“Clayton Kershaw’s curveball scares children”
“Clayton Kershaw’s curveball is public enemy number one”
“Clayton Kershaw is straight filth”
Just a couple of the high heaps of praise that surround Dodgers pitching prospect Clayton Kershaw, known by many to be the best pitching prospect in all of baseball.
I suppose one is worthy of such praise when his curveball looks like this:
But does Kershaw match the overall hype?
Well, first and foremost, many people subscribe to the TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) theory. I don’t. Yes, pitching prospects have a higher rate of attrition than position prospects. However, we have various indicators that predict future success better than others.
How does Kershaw do among the indicators that best predict future success?
Let’s start with the easy one:
Age – Most people look skeptically at players who put up dominant numbers and who are old for their league. Kershaw doesn’t have that problem as a 20-year-old in Double-A.
Kershaw has excellent arm action. He maintains a slight bend in his throwing arm after hand break and you can see how he loads his arm not toward second base, but horizontally toward third base.
This is what is called “scap loading.” Here is a better view of the chain of events:
Kershaw loads his shoulder horizontally, as if he is trying to touch the middle point of his back with his elbow. This creates tension in all the elastic muscles of the shoulder and if done efficiently, the shoulder unloads fury toward home plate because you have these muscles being stretched and ready to be unloaded forward. For a more detailed description of scap loading, see this Matt Cain article.
In the last frame, you have three ovals highlighting his arm position, the direction his torso is facing, and the direction his lower body is facing. This is the separation between Kershaw’s shoulder/torso/hips; this separation helps Kershaw uncoil his upper body into release.
Why is this important?
This sequence of events help Kershaw produce mid-90s heat. The scap load and the separation between his torso and hips allow his arm to travel a longer distance in the same amount of time as a pitcher who does not scap load. This means better arm speed.
Better arm speed=higher velocity
Keeping the ball hidden is another thing Kershaw does well (we will see this in a few moments). His arm shows up very late to the party. He never gives the batter a clean look at the ball until one or two frames before release, which makes his release point much tougher to pick up.
What’s not to like?
His tempo is slow for a power pitcher, coming in around 30 frames. I would like to see his hips moving toward home plate a little earlier, which would allow him to get a little more out in front, making his perceived velocity even better than it already is.
One thing he will have to work on is firming up his front side. Kershaw’s front shoulder flies open at times, which causes him to lose his release point. An example of this can be seen below:
Kershaw can fix this by firming up his glove as his front shoulder begins to open. This also will help limit the pounding his shoulder takes from pitching.
However, change isn’t necessarily a good thing. Why change something that is working so well? Outside of a few minor tweaks here or there, Kershaw should be left alone and allowed to do his thing.
All pitchers carry injury risks, but Kershaw doesn’t have a quality that screams red flag to me. In addition, the Dodgers are doing a good job limiting Kershaw’s workload.
Fastball – Kershaw’s fastball sits anywhere from 93-96 with a good amount of late movement. I mentioned earlier how Kershaw’s scap load is a major component of the velocity he produces. However, you can also see Kershaw’s foot look like it steps over an imaginary object as he heads into foot plant. We see him do this move between frames eight and 13. This is another velocity generator as he builds up momentum before he steps into foot plant, allowing a more aggressive uncoiling of his upper body. An aggressive move into foot plant can be the difference between a 95 mph fastball and a 90 mph fastball as Franklin Morales found out.
Earlier, I mentioned how well Kershaw hides the ball and we can see that in the animation below. Note how long it is until hitters can get a clean look at the ball coming out of Kershaw’s hand.
However, he still needs to command the pitch better, even though he generally has good control of it. I also think he may have some extra velocity in the tank if he needs it.
Grade: 60 now, 70 future
Curveball—Kershaw’s curveball (as seen at the start of this article) is an 11-to-6 knee buckler with substantial bite. The pitch is usually in the mid-70s. Like the fastball, he can do a better job commanding the pitch.
Also worth pointing out is Kershaw’s ability to get hitters gearing up for something hard when he throws his curveball because the intent he throws with and the mechanics he displays are the same whether throwing a fastball at 95 mph or a curveball at 75 mph.
Grade: 65 now, 70 future
Change-up>—This is a pitch Kershaw is still honing. The pitch shows a solid fading action and he shows good feel for throwing the pitch, but he has to work on keeping the same arm speed he uses to throw his fastball; he has to do a better job of selling the pitch. By most accounts, he has made tremendous strides in improving his change-up since being drafted in 2006.
Grade: 45-50 now, 55 future
What the numbers tell us
Does he miss bats? Check. Kershaw sported a K percentage of 32.4 in Single-A Great Lakes in 2007 and in 58 innings at Double-A Jacksonville, his K percentage has been between 27 and 28. This is excellent.
Does he have problems with his control? This is a small red flag for Kershaw: He walked 12 percent of the batters he faced in Great Lakes last year and then walked 16 percent of the batters he faced in Double-A after his promotion. In 33 innings this year, Kershaw has made major improvements in his control, lowering his BB percentage to just 8.3.
However, his control problems aren’t so bad when you take into account Kershaw’s age.
Does he give up a lot of hits and home runs? Kershaw has never given up more than seven hits per nine innings and he has yet to give up a home run this year. The significance of these two stats speaks to the quality of Kershaw’s stuff. The better stuff a player has in the minors, the fewer hits and home runs he gives up.
Does he generate ground balls? Kershaw is a flyball pitcher. I like pitchers who throw a lot of ground balls, but there isn’t much evidence that suggests groundball pitchers are more successful than flyball pitchers.
We do know flyball pitchers tend to give up more home runs, but they also give up fewer hits. In reality, success often depends on the ball park in which one plays. Since Kershaw will be spending most of his time in Dodger Stadium, I don’t think he will have much of a problem.
After running through Kershaw’s mechanics, injury risk, overall stuff and numbers, we can now answer the question: Is Clayton Kershaw worth the hype? The answer is yes…for the most part. Kershaw has a couple of red flags, but pitchers who seem to have a good head on their shoulders, have an athletic build, possess two pitches that rate as plus to plus-plus and display clean mechanics are of a rare breed.
Health may be the only thing that could keep Kershaw from becoming a front line starter. Just how good Kershaw could become likely depends on the improvements he makes with his change-up and his command. If everything goes right, Kershaw could blossom into one of the five best starters in baseball.
9.5 Upside, low probability of reaching upside
7 Mid-level, low-average probability of reaching mid-level projection
6 Downside, low probability of reaching downside