The Miracle of Kershaw

On April 14 in 2017 Anno Domini, in the fourth inning of a game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, the city of angels, Clayton Kershaw faced Paul Goldschmidt with a runner on first base. His first pitch, as you might imagine, was a 90-mph slider that Goldschmidt could only foul off.

But then, strangely, Kershaw threw three pitches off the plate, two of them outside, one inside and in the dirt, and Goldschmidt being a man of discerning tastes let them all pass.

Kershaw promptly threw a 90-mph slider down and in, the place where he makes his living, a kryptonite pitch even for the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, who swung and missed. The count was full.

And then, the most miraculous thing happened. Kershaw threw a pitch off the plate and a little bit low. Goldschmidt did not swing. And that, by the rules of the great game of baseball, means that Clayton Kershaw walked Paul Goldschmidt.

It was his first walk of the year. That’s impressive enough though there are others — Felix Hernandez and Noah Sndergaard among them — who have not walked anybody yet.

More to the point: It was the ninth unintentional walk Clayton Kershaw has thrown in the last calendar year. Nine.

Nine walks in 155 regular season innings (he was a bit wilder in the postseason) is fairly impressive. It’s not quite unprecedented — Carlos Silva of Minnesota walked just nine in a full 2005 season of 188 innings. Men like Slim Sallee, Babe Adams, Cliff Lee and Phil Hughes have had low-walk seasons.

But no one with the roller-coaster stuff of Clayton Kershaw has ever walked so few.

The thing that’s so wonderful about Kershaw is that he does it simply. He basically throws three pitches. He has a change-up that he will throw maybe once a game — he has not thrown one yet this year. Basically he throws a fastball at 93 or 94 mph, a slider at 90 and a big, gorgeous curveball at about 75. That’s the whole arsenal. Of course the slider looks exactly like the fastball until it bends, and the curveball is perpetually surprising. Still, that’s the whole Kershaw oeuvre.

And here’s the thing: MOST of the pitches Kershaw throws are not actual strikes. Here’s his pitch chart from 2016 courtesy of Statcast™.

It shows that 55 percent of the pitches Kershaw throws are out of the zone — and more than a quarter of them are down and away to a lefty, down and in to righty. So how does he not walk anybody? I did a podcast the other day with the great Hank Azaria, a gigantic Mets fan, and he seemed stupefied when I told hi that for pure stuff, I (and most scouts, I imagine) would take Noah Syndergaard over anyone in baseball.

“What about Kershaw?” he asked quite reasonably.

But it isn’t stuff that makes Kershaw Kershaw. Yes, of course, he has great stuff. But you see those pitches in the bottom left quandrant, 25.9% of the pitches he throws? He makes those looks like strikes. That’s the story.

There’s a famous moment in magic (did I mention that I’m writing a book on Houdini?) where the master of close-up magic, Dai Vernon, fooled Harry Houdini with a card trick. Houdini always said that if he saw a trick three times, he would know how it was done. Vernon had Houdini sign a card and he put that card in the middle of the deck. Instantly it popped to the top. Houdini had him put it back in the middle of the deck and again it instantly went to the top … and again … and again … and again … eight times in all. Houdini boiled. But he could not figure it out.

That trick is called “The Ambitious Card,” it’s now a classic of magic, and it’s basically what Kershaw does with his pitching. He shows the trick. And he shows it again. And he shows it again. But nobody can figured it out. He throws the ball outside of the zone over and over — and hitters keep swinging and missing or making weak contact. Last year hitters swung at 51.5% of Kershaw’s pitches — the second-highest swing percentage in baseball. But their contact percentage on balls out of the zone was just 49% — the second-LOWEST percentage (behind only the heartbreakingly great Jose Fernandez). They keep swinging. They keep missing.

Kershaw does this dark magic with a combination of velocity, movement, tunneling (each type of pitch comes out of his hand in precisely the same way), pitch ordering, sleight of hand and just a whiff of sorcery. He throws his pitches so close to the plate that they LOOK like strikes no matter how well you’ve scouted him, no matter how much you prepare, no matter how closely you follow the Ambitious Card.

And that’s why nobody walks against Clayton Kershaw.


An Early Scouting Report

We happened to be in Asheville, N.C. last night which gave us an opportunity to watch Colorado’s exciting young prospect Riley Pint make his first appearance. Pint was the fourth pick in last year’s draft. He’s 6-foot-4, a terrific athlete, and he has supposedly thrown a baseball that was clocked at 102 mph.

He’s also 19 years old and extraordinarily raw. Just about all 19-year-old pitchers are raw, of course, but Pint is on the greener side of the rawness spectrum.

It’s fascinating to watch a big prospect at this stage of development. On the one hand, you could see the potential. There’s a radar gun board at McCormick Park in Asheville, and Pint was generally throwing 94 and 95 mph and at one point, according to our youngest daughter, he touched 98 (I never saw one faster than 96). He threw a couple of 95-mph pitches down in the zone that would have been unhittable in the Major Leagues today. And he threw a few good breaking pitches, the sort that make you think, “Oh yeah, this guy’s got it.”

On the other hand, he was mostly up in the zone — often way up in the zone. He lasted just three innings, walked five, more than half of his pitches were balls, and he gave up a couple of hard hits because he couldn’t keep the ball down. His delivery to the plate is painfully slow; Greenville’s Tyler Hill drew a walk and promptly stole second and third — on the steal of third Hill was probably two-thirds of the way there before Pint released the pitch. Pint threw away a pickoff throw too and looked like he doesn’t quite have that whole thing down.

And at the end you have … what? My daughters counted 17 scouts at the game, most or all of them surely there to see Pint, and this is the job. You see a pitcher with a lot of raw talent. You know he has great makeup (everyone raves about Pint’s makeup). But you also see the many challenges he faces. The Rockies have suggested that Pint will move slowly but surely — they’re hoping that four or five years from now, he will be ready to not only pitch in the Major Leagues but be a №1 starter.

Whew. I wonder if I could predict ANYTHING that will be true in five years.


Jackie

You probably know that, by the best available data, Jackie Robinson hit .097 his one year of playing baseball at UCLA. It seems impossible to believe, but it has been repeated by so many sources and connects to so many other stories (including one college newspaper story which referred to something as “colder than Jackie Robinson’s batting average”) that it’s probably true.

Jackie Robinson was a brilliant football player at UCLA, averaging 11 yards per carry in one of his seasons. If times had been different, he would unquestionably have been a high NFL draft pick and a potential star.

Jackie Robinson was an extraordinary track star. He was a real threat in the long jump for the 1940 Olympics, but those were canceled. He did not want to long jump in college, but he did anyway and won the NCAA title. If times had been different, he would unquestionably have been an Olympic star.

Jackie Robinson was a fantastic basketball player. He wasn’t a particularly tall man — 5-foot-11 was his listed height — but he was a great shooter and twice led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring. Local writers moaned that the Eastern elite did not appreciate that Robinson was the best player in the country. If times had been different, he might have had a shot to play in the NBA (this was before there even WAS an NBA).

Jackie Robinson reached the semifinal of what was then called the “National Negro Tennis Tournament,” and he did so even though he rarely played tennis. Jackie Robinson won the Pacific Coast Conference golf tournament, even though he rarely played golf. He won various swimming championships while still in high school and could have followed that route too in a time different from his own.

And he hit .097 in college. Think about that for a moment.

There is a story I love about Jackie Robinson playing baseball in college — not an especially flattering one, depending on your point of view, but one that I think describes the hunger that burned inside him. It seems that he was brought in to pitch in a game as the afternoon turned to evening and the shadows stretched over the plate. UCLA was leading, and Robinson wanted the game to be called for darkness. But the umpire would not do it.

“I can’t see the plate!” Robinson shouted repeatedly, to no avail. And then, at that point, he began to throw wild pitches, crazy wild pitches, to prove the point that he could not see anything. It’s unclear how many of these pitches he threw but eventually he threw enough that the umpire relented and called the game. That’s not great sportsmanship, obviously, but it shows you: Jackie Robinson was going to win. His triumphant story is one of will.

He had lived a full and contentious life before Opening Day 1947: he had been a national star and he had been treated like he was invisible; he had been court-martialed for refusing to go to the back of the bus and he had won his honorable discharge in front of a military tribunal. He knew exactly what was at stake when he took the field on April 15. He would not fail.


Statcast™ Thought of the Day

Last year the Minnesota Twins tied the Cincinnati Reds (mostly Billy Hamilton) for the most five-star catches in baseball. You will remember, those are catches that are made by major league outfielders less than 25% of the time. They are figured by how much distance the outfielder has to cover and how long the ball is in the air.

Anyway, point is, the Twins outfield makes fantastic plays all the time. Friday night, Max Kepler made this five-star gem.

You might remember that on Opening Day, Byron Buxton — who is ridiculously fast — made a five-star catch of his own.

The Twins might not be able to maintain their quick start — that pitching, whoa. But they will be fun to watch all year with that defensive outfield.