Dodgers-Cubs Game 2: What tracking Kershaw from press box taught us
In what was perhaps the biggest start of Clayton Kershaw's career, we kept our eyes on him the entire time from the Wrigley Field press box
CHICAGO -- The story sometimes has a power that surpasses the truth, and with Clayton Kershaw the story is that he's somehow ill-equipped for the rigors of October. He's a generational hurler who's on his way to being an inner-circle Hall of Famer. He's won three Cy Youngs, you know, and finished second and third on other occasions. He'll be a strong presence in the balloting this year, despite being limited to just 149 innings during the regular season because of a back injury. A 1.69 ERA and untold 15.63 K/BB ratio across 21 starts is one way to make voters overlook a depressed workload.
That pitcher, though, is Clayton Kershaw as we known him early April through late September. The other Clayton Kershaw is the one who, once the playoffs commence, has pitched to a 4.79 ERA in 12 starts and four relief appearances spread across eight playoff series. The numbers are jarring when arranged alongside Kershaw's regular-season bestowals. In reality, it's probably a mix of sample size, awful bullpen support, increased quality of opposition, and uncomplicated bad luck. At some point, though, you start to wonder whether the best pitcher in the world becomes aware, for the first time, of the situational pressures and feels this thing that threatens to diminish his legacy growing -- nourished by other things that seem similarly beyond his control. Athletes who rise from the remorseless meritocracy of sports at the developmental levels are necessarily so familiar with pressure that it barely registers with them. Maybe sometimes, though, it refuses to be ignored.
In a sense, Kershaw put such very likely misplaced concerns in a shallow grave when he closed out Game 5 of the NLDS against the Nationals despite being dropped into the highest-leverage spot anyone's faced this season. Kershaw, though, is a starting pitcher, and Game 2 of the NLCS presents him with the opportunity to reestablish his mettle as a playoff ace against one of the best offenses in baseball. It also happens to be a near-essential game for Kershaw's Dodgers. Throughout baseball history, teams down 2-0 in a best-of-seven series go on to lose said series 83.5 percent of the time. Throw in the fact that the Dodgers would be down 2-0 while already having burned one of Kershaw's starts, and their chances against the best team in baseball would be even more remote.
To counter Kershaw, Cubs' manager Joe Maddon trotted out the following lineup ...
As you can see, that's seven of nine spots occupied by a batter who'll hit from the right side against the left-handed Kershaw. As you would expect, Kershaw hasn't shown a steep platoon weakness throughout his career, but he has been a bit worse against the opposite side (.533 OPS allowed and 5.99 K/BB versus lefties and a .573 OPS allowed and a 3.58 K/BB against righties). As well, the Cubs in 2016 were the NL's best offense against left-handed pitching in terms of Weighted Runs Created+, an advanced metric that measures all phases of production at the plate and adjusts them for ballpark and league environments.
Kershaw makes this start on full rest. However, in lieu of a normal bullpen day he authored that white-knuckled save in the deciding game of NLDS. After this game against the Cubs was over, Kershaw would talk about not fatigue being the biggest challenge, but rather the altered routine. Kershaw's proved himself to be an adaptive sort with his success on short rest, but this was a different sort of deviation -- one of intensity rather than structure. A side session on a bullpen mound is very much not getting Daniel Murphy to pop up with a season and a compromised legacy hanging in the balance.
Against that exacting, imperfect, high-stakes backdrop, Kershaw took the mound against the Cubs in Wrigley Field on Sunday night, and this scribe watched the decorated lefty the entire game. That is, my eyes were here for every pitch Kershaw threw in Game 2 of the NLCS ...
Here's what Kershaw, in perhaps the biggest game of his life, showed us ...
Kershaw throws six pitches: four fastballs from the windup, one breaking ball from the windup, and one fastball from the stretch. He works from the first-base side of the rubber.
Bottom of the first
Kershaw throws first-pitch fastballs roughly 80 percent of the time regardless of the batters' handedness. He doesn't deviate from that approach in the first, as he throws first-pitch four-seamers to Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo. As he did during warm-ups Kershaw stands on the first-base side of the rubber. Still, he's not shy about working the fastball inside against a platoon-advantaged hitter, as he proved against Fowler. A couple of those fastballs made you wonder whether Kershaw would be able to fully command the inside fastball to right-handed batters, but he hit his spots perfectly against Bryant.
His third pitch to Bryant, who eventually struck out looking, was a curve, and you really get a sense of how it throws off the hitter's timing when you're viewing from above. Kershaw "tunnels" his pitches quite well, meaning they approach the hitter from a very similar early pathway, regardless of what pitch he's throwing. So a pitch that looks like a fastball for those early feet of the journey from mound to plate slows up and begins its steep descent. That tunneling and the way in which Kershaw uses his hard slider and softer, 12-6 curve to play off each other and by extension play off the fastball that he throws most of the time allow him to thrive despite almost never throwing a changeup. The effect Kershaw can have on rhythm and timing was very apparent on the soft grounder that he teased out of Fowler, who put a fastball swing on a breaking ball.
Bottom of the second
Kershaw grooms the mound quite frequently. Often between pitches, he'll sweep the rubber with his right foot, almost seeming to resist the urge to bend down and wipe it clean with his hand. A couple of times after called balls, he's retreated to the back side the scrape his cleats -- the understandable urge to blame the equipment, possibly. He seems happy with his landing spot, though, as he hasn't fiddled with it yet. He and Kyle Hendricks are forming their landing divots what looks to be at least 18 inches apart, which makes sense, given that Hendricks is right-handed and works from the third-base side of the rubber.
Zobrist times a first-pitch fastball well but got just a tad under it, and Joc Pederson secures it after back-pedaling just a bit. He sticks with the first-pitch fastball to Addison Russell and gets his fifth called strike of the young night. Then he finishes him off with curveball, slider, slider. Corey Seager makes a nice play to extinguish Russell at first, and Kershaw gives him a finger-point of gratitude.
Kershaw works Baez with three straight fastballs. The third one -- 94 mph and on the outer third -- he sprays back into the seats along the first base line. Sensing the moment is right for a different look, Kershaw gives him a 73 mph curve, also on the outer third, that, on cue, Baez pulls foul. He then puts him away with a fastball, which notches him his first swinging strikeout of the night.
Bottom of the third
You have to think Kershaw's unorthodox delivery helps his ability to upset the hitter's timing. He's one of the few pitchers today who brings his hands higher than his head (and even higher from the stretch), although he breaks his hands at a more conventional altitude. Also, during his stride toward the plate he famously drops his right foot very early in the process, as though he's trying to snuff out a cockroach with as much compassion as possible or breaking a napkin-wrapped glass at a wedding. He does this before his hips have begun to rotate and thus executes more of a half-sweep/half-stride move to the target. Watch him in slow-motion, and you'll see that Kershaw gets excellent hip-and-shoulder separation.
Kershaw pretty well carves up Willson Contreras with three straight called strikes -- fastball, slider, fastball. Contreras has never faced Kershaw before, so perhaps he wanted to get a look at things. He got his look. Heyward rolled a fastball to Justin Turner at third, and Hendricks compliantly kept the bat on his shoulder for his four-pitch at-bat, three of those pitches fastballs for strikes.
Tonight, Kershaw's on.
Bottom of the fourth
Second time through the order for Kershaw. Man, that inside fastball just explodes on the batter -- again, that's impressive for a lefty working to right-handers from the arm side of the rubber. He's through Fowler and Bryant on a total of four pitches and two ground-outs.
Rizzo just missed launching one for a home run, but it stayed just to the strike-one side of the foul pole. Kershaw follows with an inside fastball, and the crowd at Wrigley boos vigorously. Kershaw appeared to miss his spot, but it's worth noting that Rizzo hangs well over the plate when he's set up. The pitch was indeed high, but in horizontal terms it was over the inside edge of the plate. In a show of confidence, Kershaw gets foul strike two on a 2-1 slider. He goes slider to left-handed hitters roughly 20 percent of the time in 2-1 counts, so that's a bit of pitching backwards by Kershaw. He goes to the curve on 2-2 counts to lefties even less often, but that's how he retires Rizzo on a weak grounder to the right side. He's yet to allow a hit.
Bottom of the fifth
We saw a bit more of an aggressive approach by the Cubs this inning, and it nearly paid off. Zobrist blistered a third-pitch slider, but it died in the soft breeze blowing in from the southeast. Andrew Toles fished it in for the out. It looked like Kershaw tried to back-foot the slider, but he left it a little elevated and Zobrist barrelled it -- a loud out.
Perhaps sensing the Cubs are adjusting, Kershaw for the first time on Sunday night starts a hitter off with something other than a fastball -- a slider for a ball to Addison Russell. Based on the authority with which he hit the ball, Russell was probably sitting fastball on the next pitch, and indeed he ripped a four-seamer to center. Pederson, however, made the play. Another loud out.
He starts Baez off with a fastball for foul strike one, and then Baez lines a curveball to center for the first hit of the game for the Cubs. Foul strike one fastball to Contreras, and then Contreras rips a second-pitch fastball for a ground-ball single to center. At 98 mph off the bat, it's the hardest-hit ball of the night for Chicago. With runners on first and second, Dave Roberts wisely passes on any temptation to walk Jason Heyward in order to face the pitcher's spot. It's doubtful you'd do that and force a second runner into scoring position with two outs, but NL managers love to issue passes to No. 8 hitters -- perhaps forgetting that No. 8 hitters are No. 8 hitters for a reason.
Very mortal, is how Kershaw looked that inning. Hard-hit balls abounded, and he hasn't recorded a swinging strike since the second inning.
Bottom of the sixth
Kershaw's setup is a marvel of repetition and consistency. He receives the ball and stands behind the rubber. Then he stares down at the rubber and measures out his spot with left foot -- ensuring that he's at the precise distance needed to wind up flush to the rubber when he pivots. From the windup, he does it facing the catcher. From the stretch (a rare occurrence thus far in Game 2), he does it angled toward first base ...
Once he's found his spot, he eyes the catcher with glove over mouth. From the windup he then picks up the glove to bill-of-the-hat level or so, rotates on that left foot, lifts his knee -- high, to his chest -- and executes the early foot-drop and "sweep" stride appreciated above. From the stretch it's the same, at least to the point at which he hoists his glove and unbroken hands well over his head (as though about drive home a railroad spike). Every time, without deviation. The measuring part of the setup is almost charming in its rudimentary nature and purpose. It's foundational, though, and he does it every time without any visual deviation. Ritual is repetition with a higher purpose. Insofar as baseball goes, this is ritual.
That remark about Kershaw's not having notched a swinging strike since the second inning? Well, he worked pinch-hitter Jorge Soler for two swinging strikes in that five-pitch at-bat. All five pitches were sliders.
The slider is typically a pitch you use against batters of the same hand, but Kershaw over the last three seasons has thrown his slide-piece between 25 and 30 percent of the time to the opposite side. He can back-foot it or back-door it and gets swings over the top. It's not a pitch he throws for strikes very often, and that's absolutely by design. Even the one that Zobrist thundered in the fifth was off the inside corner. Kershaw's slider has such a blend of vertical and horizontal movement that it's not a pitch he needs to turf when a right-handed batter's at the plate. Just ask Mr. Soler.
Third time through the order for Kershaw now, and that's often a trouble spot for even the best pitchers. His first three-ball count of the night comes against Fowler. It's an eventual nine-pitch at-bat -- Kershaw's longest of the night (seven fastballs, two sliders) -- and it ends with a foul pop to Yasmani Grandal.
Speaking of Grandal and Dodger catchers in general, Kershaw's preferred battery-mate, A.J. Ellis, was traded away during the August waiver period for Carlos Ruiz, who is of course now Grandal's backup and occasional platoon partner. Kershaw was reportedly not happy about this, which is understandable given how territorial pitchers can be when it comes to their personal catchers.
In his career, Kershaw has thrown to 12 different catchers, but just five catchers have paired with Kershaw for 10 or more starts. Among those five catchers, Grandal teamed with Kershaw for the lowest ERA (1.86). Among those five catchers, Grandal also teamed with Kershaw for the highest K/BB ratio (9.89). Ellis isn't far behind in terms of ERA, and he's also caught Kershaw for 829 innings versus Grandal's 155. There's nothing to suggest, however, that Grandal, a skilled pitch-framer, is an any way a drag on Kershaw's performance. With Ellis, it's probably a case of familiarity yielding comfort.
The 1-1 curve to Bryant is called low for a ball, and we see the first visible signs of frustration on the part of Kershaw. He receives the ball barehanded, almost swipes at it as he catches it (possibly not advisable, since we're talking about his $215 million pitching hand), and turns his back and stalks behind the mound while shouting a thing or two regarding a thing or two. After a second-straight three-ball count, though, Kershaw induces the 5-3 putout.
Bottom of the seventh
This is the inning that's haunted Kershaw in the postseason, at least in recent years. In Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS against the Cardinals, Kershaw allowed eight runs, six of them coming in the seventh. In Game 4 of that same series, Kershaw held the Cardinals scoreless until giving up a three-run homer to Matt Adams in the seventh. They lost 3-2. In Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS against the Mets, Kershaw allowed three runs in taking the loss, and two of those runs came in the seventh. Finally, in NLDS Game 4 this year against the Nationals, Kershaw wound up being charged with three runs in the seventh. Part of it's certainly fatigue and facing the opposing lineup for at least a third time, and part of it is the poor bullpen assistance that's been a reliably grim Kershaw staple in October. Whatever the reasons, though, it's a thing. The Cubs squared up Kershaw in the fifth and worked counts in the sixth, so he's in a dangerous place.
A four-pitch walk to Rizzo, as Kershaw attempts to work him low and away (starting with his second first-pitch slider of the night), doesn't bode well. The seventh-inning misfortunes seem to align even more tidily when Yasmani Grandal drops a first-pitch pop-up from Ben Zobrist. However, Kershaw rebounds and then absolutely shoves it for a called strike three on Zobrist. It didn't appear that Zobrist guessed wrong; rather, Kershaw's fastball showed some late ride, and a pitch that Zobrist tracked as outside wound up hitting the corner. As strange as it sounds, Kershaw's got the ability to get run or fade on his four-seamer (or throw it bullet-straight, for that matter), and that time he seemed to summon up a timely little wrinkle. This feels like it changes the tenor of the inning.
No first-pitch slider for Russell this time. Instead, Kershaw goes fastball, curve, slider and gets him to fly-out to left. Baez up. Now, Roberts makes his way to the mound for a brief exchange. The infield caucuses with them, and Kershaw stays in.
Two pitches, two fastballs, and Baez absolutely scalds the second pitch, a four-seamer on the outer half. It sounds and looks gone off the bat, and the Wrigley partisans bray accordingly. However, Pederson secures it in dead center just in front of the wall. "He's not going to trust me anymore if guys keep hitting the ball like that," Kershaw later says of his manager's decision to leave him in and Baez's near-blast.
Roberts double-switches Kershaw out in favor of closer Kenley Jansen. Given Jansen's excellence and the travel day on Monday -- and also given the way the Cubs have just missed hitting Kershaw hard in recent innings -- it's a wise move. Thus, Kershaw's night ends:
7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 6 SO, 1 BB
Of his 84 pitches, 55 went for strikes, and he also notched seven ground-outs. Oh, and the Dodgers win Game 2 by a score of 1-0.
In the Wrigley Field interview room after the game, Roberts addressed the "story" we talked about way up top -- that Kershaw in the playoffs is materially different from the Kershaw who drops our jaws for the preceding six months. "I don't think anybody in this clubhouse cares about that narrative."
That's not entirely true, as Roberts went on to say that the story bothers Kershaw himself. But it may not anymore. Kershaw mostly smothered the NL's best offense in front of hostile onlookers when the outcome for the lefty and his Dodgers mattered more than it ever has. Someone who wilts doesn't do that. There is your story, his night's work seemed to say.
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