Aging Like Fine Wine: Is Clayton Kershaw back to his Cy Young form?

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After an offseason full of concerns and doubts, it appears that Clayton Kershaw has decided to quiet them all.

While Kershaw put up phenomenal numbers in 2018, they were still below his career norms and many skeptics came out from the woods to point at what was wrong. Many turned to his severe velocity decline, which led to a decreased strikeout rate. Others were concerned with his health, as he had a third consecutive season in which he was unable to topple 180 innings, something he had done every single year from 2010 to 2015.

The general idea was that while Kershaw was still very good, he was no longer the prime Kershaw that Dodger fans had been accustomed to seeing. Many scoffed at the contract extension given to him this Winter, which was 93M over three seasons. These critics claimed giving this much money to a declining 31-year-old was silly and reckless, and was only done as a payment of respect to what he had done for the franchise in the subsequent years.

Going into 2019, Kershaw claimed that he would use his diminishing velocity as a weapon, rather than trying to strenuate himself by attempting to gain it back. Despite this sentiment, Kershaw still found himself on the disabled list to open the season with shoulder sourness. This injury caused Kershaw to miss his opening day start, something he had done for the past eight years.

Now a month gone from opening day, Kershaw seems to be back in full force. He has only made three starts but has given Dodger fans and baseball fans in general lots to be excited about. His 2.25 ERA, 29% strikeout rate, and 5% walk rate are all in line with his career norms, but the part of his year so far that has been so encouraging is how he has been able to use his diminishing velocity to his advantage. Below, is Kershaw’s Statcast profile overview, via Baseballsavant.

We can see that Kershaw has done a stellar job of forcing soft contact, avoiding hard contact, and missing barrels. These are the results, but what is the process as to how he has done this? Below is Kershaw’s average pitch velocity per season. The downward trend is notable, and while not shown on this chart, his average fastball velocity for 2019 is in the 17th percentile for all of MLB.

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For most pitchers, this would lead to an immediate decline in performance. However, barring 2018, Kershaw has used it as a strength. Not throwing as hard has allowed him to allocate his talents to another facet of his pitching: Spin rate. Here, the exact opposite trend than earlier is clear.

Kershaw’s primary two pitches, fastball and slider, are averaging 87 and 90 MPH, respectively. With these two velocities being as close as they are, it is very difficult for the hitter to tell which pitch is coming by how fast it is going, leading to the batter having to read the movement of the pitch.

This leads to a completely separate issue, as both of these pitches have an elite spin on them and are extremely tricky to pick up with the millisecond that is given. The fastball has the vertical movement, while the slider contains the horizontal movement.

With most pitchers, as they add spin it becomes increasingly difficult for them to command where their pitches end up. Kershaw has avoided this dilemma entirely, as his walk rate is still an elite 5%. He also has done an exceptional job of not hanging any of his breaking pitches, as seen by his low home run and barrel rate. It is still very early in the season, but the spin rate is something that typically does not fluctuate much on a game by game basis. As long as Kershaw is able to keep his command for the foreseeable future, it will be very hard to score runs off him.

Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant used to have the nickname “Vino”, meaning he gets better as he ages, like wine. While Clayton Kershaw will most likely never regain the form he had in his late twenties, adding spin in spite of his velocity downfall and keeping his elite command has allowed him to rejoin the conversation as a top five pitcher. Vino has already been taken, so for the duration of his career, how does Clayton “Pinot Noir” Kershaw sound?

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