In today's era of depressed offense, reliever specialists, and defensive shifts, we understand that hitting is hard. The coordination it takes to swing one round object to square up another round object is enormous. Only the best can do it. Sometimes the best players look foolish anyway.
Clayton Kershaw makes opposing hitters look foolish. A lot. He's really good. His curveball, Public Enemy No 1, is often a reason for that foolishness. Quite surprisingly (to me at least), his curveball isn't even his highest-whiffing pitch. That would be his slider.
However, there's something magical about Kershaw's curveball. It's a big, 12-6 type of thing that starts above a player's head and ends up at a player's knees. Kershaw's slider might get more whiffs, but hitters have a .221 BA / .353 SLG off the pitch. Hitters have a .100 BA / .150 SLG line against the curveball. It's a difficult pitch to hit, and it makes hitters look foolish. Let's watch.
Early in the season (April 22nd), Kershaw faced the Giants. Everyone was bundled up for the wonderful San Francisco spring weather. In the second inning, Kershaw had given up two well-hit line drives to right field. Both were caught by Yasiel Puig. With two outs, Brandon Belt came to bat. On a 1-2 count, Kershaw unleashed this thing:
That bounced what looked like a foot or two in front of the plate and could not be handled by the catcher. Belt offered at it anyway. The check swing was ruled a full swing, so Belt went down on strikes.
On July 3rd, Kershaw faced the Mets. He did not start the game off well. He walked Curtis Granderson and John Mayberry, Jr. while getting a few outs between the two hitters. With two outs and the two runners on, Lucas Duda came up to bat. Kershaw and he had a little battle, but Kershaw ended the plate appearance with three straight curveballs. One painted the inside corner and was called a strike. The next looked a lot like the one above - it bounced in the dirt. Duda laid off the pitch. The final pitch was this beauty:
On August 7th, Kershaw faced the Pirates. Jung-ho Kang led off the second inning for the Bucs. There was not a single called ball in the appearance. The final pitch was the impetus for this article:
Like the first pitch, Kershaw threw a curveball that bounced quite a bit in front of the plate. Kang half offered at the pitch and ended up striking out. This pitch was not close to the strike zone.
In terms of movement, the three pitches shown above were not very similar. I've created a scatterplot below that shows the horizontal and vertical movement of each swinging strike of Kershaw's in 2015. Color denotes pitch type.
The Belt pitch is pretty far away from the group; it was easy to pick. I picked the Duda pitch because it was right in the middle of a cluster. The Kang pitch is the circle that looks attached to the bottom-left part of the K in Kang. By horizontal movement distribution, Kershaw's fastball and curveball are somewhat alike. Perhaps that is part of the reason why his curveball makes hitters look silly. He throws mostly fastballs overall, but he's a bit more unpredictable with two strikes. Hitters are not sure what to expect.
Despite Kershaw's pitches being excellent and hitters being not exactly sure what to expect, it's a bit surprising what happens in these plate appearances in which Kershaw induces a swinging strike. 72.5 percent of the plate appearances in which Kershaw induces a swinging strike end in a strikeout. It makes sense since Kershaw's big whiff pitches come out in greater frequencies with two strikes, but the figure is still rather remarkable. I don't have a baseline for comparison, though. This could be totally normal.
By the end of the article here, you may not have learned much except that Kershaw's curveball is really good, but so are his other pitches. You probably already knew that. There's nothing wrong with witnessing it.
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Kevin Ruprecht is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.