MLB: How the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw is Pitching Smarter

During the last few years, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw has declined. Injuries had sapped his effectiveness as a pitcher. His fastball, which he used over 70 percent of the time at the start of his career, has lost speed. While Kershaw is still a valuable pitcher, it appeared that his best days were gone. 

However, that’s changed recently. Over the last several weeks, Kershaw has played much better. He has lowered to 1.66, his strikeout rate increased over 10 percent, and his slider has been much more effective.

How did Kershaw fix these problems? And how long will this streak continue?   

Kershaw’s play before his improvement

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw found a way to be effective despite decreased velocity.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw found a way to be effective despite decreased velocity. | Logan Riely/Getty Images

While Clayton Kershaw has been an effective pitcher throughout his career, over the last few years, his game was declining. When Kershaw came into the league, he threw mostly fastballs. However, as he got older, he started using his fastball less while throwing more sliders. In 2010, he was using the fastball 71.5 percent of the time. Nearly a decade later, it’s down to 42.9 percent. During this time, Kershaw started relying on his slider more often. At the start of his career, he never used it. Now he uses it 39.5 percent of the time.   

However, his slider had issues. While it worked well, he pitched it closer in speed to his fastball. While it’s a different pitch, having them pitch at similar speeds makes it easier for batters to figure out how to hit effectively. He also focused on using first-strike pitches more. All of these tendencies made Kershaw more predictable. Combined with his injury issues (he spent 163 days on the injured list between 2016 and 2018), it appeared that Kershaw’s days of being an elite pitcher were over.

His slider is more effective

However, in the last two months, all that has changed. What has made Kershaw more effective is a better slider. He has slowed down the slider, which is making it much more effective than in the past. Batters are whiffing on his sliders 12% more over the last few months.

How does this help? Well, his slider and fastball were starting to resemble each other. Kershaw had been adding glove-slide movement to his fastball over the years, which made his fastball break at a similar place as his slider. Also, there were only two miles per hour velocity difference between the two pitches. As a result, pitchers had an easier time anticipating the pitches because they were developing similar tendencies.

By slowing down his slider, he has increased the speed difference between both pitches by nearly one mile an hour. While it may not seem like much, it helps create a larger variation between the two pitches. He has also started using the slider in different places, such as when he is ahead in the count. He is also throwing more sliders to left-handed batters while using the fastball on right-handed ones. By paying more attention to platoon tendencies, Kershaw is getting much more success. 

How long can Clayton Kershaw keep this up?

While these changes are working now, they won’t last forever. Batters will figure out how to deal with the pitches. They will start hitting better against Clayton Kershaw. Like all pitchers, he will have to keep adapting to stay ahead of the game.

However, Kershaw’s history of success is a good sign. It shows that Kershaw will continue to change up his mechanics and tactics until he finds combinations that work. It also shows that he is willing to evolve to a different type of game to compensate for physical limitations. These specific changes may not be effective for the long run, but it shows that Kershaw will figure out ways to help the Dodgers to another World Series run.