Clayton Kershaw’s Pitching Adjustments a Sign of Maturity, Adaptability

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A lot has been said about pitchers like Houston Astros righty Charlie Morton, whose average fastball velocity has risen to its peak despite the veteran’s age. Morton is 34 years old and in his 11th major league season, yet has thrown a fastball that averages a career-best 96.1 miles per hour this season.

Morton is in a weird, unfamiliar spot, throwing harder and better than ever before at an age where pitching declines are a formality for many. Los Angeles Dodgers ace and three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw finds himself in an equally unusual predicament, with the roles reversed.

Kershaw, at 30 years old, is seeing a steady dwindling of his average fastball rapidity. Of course, Kershaw’s claim to fame is his arsenal of extraordinary off-speed pitches — and when Kershaw is cooking with them, he’s nearly unhittable — but retaining the ability to overpower hitters with 93-95 MPH straight-line speed is imperative to longterm success in today’s MLB.

Nevertheless, Kershaw can’t just rebuild his arm, or reinvent a pitching style that has ascended him to surefire Hall of Fame status in 15 years. What the greatest pitcher of our generation can do, in his 11th year in the big leagues, is adjust.

To adjust (verb), is to “alter or move (something) slightly in order to achieve the desired fit, appearance, or result,” according to Google Dictionary, and Kershaw’s adaptability has been the primary reason for his relative success in the early parts of 2018. The southpaw from Dallas has a 2.86 ERA, a 2.95 xFIP, and 0.9 bWAR in seven starts this season, totaling 48 strikeouts and 10 walks in 44 innings pitched.

Put no stock into his 1-4 record. Wins and losses are dumb, and Los Angeles currently sits at 12-17.

Kershaw is doing well despite a fastball that has been ineffective for the most part, and gradually decreasing in pace. Not coincidentally, his slider and curveball deployment his picked up some over the past few seasons. The following chart elucidates Kershaw’s somewhat unrecognized, yet impressive wherewithal to refashion his pitching dominance into something new and more sustainable.

Clayton Kershaw Pitch Type (FanGraphs)

SEASONFASTBALL USAGE/ AVERAGE VELOCITYSLIDER USAGE/AVERAGE VELOCITYCURVEBALL USAGE/AVERAGE VELOCITYCHANGEUP USAGE/AVERAGE VELOCITY
200972.0% (93.9)6.9% (81.2)16.8% (72.6)4.3% (82.7)
201071.6% (92.5)19.6% (81.4)7.0% (73.2)1.8% (83.6)
201165.3% (93.4)25.5% (83.8)5.4% (73.9)3.8% (82.8)
201262.0% (93.2)23.1% (85.4)11.3% (74.0)3.7% (84.5)
201360.7% (92.6)24.4% (85.1)12.5% (73.7)2.4% (85.2)
201455.4% (93.0)29.4% (87.6)14.3% (74.1)0.9% (88.0)
201553.9% (93.6)27.5% (88.1)18.1% (73.6)0.4% (87.5)
201650.7% (93.1)33.3% (87.9)15.6% (73.2)0.4% (87.4)
201747.1% (92.7)34.9% (88.5)16.8% (73.3)1.2% (85.9)
201842.6% (91.1)38.6% (87.7)17.8% (73.3)0.9% (85.5)

When you lose velocity on your fastball, it’s not often that power ever returns, especially in the case of Kershaw, whose MLB debut came at 20 years old. A lot of wear and tear lies on that elbow, that shoulder, and those legs when you have been pitching on the biggest stage for such a long time.

In order for Kershaw to remain a potent pitcher at this level as he heads into his career’s back nine, these adjustments have to become the new normal for the influential left-hander. Take a page from the book of Dodgers teammate Rich Hill, for instance.

Hill, a 38-year-old lefty whose best days have come after his pitch speed eluded him (88 MPH average fastball), has stuck to predominantly curveballs and slower fastballs with late break over the past few MLB seasons. From 2016 to now, Hill has gone 25-14 with a 2.97 ERA in 261 innings pitched, throwing about 40 percent curves over the span. He’s a guy who maximized his value by becoming a wizard with offspeed pitches; this is the blueprint for the later years of Kershaw’s career.

It shows monumental maturity for Kershaw, long the game’s best pitcher, to recognize his flaws and modify his approach to remain elite at his position. Unlike, for example, Tim Lincecum, who lost everything once his fastball velocity deteriorated, Kershaw’s adaptability and willingness to turn away from being an in-your-face power pitcher is a mark of shrewd judgment.

There arose concerns about Kershaw’s upcoming free agency, and his new contract potentially being hindered by a drop in average fastball speed. The 2018-19 free agent’s maturity and adaptability will put those concerns to bed.

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