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Clayton Kershaw is on a dangerous path

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With injury issues the last three seasons, Kershaw’s performance problems show up in other areas of his pitching as well.

Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

In ten years Clayton Kershaw has pitched himself to becoming a household name. He’s not just one of the most prominent pitchers in baseball, he’s well known to anyone who follows modern pop culture or sports in general. A generational sports icon has seen Kershaw receive comparisons to another great Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, Sandy Koufax. Ironically Kershaw and Koufax not only share similar last names and historic careers, it seems they are becoming more alike in terms of wear and tear and injuries.

To start off, Kershaw hasn’t pitched more than 27 games since 2015, whereas his 2011 to 2013 stretch saw him pitch 33 games each season. The main reason he’s no longer pitching as many games per season is he’s missed significant time due to injury the past three seasons. In 2016, he missed over two full months, and in 2017, again he missed over a month. 2018 has also seen Kershaw spend a large chunk of time on the DL. With exception to a single start on May 31st of this season, he missed between May 2nd and Jun 23rd due to injuries.

As a result of these injuries Kershaw’s suffered another thing that’s very concerning: his declining fastball velocity.

Statcast states that since 2015 when his average fastball velocity was 94.1 miles per hour, Kershaw’s fastball velocity has dropped to 90.9 miles per hour this season, a career low. Unsurprisingly his previous career low in terms of velocity was 2017. Brooks Baseball shows a similar dropped in fastball velocity.

It’s not only the injuries and declining fastball velocity that has me concerned, it’s the drop in number of innings pitcher per start. Kershaw has always been known as that prototypical workhorse, leading the league in complete games in two seasons and racking up over 25 so far in his career. But in the last two seasons he’s only managed one complete game and four total since his injury issues began in 2016.

When Kershaw won the MVP award in 2014 he pitched an average of 7 1/3 innings per start. So far this season Kershaw is only averaging six innings per start. He’s also had a increase in run production off of him. Last season Kershaw’s ERA at 2.31 was the highest it’s been since 2012 and his FIP at 3.07 was the highest since 2010. And this season his ERA and FIP are even higher than they were in 2017.

His strikeout rate, something Kershaw has been notorious for, has also decreased drastically. The strikeout rate dropped 9.6 percent since 2015, currently sitting at 24.2 percent. His batting average against is also way up, so far this season at .229, it’s the highest since his rookie season in 2008. Although that might sound pretty decent,i it’s not at all what Kershaw’s done in the past which speaks to how dominant he was.

A frightening part about Kershaw’s most recent performances is the drop in called strike percentage. He never received a ton of swings and misses on the fastball, usually hovering around the 8 percent mark, but mainly relying on good command resulting in called strikes. Despite the previous successes with called strikes, the past two seasons Kershaw’s called strike rate has also noticeably dropped. The past two years he was in the 9.6 to 9.7 percent range where as in previous seasons he was typically around the 11 to 12 percent mark.

Another issue is that Kershaw has seemingly abandoned the changeup and he’s throwing more sliders than ever. The reason this concerns me is that as his fastball velocity has declined his slider velocity has largely gone unchanged. What’s happened is his fastball velocity and slider velocity has come to within two miles per hour of each other and batters are now getting better results off of both pitches. His isolated power against the slider this season is the second highest of his career as is the isolated power against his fastball.

The table below surmises the decline Kershaw’s seen the past four years.

Key Kershaw Stats

Stat 2018 2017 2016 2015
Stat 2018 2017 2016 2015
FB Velo 90.9 92.8 93.6 94.2
FB CS% 9.7% 9.6% 11.8% 10.5%
K% 24.2% 29.8% 31.6% 33.8%
.BAA .229 .210 .183 .193
IP/GS 6.0 6.1 7.0 7.0
Hard% 35.1% 27.4% 28.4% 25.3%
FIP- 77 73 45 53
xFIP- 76 66 56 54
SIERA 3.39 3.04 2.41 2.24

While Kershaw continues to pitch at a high level, he’s no where near the level he showed during the dominant stretch which he won three Cy Young awards in a span of four seasons.

Between the declining results and the fastball velocity which both seemed to be caused by a three year cycle on and off the disabled list, Kershaw has gone from the best pitcher in baseball by leaps and bounds into someone who’s being out pitched by other superstars. The key for Kershaw through the rest of the season and into the next is to remain healthy, since that’s the only chance he has of ever returning to his peak form. Will he return to the old Clayton Kershaw, or will he really become the next Sandy Koufax, or somewhere in-between? While it’s impossible to say with certainty, the track he’s on is not promising.


Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.