Sep 27, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) in the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Beating Clayton Kershaw

 

Since the media has all but delivered the 2013 Cy Young award to 25-year-old, lanky left-handed Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw, it stands to reason that Braves’ fans should be apprehensive of their Game 1 matchup against him Thursday evening in Atlanta.  He’s a horse:  236 innings pitched, second in the majors this year (Adam Wainwright, 241.2).  He made 33 starts, averaging completion of the seventh inning.  Opponents’ batting averages for balls in play (BABIP) was .251 – tied for 4th best in the majors (Jose Fernandez – the wonderkid from Miami was 1st at .240).  I’ll get back to that stat in a second.  I can actually go on with a bunch more scary stats, but the more important question is this:  how do you beat him?

Oh, did I forget to mention that despite all of the great numbers, he was a relatively modest 16-9 this year, with 8 no decisions? 

Let’s figure out how that happened.

The Losses

  • September 13, Giants.  Yielded 3 runs (2 earned) in seven innings.  6 K, 0 walks.  .364 BABIP and 62.5% LOB rate.
  • August 27, Cubs.  2 runs (1 earned) in 5.2 innings.  3 walks, 9 K.  .438 BABIP.
  • August 6, Cardinals.  2 runs/both earned in 6 innings.  2 walks, 5 K.  .353 BABIP.
  • July 12, Rockies.  3 runs/all earned in 7 innings.  1 walk, 10 K.  .353 BABIP.
  • June 21, Padres.  4 runs/4 earned in 6 innings.  1 walk, 7 K.  .353 BABIP (I sense a theme here)
  • June 5, Padres.  3 runs/2 earned in 6 innings.  3 walk, 9 K.  .400 BABIP
  • May 26, Cardinals.  4 runs/all earned in 7 innings.  3 walks, 5 K.  .318 BABIP
  • April 17, Padres.  5 runs/3 earned in 5.1 innings.  4 walks (matched season high), 5 K.  .286 BABIP.
  • April 12, Diamondbacks.  3 runs/all earned in 7.1 innings.  3 walks, 9 K.  Another .353 BABIP.

If you’re looking at Home/Road splits:  0.60 earned runs higher on the road (27 vs. 21 with 1 less road start).  Not a lot there, but you’d rather face him in your own yard rather than his.  It’s also notable that 6 of the nine losses came vs. familiar opponents in the NL West.  The no-decisions came for the kind of reason you’d expect:  not enough run support (often none at all from his offense).

Kershaw has been scored on more early than late, though fairly consistently throughout his games:

  • Inning 1 – six times
  • Inning 2 – five times
  • Innings 3, 4 & 5 – seven times apiece
  • Inning 6 – five times
  • Inning 7 – three times
  • Inning 8 – once
  • Inning 9 – never…
  • He posted 3 complete games in 2013, plus another game vs. Washington in which he was replaced with 2 outs in the 9th.

Shortest outing?  Five innings.  This happened twice:  most recently on September 2nd at Colorado (5 earned, 11 hits).  Two other times, he did not get to the sixth inning (August 27 vs. Cubs the most recent).  Thus it would be noteworthy if the Braves could get him out before the seventh.

 

The Braves’ Tendencies and Kershaw’s Strengths

Okay, we know about the strikeouts… and frankly, if they have fewer than 10 tomorrow night, I’ll be surprised… though Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton aren’t likely to be in the starting lineup, so there’s a chance.  Plus, the key seems to be in making solid contact vs. Kershaw.

>> Late News:  Dan Uggla won’t even be on the roster for the NLDS.

  • The Braves were 2nd in the National League in walk rate this year:  8.8%.
  • Their BABIP was .300.  12th overall, 6th in the league.
  • Jason Heyward is a good candidate to make decent contact; he has been on a tear since moving to the top of the order, and in the entire second half overall.
  • Freddie Freeman has likewise been scorching hot, and seems to be able to hit almost anybody.  His BABIP is second only to Chris Johnson‘s.

Patience will be important Overall, the Atlanta lineup sees roughly 3.5 to 4 pitches per plate appearance.  Some of the lineup will need to work this as long as possible.  Two guys whose approach you don’t want to mess with are Chris Johnson and Freddie Freeman.  Clearly, their hitting is working – don’t change anything they are doing.  That said, Johnson is only 1 for 12 against him w/4K.  He’ll have to decide if the 2013 Chris Johnson will work against Kershaw better than the 2012 version.  But there’s even more reason to work Kershaw deep into counts:

All year long he’s had less than 100 counts with 3 balls, but when Kershaw is forced into 3 balls counts, he’s less effective:
  • Batter OPS against after 3-0:  1.337
  • Batter OPS against after 3-1:  1.250
  • Batter OPS against at 3-2:  .714
  • Batter OPS against after 2-0:  .885
With runners on, Kershaw gets significantly tougher… with batter OPS declining even as the situation gets more difficult.  How low?  A paltry .412 with RISP and 2 outs, .361 with the bases loaded.  Note again:  that’s an OPS… not an OBA Regardless, the Braves must cash in these opportunities whenever presented… which tends to work against their usual practice.

 

The Braves have had a general theme of trying to pound the ball this year… clearly.  But only one member of the team has a homer against Kershaw:  Freddie Freeman.  Only two players have doubles (Justin and Chris).  Overall, he’s surrendered 11 homers this year – 7 on fastballs, 4 on sliders.  The numbers Chris quoted tell us that Kershaw seems willing to “give in” to hitters once the count turns into the hitter’s favor:  anything less than 2 strikes with at least 2 balls.  This is especially true with no runners on base.  Thus a singles/doubles approach might be a better idea with runners on; but “go for it” with the count deeply in your favor and no one on base.

Recent history reveals the all-or-nothing nature of the Braves’ homer tendencies.  Specifically, they have had mixed results with Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.  Last Friday.  Kris Medlen matched Lee pitch for pitch until Chris Johnson launched a homer to win that game 1-0.  On September 8th, Cole Hamels dominated everybody… except for Evan Gattis, who nearly took him out of the yard 3 times.  Alas, it was only twice, and a solid Paul Maholm outing wasn’t enough in a 3-2 loss.

Kershaw throws his fastball (typically 91-94 mph) roughly 60% of the time; sliders 25% and a curve 12.5%.  On September 11th, the Braves lost 5-2 vs. a similar pitcher:  Miami’s  José Fernandez… although his fastball was much tougher:  89-99 mph with movement.  But the Braves like fastballs; we’ll look more at that below.

 

Scouting Reports Will Be Vital

Atlanta hasn’t seen Kershaw since 2011.   The only player who has seen him with any kind of regularity is Justin Upton (29 AB).  Unfortunately, he owns Justin:  3 hits (a single/double/triple) and 9 K with 2 walks.  His approach will need to change.

The media will no doubt point out that Jason Heyward is 0-for-4 with four strikeouts, but that was 2 years ago.  The lefty-lefty matchup will no doubt be a problem for him – and Brian McCann, of course – but these guys have been hanging in vs. lefties rather well.

The difficulty with Kershaw is that his pitches are literally sprayed all over the place.  Here’s the charts (via fangraphs):

KershawLocations

(Click the picture to embiggen)

Doesn’t typically matter whether he’s facing a lefty or righty batter:  Kershaw throws it were he wants it – same area of the plate (middle-in to RHB; middle-away to LHB).  He works the strike zone from ‘North to South’.  It will be up to the Braves’ hitter to recognize and lay off those pitches that are too high and too low.  There’s some hope that umpire John Hirshbeck will likewise respect those limits and grant them ‘ball’ calls.  Frankly, if any group of hitters does this, I would give the Braves a good chance of doing so:  my quickie umpire report suggests that’s he’s an East-West strike caller, which would tend to benefit Medlen and penalize Kershaw (more on Hirschbeck tomorrow).

>> Edit:  surprised nobody caught this:  I had it backward yesterday!  Kershaw works away from LHH’s, in to RHH.

Anecdotally, the Braves traditionally have tanked vs. unfamiliar pitchers – usually lefties or guys making one of their first handful of starts in the big leagues.  I actually would discount that ‘tradition’ on this occasion, since (a) it’s the playoffs; and (b) Kershaw isn’t one of those kind of pitchers:  he goes right after you, and has a track record that can be exploited.

 

Summary

The Braves ought to be able to reach Clayton Kershaw for 2-3 runs on Thursday night.  Each batter should expect to get ~3 plate appearances against him.  If Kris Medlen continues the awesome work he’s done this Fall, then that could be enough.  Once getting to the bullpen, chances only improve; however, the presence of Brian Wilson (0.90 ERA over 10 innings since 9/1) suggests that he’s a force to be reckoned with.  Chris Withrow likewise has yielded essentially nothing lately (0.84 ERA in September, 10.2 innings).  Kenley Jansen has been better (1.80), but there may be the lingering thoughts of Atlanta meltdowns in his head from the sweep they were treated to earlier this year.

Medlen, for his part, needs to solve Juan Uribe (yeah, him), Hanley Ramirez, and Yasiel PuigCarl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez are still threats, though.  AGonz, in particular can smell an RBI if it’s available… he had 100, which led the team by a country mile (Hanley – 57).

Atlanta needs to beat either Kershaw or Zack Greinke – if not both – here in Atlanta.  If not, then it could be a quick exit.  But they clearly can do it… and home cookin’ has been good to this team in 2013.

Here’s hoping for a 4-2 verdict in Game 1.

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