starts, 28.0 IP
- 1.29 ERA, 2.36 FIP, 2.92 xFIP
- 26.2% strikeout rate, 1.9% walk rate
- .222 BABIP, 81.4% strand rate, 47.9% ground ball rate, 8.0% HR/FB ratio
- .230 AVG
So, the injury did not seem to slow Kershaw down too much in terms of results. In fact, his ERA dropped upon returning in September. That said, expanded rosters often dilute the competition that month, so there’s at least something to be said about that. But even if you look behind the numbers, there’s not much solace to be found. His 2.36 FIP in the second stint (up by 0.69 points) would still be good for third best in baseball. His strikeout rate (which fell by 6.7 percentage points) would be 11th best, and his walk rate actually dropped, while remaining the best in baseball.
If you’re looking for something to latch onto, though, he did benefit from a better, more unsustainable BABIP and strand rate, while inducing fewer ground balls and allowing slightly more home runs. But still, these numbers dropped him from the very best to most likely the very best.
But let’s think positively.
Kershaw may be a beast, but he’s still a human. Throwing as much as he has in the past week or so will take its toll in one way or another. Whether that shows through in his first start, his second, or his inevitable appearance out of the Dodgers’ bullpen is yet to be seen, but even a well-battled, stressful loss to Kershaw can help the Cubs beat the Dodgers over the course of a full series.
But they don’t have to lose.
Aside from the fact that the Cubs have a pretty darn good lineup, Kershaw isn’t perfect. In game one against the Nationals (on regular rest), Kershaw allowed 3 earned runs on 8 hits, 1 walk and 7 strikeouts. Moreover, he lasted just 5.0 innings in the process. Now, the Nationals have a pretty strong lineup, too – especially Daniel Murphy (yuck) and Bryce Harper – but the Cubs are capable of making Kershaw work. You don’t always want to simply drive up the opposing starter’s pitch count (indeed, the Dodgers do have a good bullpen), but in this case it might be the best strategy, and the Cubs have the hitters who can do it.
Perhaps most known for his curveball, Kershaw mixes in three main pitches. Check out their frequency, value, and velocity below:
Clayton Kershaw’s Pitch Mix 2016:
- Fastball (50.5%): 21.5
- Slider (33.3%): 24.0
- Curveball (15.6%): 5.5
- Change-up (0.6%): -0.2
As you can see, he does the majority of his damage with his slider (which he throws at 87.8 MPH on average), but does quite well with his fastball (93.0 MPH) and curveball (73.0 MPH), as well. He doesn’t get much out of his change-up, but he rarely goes to it.
Kershaw also changes the speed and plane on these pitches, so, in a way, it’s like he has a half-dozen pitches, rather than just three.
Had he completed enough innings to qualify, Kershaw would find himself at the bottom end of the top 20 in terms of soft and hard contact induce/allowed, which is very good, but not his strongest suit. Given that he rarely allows any walks – even after the injury – the Cubs will have to put the ball in play in order to do damage against him. He isn’t anyone’s first choice of pitchers to face, but the Cubs are good and Kershaw is beatable.