What If: Clayton Kershaw vs. AL Superstars

In the following article, I’ve attempted to predict what would occur if Clayton Kershaw faced a lineup of the American League’s best hitters. While simply comparing hitter’s and pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses cannot paint a complete picture about how an at bat will unfold, it does show us which player has more adjustments to make in a specific matchup and who holds the inherit advantage.  This exercise also shows how a specific pitcher would probably approach an at bat against a specific batter. This exercise isn’t perfect but if used to analyze a real lineup versus Kershaw, it could be useful in helping a team determine their batting order or choose between various pinch hitters late in a game.  It could also help a manager choose between several relief pitchers if he had to face one of the hitters below.

In this hypothetical matchup, Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, faces a lineup of the best hitters in the American League by wRC+.  Kershaw posted one of the best single season pitching performances in history in 2013 with outstanding numbers by both fielding dependent and fielding independent metrics.  His 1.83 ERA led the National League and his 2.88 xFIP was the fourth lowest mark.  However, how does Kershaw’s repertoire matchup against each individual hitter in the American League lineup. First, let’s take a closer look at what precisely Kershaw does to excel.

When Clayton Kershaw first entered the league he was known primarily for his mid to upper 90s fastball and devastating curveball.  However, as he has matured he’s exchanged some of that velocity for extra vertical movement.  His average fastball velocity has declined by over 2 miles per hour since his debut in 2008, and his average vertical movement has increased by 1.3 inches per FanGraphs. This additional vertical movement has led to Kershaw’s groundball rate steadily increasing to 46% in 2013.   Kershaw’s curveball is also no longer his primary breaking pitch as he now features his slider twice as often.  His slider has proven to be the more reliable pitch, with a 65% strike rate, compared to the 52% strike rate he has with his curveball.  At this point in his career, Kershaw essentially only uses his curveball when ahead in the count.  Additionally, Kershaw will throw an occasional change-up to right-handed hitters, but he threw it less than 3% of the time total in 2013.

Against both right-handed and left-handed hitters, Kershaw’s pitch sequencing patterns are very similar.  He likes to get ahead with his fastball, throwing it close to 80% of the time first pitch to hitters from both sides of the plate.  The remaining 20% of the time Kershaw will flip over sliders, and as we showed earlier he has above average control of that pitch.  If Kershaw falls behind in the count, he remains a fastball heavy pitcher, but still mixes in around 20% sliders.  However, if Kershaw gets ahead in the count, his lethal curveball comes back into play.  His curveball held hitters to a lowly .096 batting average against in 2013, and is nearly impossible to hit when located well.  Both Kershaw’s slider and curveball have outstanding whiff rates of 24% and 17% respectively, and are incredibly good at putting hitters away.  Kershaw doesn’t shy away from using his fastball as a strikeout pitch either, throwing it 41% of the time to right-handed hitters with two strikes and 52% of the time to left-handed hitters.

Another aspect of Kershaw’s repertoire that makes him incredibly difficult to hit is the deceptiveness of his delivery.  As seen in this video, when pitching out of the windup, Kershaw has a slight pause in his delivery that can be extremely effective in throwing off the timing of the hitter.   Further, Kershaw does a good job of using his 6’3’’ frame to pitch downhill, making it more difficult for hitters to make solid contact.

Now that we’ve established how Kershaw attacks hitters and what his greatest strengths are, let’s analyze how he matches up with the American Lineup.

Clayton Kershaw vs. Mike Trout

History: None

Mike Trout is the rare right-handed hitter who hits righties far better than lefties.  For his career he’s batted 44 points higher against righties, largely due to his struggles against left-handed fastballs.  Trout has a career batting average of only .195 against left-handed fastballs, but fairs far better against left-handed breaking pitches with a .344 career batting average against left-handed sliders.  Knowing this, Kershaw will look to challenge Trout with fastballs early and often, and will likely only throw breaking balls out of the zone and in unhittable locations.  Kershaw has the advantage in this matchup, and even though Trout has a low whiff rate against fastballs and should put the ball in play, it’s hard to see him causing much damage.

Advantage: Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw vs. Robinson Cano

History: None

Robinson Cano has slugged above .400 against left-handed fastballs, sliders, and curveballs for his career and has toasted left-handed sliders to a career slugging percentage of .519.  Kershaw’s best approach against Cano is to challenge him low and in, where he’s only hit .194 against left-handed fastballs for his career.  If Kershaw misses over the middle-inside area of the zone though, Cano smashes fastballs to the tune of a .415 batting average.  Kershaw has very little room for error against Cano, and therefore the advantage in this matchup lies with second basemen.

Advantage: Cano

Clayton Kershaw vs. Miguel Cabrera

History: 0-5, 3 K’s

Clayton Kershaw has dominated Miguel Cabrera in their five career matchups.  His success has primarily come from attacking Cabrera with his slider.  For his career, Cabrera has only hit .277 against left-handed sliders, his lowest number against any pitch during his career.  Cabrera also whiffs at close to 17% of the sliders thrown to him.  Kershaw throws 30% of his sliders to right-handed hitters low, away and out of the zone, an area where Cabrera has only hit .191 against the pitch for his career and has a swing rate close to 63%.  These numbers lead me to believe if Kershaw can keep pounding this part of the zone against Cabrera, he should continue to have success.

Advantage: Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw vs. Chris Davis

History:  None

The left-handed Davis struggled against fastballs from the same side in 2013, hitting only .194 against them.  Further, Davis also only hit .194 against left-handed fastballs on the inside third of Brook’s Baseball’s “Zone Profile”, an area where Kershaw threw 55.7% of his fastballs to lefties last year. Davis crushes left-handed off-speed pitches with slugging percentages of .818, .583, and .667 against changeups, sliders, and curveballs respectively.  However, Kershaw would never throw Davis a changeup, and given his advantage challenging Davis inside with his fastball, unless he makes a mistake, Kershaw won’t throw a breaking ball in a location where Davis could cause harm.

Advantage: Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw vs. David Ortiz

History: None

Despite being left-handed David Ortiz strokes left-handed fastballs. He has a .304 batting average against the pitch and a .632 slugging percentage to be exact.  Ortiz also launches inside fastballs (.703 career slugging percentage), a location that Kershaw likes to pitch aggressively to against lefties as we described in the Davis matchup.  With this in mind, Kershaw will rely strongly on his slider, a pitch that has held Ortiz to a mere .194 batting average against.  Ortiz also has a 33% whiff rate against left-handed sliders with two strikes, making a strikeout against Kershaw increasingly probable.  As long as Kershaw can avoid a situation where he must throw Ortiz a fastball over the plate, he should have a similar advantage in this matchup as he does against Miguel Cabrera.

Advantage: Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw vs. Josh Donaldson

History: None

The right-handed hitting Donaldson absolutely hammered left-handed breaking pitches in 2013.  Against sliders the third basemen posted a slugging percentage of 1.133 and against curveballs he slugged 1.125.   Against fastballs he wasn’t as dominant but still hit .303 with a slugging percentage of .606.  Of the 827 four-seam fastballs that Clayton Kershaw threw in the strike zone to left-handed batters in 2013, 42% of them were on the outer third of the plate.  Josh Donaldson batted  .450 against left-handed fastballs thrown on the outer third of the plate.  Since Donaldson not only smashes left-handed breaking pitches, but also crushes fastballs precisely where Kershaw likes to throw them, he’s a nightmare matchup for the lefty.

Advantage: Donaldson

Clayton Kershaw vs. Edwin Encarnacion

History: None

Historically Edwin Encarnacion has struggled significantly with left-handed breaking pitches, slugging .259 and .319 against left-handed sliders and curveballs respectively.  However, Encarnacion made an adjustment in 2013, and slugged above .700 against each pitch.  This makes Kershaw’s matchup with Encarnacion a little more difficult.  However, Encarnacion only hit .200 against left-handed fastballs in 2013, and has a hard time hitting left-handed fastballs located up and away.  This is an area of the strike zone Kershaw has proven he can attack and a weakness he will likely exploit in this matchup.

Advantage: Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw vs. Joe Mauer

History: None

Joe Mauer is one of the best fastball hitters in the game and his .395 batting average against left-handed fastballs is evidence of that.  Mauer hasn’t posted lofty numbers against left-handed breaking pitches with .207 and .214 batting averages against sliders and curveballs respectively. Yet, Mauer’s whiff rate against curveballs is an astronomically low 3% and his whiff rate against sliders is only 11%.  If Mauer can fend off Kershaw’s breaking pitches and make him throw a fastball over the plate, Mauer could cause the left-handed ace trouble.

Advantage: Mauer

Clayton Kershaw vs. Brandon Moss

History: 1-3, 1 single, 1 K

Despite his one single against Kershaw, Brandon Moss is not a good hitter against lefties.  With a .200 batting average against them in 2013, and a .242 career mark, it’s hard to see him being effective in the long term against the game’s best left-hander.  Moss has hit .452 against left-handed fastballs in the lower third of the strike zone for his career, but he has a batting average of .076 against fastballs in the upper third of the zone.  This is likely where Kershaw will live in this hypothetical matchup and I wouldn’t expect much from Moss

Advantage: Kershaw


The scorecard gives Kershaw a 6 to 3 advantage against this lineup of American League superstars; supporting the old adage that good pitching beats good hitting.  However, it must be noted that while Kershaw has an advantage over sluggers like Cabrera, Davis, Ortiz, and Encarnacion, they all possess game-changing power and could change the nature of Kershaw’s start with one swing against one mistake pitch.  One must also be aware that this exercise does not take into account certain factors such as how each hitter will handle Kershaw’s delivery.  Kershaw’s delivery is deceptive and some hitters will be able to pick up the ball out of his hand more quickly than others.  Regardless, Kershaw can be expected to produce a solid outing despite this difficult matchup.

Advanced stats are courtesy of FanGraphs and BrooksBaseball

Featured Image courtesy of http://www.outsidepitchmlb.com


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