Clayton Kershaw’s Pitch Sequencing is Hard to Beat

Written By: John McCool (@Desertrose28)

Entering the 2017 baseball season, Dodgers’ left-handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw is at his most dominant form. With a back injury that shortened his 2016 season, Kershaw posted a 1.80 FIP and 10.39 K/9 over 149 innings. In a game full of elite pitchers from Max Scherzer to Madison Bumgarner, Kershaw remains in his own class. He is the anchor of the Dodgers’ rotation and is a face of baseball alongside younger players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado.

Kershaw throws a four-seam fastball, slider, and curveball combination. During his windup, he deceptively hides the ball behind his body and head until his release point, preventing the hitter from deciphering his grip on the ball. Kershaw is a master of mixing up speeds, throwing a four-seam fastball that averages 93.1 mph with a slow, looping curveball hovering around 73.2 mph.

His ability to fool hitters is a combination of pitch movement and good pitch sequencing. When he falls behind in the count, the southpaw uses pinpoint control to avoid “three” ball counts; he gets hitters to chase pitches off the plate when he is ahead. For reference, in 2016, hitters swung at 34.4% of Kershaw’s pitches outside of the strike zone (10th in the MLB) and made contact at just a 51.0% rate (1st among qualified pitchers) according to FanGraphs.

Pitch Sequencing

The Markov chain was developed under the idea that “the outcome of a given experiment can affect the outcome of the next experiment.” Using the Markov chain, we are able to determine the probability of a pitch being thrown given the pitch type of a previous pitch. His pitch selections were also averaged based on the count in the at-bat.

Kershaw 1

CU: curveball | FF: four-seam fastball | SL: slider

source: Baseball Savant

Kershaw’s bread and butter pitch is the four-seam fastball thrown 50.7% of the time. The lefty also relied on a slider and curveball thrown at 33.3% and 15.6% rates respectively. His four-seam usage jumped to 56.7% after a curveball, allowing him to move between high and low speeds. Kershaw threw back to back sliders at a 33.7% rate and followed a slider with a fastball 50.9% of the time. [1]

Kershaw 2

In 2016, Kershaw regularly opened with a four-seam fastball allowing him to get ahead in the count. The southpaw threw 309 strikes compared to just 165 balls on the first pitch, placing the batter in the “hole” at a 65.2% clip.

His ability to pump first pitch strikes in part explained his 0.66 BB/9 and limited his pitch counts. On 1-1 and 2-2 counts, Kershaw decreased his four-seam usage in favor of throwing more sliders and slow curve balls.

Kershaw 3

In the rare event of falling behind, Kershaw primarily drew on his fastball and slider combination. In these counts, the southpaw relied on his four-seamer above his average usage rate, except on 3-2 counts where he threw his slider at a 49.4% rate.  We didn’t include Kershaw’s 3-0 pitch selections because he threw just 7 pitches in this count!

Kershaw 4

When he climbed ahead in the count, the Dodgers’ lefty upped his curveball usage while throwing his fastball 14.9% less than average. On 0-1 and 0-2 counts, Kershaw threw his slider at a below average rate but frequently used it on 1-2 counts.

Kershaw’s dominant 2016 campaign brings memory of the 1968 season. In 1968, seven pitchers, including Bob Gibson, Luis Tiant, and Sam McDowell, ran ERAs below 2.00, spurring the Major League Rules panel to lower the mound from 15 to 10 inches and shrinking the strike zone.  However, with a steady supply of dominant starters and unhittable relievers in today’s game, hitting above .300 or 40 plus home runs is becoming harder to achieve.

At 29, Kershaw is still in the prime of his pitching career, which should help stabilize the Dodgers’ rotation for the next three to four seasons. According to Steamer, a baseball forecasting system, Kershaw is projected to record a 2.36 FIP and 11.0 K/9 over 207 innings in 2017.

The biggest concern with Kershaw is the back injury that sidelined him for two months last summer. But if the southpaw can avoid the injury bug, National League West hitters and the rest of baseball will be at the mercy of his devastating fastball, slider, and curveball sequencing.


[1] Kershaw’s four-seam usage dropped from 60.7% to 55.4% between 2013 and 2014.

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