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Entries in Los Angeles Dodgers (49)

Monday
Jan202014

Clayton Kershaw's $215 Million Curveball

There are myriad reasons why Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw just earned a seven-year, $215 million contract extension, becoming the first player in history to pull in more than $30 million a season. Kershaw, 26 in March, boasts the fifth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (46 percent above average) ever for a starting pitcher during his first six seasons in the majors, trailing only Walter Johnson (164 ERA+), Mordecai Brown (158 ERA+), Smoky Joe Wood (152 ERA+) and Christy Mathewson (150 ERA+). He's a workhorse, having topped 200 innings pitched in each of the past four seasons, and he has fooled hitters like no other lefty (9.2 strikeouts per nine frames) this side of Randy Johnson (9.4 K/9) to start his career.

Yet for all of the breathtaking stats that Kershaw has compiled since making his debut at Chavez Ravine back in May of 2008, this one may be the most remarkable: he has thrown a total of 2,155 curveballs during the regular season, according to our Pitch F/X data, and exactly zero of those hooks have landed in the cheap seats. That's right -- Kershaw has never surrendered a regular-season homer on the pitch that earns him comparisons to Sandy Koufax. Batters have launched 1,945 home runs off curveballs dating back to '08, but nobody has gone deep against Public Enemy Number One.

What in the name of Vin Scully is going on here? How has Kershaw been so thoroughly dominant with his curveball, which has smothered hitters to the tune of a major league low .145 opponent slugging percentage from 2008-13? Here are three reasons why Kershaw's curve seemingly can't be taken deep.

Batters can't tell whether it's a ball or a strike -- or just don't think they can hit it

To go deep, you obviously have to swing the bat -- and opponents rarely do when Kershaw unleashes a curve. Batters have swung at just one-third of curveballs seen from Kershaw since '08, compared to the 40 percent major league average. Even when the pitch ends up being thrown in the strike zone, hitters pull the trigger less than half of the time (47 percent, compared to the 55 percent MLB average). Either batters can't discern whether it's over the plate in time to swing, or they figure it's futile to even try.

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location versus Kershaw's curveball, 2008-13

Kershaw's curve induces weak contact

When hitters do swing at Kershaw's curve, they often just pound the pitch into the infield grass or hit a weak fly ball. Kershaw has generated grounders 55.2 percent of the time that batters have put his curve in play, north of the 52 percent MLB average. Those who manage to loft the pitch into the air have won a moral victory, but little else. Batters have hit fly balls off Kershaw's curve an average of 244 feet -- second-lowest among all qualified starters dating back to 2008.

Lowest Average fly ball distance on curve balls put in play, 2008-2013 (min. 800 curveballs thrown)  

Kershaw can add and subtract with his curve

L.A.'s ace has thrown his curveball at an average of 73.4 MPH during his career. But he can dial it way up (topping 82 MPH on the gun) or way, way down (he threw a 49 MPH yakker to Yasmani Grandal on September 9, 2012 -- Grandal didn't swing, of course). That might be part of the reason why hitters so rarely swing at Kershaw's curve -- it could be a power pitch, or it might arrive at home plate slower than a Prius traveling on Interstate 5.

Kershaw was wild with curveball when he first arrived in the bigs, throwing it for a strike less than half of the time, but he has gradually learned to control the pitch (57 percent strike rate last year) while adding precision to his power arsenal. His curve, like the rest of his game, has only gotten better. That's a scary proposition any hitter dreaming of finally going yard off the pitch.

Wednesday
Dec182013

Believing in Edinson Volquez

Poorly as Edinson Volquez pitches, teams just keep coming back for more. It has been half a decade since Volquez vanquished hitters with premium heat and a tumbling changeup, making the All-Star team and finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting with the Reds in 2008. Since then, he has arguably been the lousiest pitcher in baseball not booted out of the rotation. Once you account for park factors and league run-scoring levels, Volquez had the worst ERA (25 percent below average) among starters tossing at least 500 innings from 2009-13.

Despite all of that aggravation -- Tommy John surgery, LaLoosh-like control, quick hooks aplenty -- Volquez continues to get opportunities. The Pirates are the latest club hoping to channel Volquez's '08 form, signing him to a one-year, $5 million free agent deal for rotation depth in case A.J. Burnett retires or refuses to take a below-market deal to remain in Pittsburgh. Let's be honest: Expecting Burnett and ending up with Volquez is kind of like asking Santa for an XBox One and instead unwrapping a Cosby sweater on Christmas morning.

Those who still believe in Volquez point out that he bears some resemblance to the Bucs' 2012 reclamation project, Francisco Liriano -- lots of strikeouts, ground ball tendencies and a fielding-independent ERA (4.24) far lower than his actual ERA (5.71), suggesting better days are ahead. Of course, Volquez could just climb the ranks of starters who continue to get the ball despite getting their heads handed to them on a regular basis (during the Expansion Era, only Jimmy Haynes and Randy Lerch have made more starts while posting a worse adjusted ERA).

If Volquez is ever going to succeed again in the majors, Pittsburgh may be the place. Pitching coach Ray Searage has helped resuscitate the careers of Liriano, Burnett and Charlie Morton. The 30-year-old righty will also benefit from working with two of the best pitch-framing catchers in the business, and a collection of rangy fielders who gobble up grounders and fly balls.

Martin, Stewart steal strikes

Volquez deserves plenty of blame for issuing 4.8 free passes per nine frames during his career, ninth-highest among Expansion Era starters throwing at least 850 innings. But it doesn't help that he also gets squeezed by umps on pitches located on the edges of the zone, and he rarely gets calls on pitches thrown a bit off the plate. Over the past three years, Volquez has a slightly lower called strike rate on pitches thrown within the strike zone (80 percent) than the MLB average (81 percent). On pitches thrown outside of the zone, Volquez has gotten called strikes just 7.7 percent of the time, well below the 9.7 percent average.

Luckily for Volquez, his new battery mates excel at getting strikes on close calls. Russell Martin has an 82.5 percent called strike rate on in-zone pitches since 2011, while backup Chris Stewart (84.3 percent) has fared even better. Both steal strikes on out-of-zone pitches, too (10.9 percent called strike rate for Martin, and 11.1 percent for Stewart). Searage and Volquez have countless video screenings and bullpen sessions ahead of them to address the pitcher's control woes, but the Bucs' catchers give them a head start.

The power of quality D

Part of the reason why Volquez underachieved last year was his .330 batting average on balls in play, fourth-highest among qualified starters and 24 points above his career average. In particular, his BABIP on fly balls (.231) was dead last among starters and over 100 points above the MLB average (.128). With Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen chasing down fly balls in Pittsburgh (and graceful right field prospect Gregory Polanco not far away), Volquez should see fewer pitches reaching the gaps in 2015.

Collectively, Bucs pitchers had a .121 BABIP on fly balls last season. Overall, Pittsburgh converted balls put in play into outs at the fifth-best clip in the majors. By comparison, the Padres and Dodgers (Volquez's 2013 teams) ranked near the middle of the pack. Better luck and better defense should help Volquez get his ERA out of the high fives.

Volquez has some built-in advantages in Pittsburgh, though the same was said in San Diego, where he pitched in spacious Petco Park under the tutelage of Bud Black. His top-tier stuff could be waning, given that he lost a tick on his fastball (from 93.4 MPH in 2012 to 92.4 MPH in 2013) and struck out a career-low 7.5 batters per nine innings last year.

Maybe he is the second coming of Liriano, erasing years of disappointment with a dominant season. But for every Liriano, there are a dozen Kyle Davies who just never figure it out. Volquez keeps getting chances, with pitching coaches thinking he's a few mechanical tweaks away from turning back the clock to 2008. Past promise counts for less with each passing day, though. If Volquez can't make it with the Pirates, he might not get another chance.

Saturday
Oct192013

Matt Carpenter: Two-Strike Warrior

The St. Louis Cardinals scuffle against left-handed pitching, posting the fifth-worst team on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.672) in the majors in 2013. Clayton Kershaw, the game's lefty par excellence, is fooling hitters at a level that not even vintage Sandy Koufax matched (Kershaw's park-and-league adjusted ERA was 94 percent above average during the regular season, just beating out Koufax's epic 1966 campaign).

Naturally, then, the Cards crushed the soon-to-be two-time Cy Young Award winner last night, clinching a World Series berth by tagging Kershaw for 10 hits and seven runs in four innings pitched. The beginning of the end for Kershaw came in the third inning, when Matt Carpenter got down to his last strike but then waged an 11-pitch battle culminating in a double to right field for the stealth NL MVP candidate. St. Louis went on to score four times in the frame on their way to a 9-0 triumph. Here's how the Kershaw-Carpenter duel played out in NLCS Game Six, pitch by pitch:

  • 0-0 - Ball on a 89 MPH Slider - Inside
  • 1-0 - Foul on a 94 MPH Four Seamer - Over the Plate
  • 1-1 - Foul on a 94 MPH Four Seamer - Over the Plate
  • 1-2 - Foul on a 95 MPH Four Seamer - Over the Plate
  • 1-2 - Foul on a 75 MPH Curveball - Over the Plate
  • 1-2 - Foul on a 88 MPH Slider - Over the Plate
  • 1-2 - Foul on a 86 MPH Slider - Low
  • 1-2 - Foul on a 94 MPH Four Seamer - Over the Plate
  • 1-2 - Ball on a 93 MPH Four Seamer - Inside
  • 2-2 - Foul on a 94 MPH Four Seamer - Outside
  • 2-2 - Line Drive Double on a 86 MPH Slider - Over the Plate
  •  

    Kershaw pounded the outside corner for most of the at-bat, trying to target the second baseman's relative weak spot (Carpenter slugged .383 versus pitches thrown to the outer third of the strike zone during the regular season, compared to .457 on middle pitches and .702 on inner-third pitches). But Carpenter prevailed when Kershaw caught too much of the dish with his slider:

    Kershaw's pitch location to Carpenter in the third inning of Game 6

    How rare is it for Kershaw to surrender an extra-base hit to a lefty on his slider? Just three left-handed batters accomplished the feat during the regular season. Jay Bruce belted a pair of Kershaw sliders over the fence on September 9, Sam Fuld tripled on August 11, and Gerardo Parra doubled on June 10. That's it. That's the list.

    Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that Carpenter came out on top against Kershaw, considering his two-strike prowess in 2013. Carpenter has a .780 OPS with his back against the wall, besting the MLB average by 266 points and placing second to Miguel Cabrera among all qualified hitters.

    Highest OPS in two-strike counts, 2013