Last month, we had a little discovery: Clayton Kershaw throws as many pitches down the middle as any other pitcher. And, a second discovery: He allows far less damage on pitchers down the middle than almost any other pitcher. The second isn’t all that surprising—he has good stuff!—but maybe a little, because he doesn’t look like he has the most extraordinary stuff, and yet his pitches down the middle are more difficult to hit than those of Noah Syndergaard, or Jose Fernandez, to give two names you might name. But the first was surprising, because what makes Kershaw look so extraordinary is his command, the sense that he doesn’t make mistakes. This is either not true, or what we think of as mistakes—what we’re calling Zone 12 pitches, for their location in the standard Brooks Baseball zone charts—aren’t mistakes at all. We committed to exploring these mistakes.
This month was even more interesting. For one thing, Kershaw had one of the greatest months a starting pitcher has ever had. It was historic, even: 65 strikeouts and only two walks, in 50 innings, with a 0.91 ERA. His WHIP barely topped 0.50, as he remains on a strong pace to set the all-time record for WHIP in a season. But for another, Kershaw threw even more pitches down the middle. While in recent years he has hurled around 5 percent of his pitches in Zone 12—most pitchers are between 5 and 6 percent—this month he threw 8 percent of pitches there. On May 12th, he threw a three-hit shutout, striking out 13 and walking one; by Game Score, it was his fourth-greatest start ever. He threw 13 pitches down the middle, out of 109 total. And, unlike our suppositions from last month’s analysis—that Kershaw’s “mistakes” aren’t really mistakes, as evidenced by the fact that they come overwhelmingly against bad hitters, against left-handed hitters, and in the first inning or two of the game—this month’s Zone 12 pitches showed no pattern, and showed no tendency toward weak hitters. This month, he threw Zone 12 pitches to such great hitters as Joey Votto, Josh Donaldson, Michael Conforto, Curtis Granderson (twice), Bartolo Colon (twice), Jose Bautista (three times), and Yoenis Cespedes a whopping five times.
Which raises the possibility that Kershaw is something akin to Stephen Curry, whose success rate on three-point shots, against all logic, doesn’t seem to go down when he takes more (and, consequently, harder) three-point shots. Kershaw’s success rate on Zone 12 pitches doesn’t seem to go down when he threw more (and, consequently, more dangerous) Zone 12 pitches. It’s conceivable that Kershaw could get away with throwing every single galdarn pitch down the middle. Hold me?
I’m going to show you every Zone 12 pitch he threw this month, so you believe that they exist; and I’ll tell you the results, so you can marvel at how much they defy your expectations for each pitch. First, though, the results in aggregate, and second we’ll break down Kershaw vs. Cespedes on pitches right down the friggin middle.
So, the results in the aggregate:
- Kershaw threw 42 pitches in the period we’re looking at, which is actually starting with his second start of May (the first was included in our last look) and ending with his sixth, and final, start of the month. This was the most common location for his pitches in the strike zone, though it trails zones 20 and 21—what you would know as low and in to right-handers. Of the 42:
- 11 were taken for called strikes. Seven of these were fastballs, all but one of them when the hitter was behind or even in the count. In other words, these were fastballs in counts that would favor secondary pitches. One of the seven was taken for strike three in a full count. The other four were sliders, all of which came with no strikes. In other words, fastball counts. So we have 11 strikes that we can say might have missed their targets but were not exactly mistakes, as Kershaw was pitching backward to steal strikes.
- Of the 31 pitches swung at, four got swinging strikes. All of these came on fastballs.
- Of the 27 pitches that batters connected with, 16 produced foul balls, including foul tips,
and a tremendous number of popups the other way
- On the 11 pitches batters put in play, none produced a flyball, which is remarkable considering that nearly all whiffs and a large percentage of foul balls came on swings below the pitch. Six produced groundballs and five produced line drives; there were five hits, including two doubles. All five hits came on fastballs.
Among the batters Kershaw faced this month was Yoenis Cespedes; the Dodgers played the Mets twice. Cespedes is, unsurprisingly, a batter who can hit a pitch down the middle. A quarter of balls he puts in play from Zone 12 are line drives, and about one in 10 is a home run. On the other hand, though, Cespedes is actually considerably better in a few other zones of the strike zone: Throw him a pitch low, or in, or low and in, and his whiff rate goes down, his BABIP goes up, and his isolated power goes up. Further, if you try to make him chase a pitch just out of the zone low and in, he still has success.
So, perhaps, it actually makes sense to throw pitches in the upper and outer half of Zone 12, and the zones around it?
Kershaw's first Zone 12 pitch to Cespedes, though, looks like a mistake. His target was in a bit, but he left it up and over the middle of the plate. A mistake.
Cespedes can't hit this mistake. It was the first pitch he'd seen from Kershaw in the game. Ahead 0-1, Kershaw buried a slider for a swinging strike. He then wasted a slider in the dirt, threw a 1-2 curve that Cespedes fought off, set Cespedes up with a high fastball for ball two, then went back to the slider at the shins for a swinging strike three. Probably a mistake, but one that set up the rest of the at-bat; he never has to throw another strike.
The second Zone 12 pitch to Cespedes starts off their next matchup. Again, the target is low and in, which is where nearly all of Kershaw's sliders end up, and it hangs out over the plate. Cespedes is way ahead of it, and dribbles a foul ball.
After missing low and in with a fastball to even the count, Kershaw throws another fastball, and Yasmani Grandal has to reach back for it, but not that much. Cespedes puts a good swing on it;
The outcome favors Kershaw. He gets away with this,
against perhaps the NL's best right-handed hitter this year.
A few weeks later, on 1-1 in the first inning, he throws this one
We can't say how much it missed its target–A.J. Ellis doesn't let us see one–but we can say that it was the fastest pitch he had thrown in the game to that point, and it had come after back-to-back sliders to start the at-bat, and that Cespedes was way late. Down 1-2, he would end up whiffing on a slider at his feet.
Finally, in their third matchup on the night, Kershaw throws him a slider down the middle, and Cespedes is late and under it, too.
You might wonder whether Kershaw is throwing these pitches down the middle because he wants Cespedes to swing at them–because he knows Cespedes is looking for something else each time, and if he paints a corner with a perfect pitch Cespedes will take it and Kershaw will merely get a called strike; but if he throws it right down the middle, he'll get Cespedes trying to catch up when he sees that this is the one hittable pitch Kershaw is going to give him. He can't catch up, though, and now Kershaw's got a chance at getting an easy popout or a dribbler.
Or maybe he just misses his target. Who can really know? Point is, Kershaw threw five pitches of which an announcer would say "that's the one pitch you're going to get against Clayton Kershaw." He got four strikes and a double play.
A couple quick warnings: The ball travels around seven feet per frame, so while these represent the last frame before the ball is caught, it could be anywhere from an inch in front of the catcher's glove to well ahead of the plate. There's also the camera angle, and the variant movement on Kershaw's pitches, which might further distort the appearance of the pitch the further in front of the plate it is. All that said: These are pitches right down the middle. Assess the hitters' swings, balance and squaredness yourself.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now