If the purpose of the game is to score, opposing hitters who manage to get a single off Clayton Kershaw are in for a cruel surprise: Kershaw the pitcher, with a MLB-best WHIP over the past three seasons, is merely the miniboss. Kershaw the pickoff artist is even tougher to defeat.
In those same three years, he has led the majors with 22 pickoffs. Among all active pitchers, the 26-year-old ranks third in career pickoffs, behind only 35-year-old Mark Buehrle and 39-year-old Jamey Wright. No pitcher younger than Kershaw has even half his career total. But Kershaw's control over the running game does more than elevate him above his contemporaries. It makes him a historic oddity.
The table below illustrates that fact using data from each pitcher's Cy Young seasons, as pulled from Baseball-Reference.com. The three metrics presented are straightforward: 1) stolen-base attempts per nine innings; 2) an adjustment stat that compares each pitcher's stolen-base attempts per nine to the average of the major-league rate during his Cy Young reign, with the lower the number the better; and 3) innings per pickoff. No adjustments were made for ballpark or handedness. Here are the results:
Kershaw not only saw the fewest stolen base attempts per nine innings (both raw and adjusted), he recorded the best rate of pickoffs; baserunners knew better than to test him, yet were nabbed anyway.
Such dominance inspires the same frenzy of ridiculous fun facts that come with Barry Bonds' power-and-on-base exploits, Mike Trout's age-related accomplishments, or . . . well, Kershaw's pitching. To wit: Kershaw had more pickoffs over the last three seasons than stolen bases against. Another: He picked off just two fewer baserunners in his two award-winning seasons than Martinez, Clemens, Lincecum, McLain, Palmer, and Koufax did in their 12 combined seasons. Last one: Kershaw has 31 pickoffs the past four seasons; Maddux had 28 for his career.
That's not a fair comparison, of course. Maddux was dismissive about hounding basestealers and the running game's impact on the score in general. "Only 18 percent of all baserunners score," he once toldChris Young. "So don't worry about the runners. Just concentrate on the hitter." If Maddux couldn't find it within himself to do both, how does Kershaw?
Handedness plays a role. Life offers left-handed people few perks, but many of those come on the mound with a runner on first base. Kershaw is gifted a constant visual on the baserunner, as well as the ability to step and throw rather than turn and throw—two advantages denied to right-handed pitchers. However, his mastery over the running game goes beyond genetic benefits. One reason Kershaw is so tough to run on, his constant employment of a slide step, is the product of evolution. "When I had a high leg kick, they were going on first move anyway. I just decided to simplify it and stay with one," he explained. "It's simple. Try to be simple. Don't overcomplicate things. One less thing to worry about."
Or one more thing to worry about for opposing baserunners. Teams want their pitchers delivering the ball to the plate in 1.3 seconds or less; Kershaw checks in below that threshold on a consistent basis. The brevity robs Kershaw of the aesthetic appeal and drama contained withinAndy Pettitte and Madison Bumgarner's deliveries—there's no moment of truth when the leg pauses at the top of its lift and time stands still for the baserunner, if only because there's no time for anything—but there's no denying its effectiveness. Kershaw isn't content with being quick to the plate, either. He uses his impressive body control to mimic his delivery's body and head motions before stepping in a 45-degree angle and delivering the ball to first, thus adding deception:
Long-time readers might recognize Kershaw as one of the proud few who stopped basestealing geniusCoco Crisp. The key remains the same: Kershaw's pickoff move compares favorably to his regular stretch mechanics. Factor in the speed at which he moves, and runners have to all but straddle the bag:
Since his eyes are focused at the plate, Kershaw must decide whether he's throwing over or going home before he starts the process. But don't ascribe his success to blind luck. Kershaw shows an outstanding feel for this part of his craft. Each of his four pickoffs last season came on his first throws to the bag, and he didn't waste time or effort by trying his B or C move before unleashing his best. Likewise, Kershaw avoided fakes (he simulated a lob just once), double or triple looks, or prolonged stare-downs; he kept the game moving and the baserunners guessing. That judiciousness added complexity to his approach, which in turn meant he had a better chance of catching the runner leaning or flat-footed when he did throw over—even non-threats, such as Anthony Rizzo or Jair Jurrjens.
With Kershaw's historical standing and methodology clear, it's time to ask—just how much does he benefit from all this?
If you believe a caught stealing is worth nearly 0.38 per pop and that a pickoff is half as valuable, then Kershaw has added more than nine runs during his career. There's reason to believe that number fails to capture all the value Kershaw's has provided, too*. Consider how Kershaw's 48 pickoffs equate to 16 additional innings, yet come without the 240-plus pitches required to complete those frames. Kershaw has also generated more double plays over the last two seasons than anticipated, based on his ground-ball percentage, and has empowered his catchers to throw out 56 percent of attempted thieves.
*There is hope for more specificity in the future thanks to the information Statcast ought to provide. In basketball analytics, they use the term "gravity" to describe how far defenders stray from any given offensive player—the idea being that defenders stick to good shooters. The same idea can be used in baseball when it comes to baserunners and the leads, and secondary leads, they get against certain pitchers.
Piece it all together and Kershaw is baseball's ultimate out-maker. He's almost impossible to hit (a how-to-guide boils down to two instructions: hope and pray) or walk against, and the players who do reach base are offered no guarantee they'll remain there for long. It's no wonder Kershaw has won consecutive Cy Young awards or why, health provided, he seems like a favorite for a third: he's arguably baseball's most complete elite pitcher.
Special thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller and Rob McQuown for visual and research assistance.