Pitching report: Kershaw’s dominance epitomized by lack of walks this year
The most exclusive club in baseball includes seven members: Yangervis Solarte, Hunter Pence, Freddie Freeman, David Wright, Joey Votto, Daniel Castro and Yasmany Tomas have all reached baseball’s equivalent of spotting a unicorn. Pence has two World Series rings. Wright has played in seven All-Star games. Votto has an MVP award on his mantle. And yet, you get the feeling their membership in this club is the first thing they’ll talk about when their grandkids ask them about their days in professional baseball.
The lucky seven—Solarte, Pence, Freeman, Wright, Votto, Castro and Tomas—have all drawn a walk against Clayton Kershaw this season.
In a career marked by dominance, Kershaw is having his finest season. He has a 1.58 ERA, 1.65 FIP and 0.66 WHIP in 108 innings. He’s looking at his third season with an ERA better than 2.00, and his fourth straight allowing fewer than one base runner per inning. It would take a series of some of the unlikeliest events in MLB history to keep Kershaw from winning his fourth Cy Young Award. Last year, he became the first pitcher ever to finish in the top-three in Cy Young voting for five straight years (he should have won the award, just for the record). He’ll be the first to do it in six straight years when this season is over.
There is no shortage of ways to quantify Kershaw’s mastery of the arts of pitching this season. No matter if you prefer Baseball Reference’s or Fangraphs WAR calculation, he has been at least 0.8 wins better than every other player in baseball, and is on pace to post a WAR we haven’t seen since Barry Bonds was getting on base more than 60% of the time. He has allowed two or fewer runs while pitching at least seven innings in all but two of his starts. There’s a greater gap between his WHIP and John Lackey’s second-best 0.93 than there is between Lackey’s and J.A. Happ’s 43rd-best 1.19. We may be in a golden age of starting pitching, but Kershaw is in a class by himself.
Here’s just how dominant Kershaw has been this season: he has 133 strikeouts against seven walks this year, good for a K/BB ratio of 19. The modern record belongs to, believe it or not, Phii Hughes, who had an 11.63 K/BB ratio in 2014. That means Kershaw could literally double the record. The last time we saw a record shattered so significantly, a guy named Babe Ruth belted 54 homers in 1920 and changed the game forever.
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “Hey, what does a Kershaw walk look like?” It’s a great question. After all, it’s not like any of us sees them very often. In fact, here’s a non-comprehensive list of other baseball events we’ve seen more frequently this year:
- Brandon Drury homers (eight)
- Bryce Harper intentional walks (14)
- Times Anthony Rizzo (11), Danny Espinosa (11) Starling Marte (nine), Adam Eaton (nine), Dexter Fowler (nine) and Chase Utley (eight) have been hit by pitches
- Double-play grounders from 38 different hitters, including Paul Goldschmidt (eight), Jose Altuve (nine), David Ortiz (10) and D.J. LeMahieu (12)
- Jonathan Villar caught stealing (eight)
- Sonny Gray wild pitches (11)
- Dallas Keuchel losses (nine)
Here, we’ll break down a Kershaw walk for you, and we might as well pick out the unlikeliest of Kershaw’s free passes. There’s no shame in walking Votto, an on-base machine with a 15.8% career walk rate. Wright has always been a good judge of the strike zone, posting an 11.1% walk rate for his career, while Freeman, too, is in double-digits, and is the only real threat in the Atlanta lineup. Pence is on pace for the best walk rate of his 10-year career, and Yangervis Solatre, who has turned himself into a useful player for the Padres over the last two seasons, has an 11.9% walk rate this year.
That leaves us with Daniel Castro and Yasmany Tomas. Tomas had a 4% walk rate as a rookie, drawing 17 free passes in 426 plate appearances. Only seven players in the majors had a lower walk rate than Tomas last season. This, year, however, he already has 16 walks, and his walk rate has nearly doubled. No one is going to confuse him with Votto anytime soon, but his plate discipline has improved noticeably.
Then there’s Castro. When he walked in the third inning of a June 4 game between the Braves and Dodgers, he was making the 214th plate appearance of his career. To that point, he had drawn a total of eight walks as a major league, translating to a 3.8% walk rate. In every season in major league history, a 3.8% walk rate has landed a batter in the bottom 10 of the league. Eight days after Castro drew the walk, the Braves sent him down to Triple A Gwinnett. Here’s our winner for the most unlikely walk of the 2016 season.
Before we take a look at the walk, there’s one more degree of rarity to highlight. Castro worked the count to 3–1 before earning his trip to first base. Kershaw has had just 18 3–1 counts this year, and has worked back to get an out in 11 of them. For a youngster like Castro, besting Kershaw in this way is truly a career highlight.
The craziest thing about the walk itself might be that Kershaw got a first-pitch strike. It’s frustratingly hard to find how many times a pitcher has thrown four straight balls this season, but suffice to say that Kershaw hasn’t done that too often. This was one of those times.
On 0–1, Kershaw goes to his slider, but misses with it down out of the zone.
He goes back to the fastball on 1–1, and this one is also low.
Kershaw’s in an unfamiliar position this season, behind in the count. He keeps working fast, however, coming back with another slider. He gets around this one rather than on top of it, which leaves it above the zone without much break.
Now Kershaw’s really on lightly trodden ground. This was the 318th batter Kershaw faced this season, and yet it was just his 17th 3–1 count. There’s no reason not to challenge Castro, and that’s exactly what Kershaw does. Shockingly, he misses again with the fastball, issuing a leadoff walk.
As is typically the case, Vin Scully encapsulated just how unlikely an event it was in one sentence.
“Kershaw gives up a walk,” Scully said, “as easily as you give up a tattoo.”
Kershaw, obviously, would go on to strand Castro, and would toss six shutout innings in this game, en route to his eighth win of the season. He has 24 strikeouts against one walk in his two starts since then. By time this season ends, we might all get to say that we just witnessed the best season by a pitcher in MLB history. The lucky seven will be sure to tell their grandkids the same when they regale them with stories of the most triumphant walks of their careers.
Pitchers to watch this week
Marco Estrada, Blue Jays
The last time Estrada gave up more than five hits in a game, the Cavaliers were up two games to none on the Pistons in their first-round playoff series on April 21 (Estrada surrendered six hits to the Orioles). Since then, he has gone 10 straight starts allowing five or fewer hits while pitching at least six innings. That’s the longest such streak in MLB history, tied with Jake Arrieta (June 8 to July 31, 2014), Johnny Cueto (September 23, 2013 to May 15, 2014) and Johan Santana (June 15 to August 1, 2004). Estrada will have the chance to grab sole ownership of the record when he faces the Diamondbacks on Tuesday. The Blue Jays are off Thursday, so that is scheduled to be his only start of the week.
Drew Smyly, Rays
After a dominant April, Smyly struggled in May, pitching to a 7.18 ERA and 1.72 WHIP in the month. At the same time, the left-hander still had excellent per-inning strikeout numbers, making him a fantasy asset even as hitters were more often than not having their way with him. He’s coming off one of his best starts of the season, a 6 2/3-inning, two-run, 12-strikeout performance against the Mariners—just the second time this season that he didn’t walk a batter. Smyly has that club in his bag every time he takes the mound. It’s a matter of him finding the consistency that dodged him in May. He’ll start twice this week, drawing the Indians on Monday and Orioles over the weekend.
Nate Karns, Mariners
Karns has completed six innings just once in his last five starts, and seven just once all season. Despite that, he has thrown the ball well of late. In those same five starts, he has allowed two or fewer runs in three of them and fanned 27 batters in 25 innings. Karns now has 75 strikeouts in 71 innings this season, and 220 in 218 frames dating back to last year. As we’ve stressed multiple times this year, Karns is a bankable strikeout-per-inning pitcher who may not help, but also won’t torpedo, your rates. This week should provide him with quite the test. He’s slated to face the Tigers on Monday and the Cardinals on Saturday.
Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks
Corbin has pitched into the seventh inning in three straight starts, which might not seem like something to celebrate, but is a whole lot better than what came immediately in advance. Corbin was a popular sleeper pick this season, but he has been maddeningly inconsistent, with the level he pitched at after returning from Tommy John surgery last season always seeming just out of reach. Before his last three turns, Corbin surrendered a total of 11 runs on 15 hits in just nine innings against the Pirates and Astros. Over his most recent three, he has held the Cubs, Marlins and Dodgers to nine runs on 17 hits in 19 2/3 innings, striking out 18 while walking five. It’s certainly possible this is Corbin’s ceiling for the rest of the season, but that would still make him a backend starter in 12- and 14-team leagues. He’s looking at a brutal two-start week, however, taking on the Blue Jays and Rockies, both on the road. This might not be the best week to get him active.
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
There’s nothing special in Strasburg’s recent performance that makes him any more worth watching this week than he usually is. No one has ever regretted popping on the TV for a Strasburg start, and that will remain the case this week. There is, however, a reason why his next start will be one of the most intriguing of the 2016 season to date. On Monday, Strasburg will take the ball for the Nationals against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. The pitcher on the other side will be Clayton Kershaw. This has the potential to be the best pitcher matchup of the season. Everything—dueling perfect games, 30-plus strikeouts—is in play.
Tyler Glasnow, Pirates
We’ve discussed Glasnow in this space a few times this season, but we need to feature him here once more while we still can. Jameson Taillon is already in the Pittsburgh rotation, and should be a fixture for the rest of the season. Glasnow likely isn’t too far behind. Juan Nicasio has a 5.83 ERA and has surrendered 12 earned runs in his last 5 1/3 innings. Jeff Locke’s ERA sits at 5.92, and he has been tattooed for 18 runs on 20 hits in his last two outings. The Pirates aren’t going to be able to ignore Glasnow for much longer.
The 22-year-old had an interesting start in his last trip to the mound. On the one hand, he tossed six shutout, hitless innings with six strikeouts. On the other, he also walked six batters, running his total on the season to 42 in 77 innings. That looms as likely the only issue keeping him in the minors. Glasnow has found a way to mostly pitch around the walks at Triple A, but that almost certainly would not be the case in the majors. Still, with Nicasio and Locke trending dangerously close to 6.00 ERAs, the Pirates are likely thinking about giving Glasnow a shot in their rotation. He’s just the type of pitcher you should be stashing while you still can.
GIF of the week
When Max Scherzer gets in stalk mode, there’s little the other team can do to get slow him down. That’s a fact the Cubs learned last week.
- Clayton Kershaw
- Jose Fernandez
- Stephen Strasburg
- Noah Syndergaard
- Chris Sale
- Madison Bumgarner
- Johnny Cueto
- John Lackey
- Aaron Nola
- Jason Hammel
- Sonny Gray
- Justin Verlander
- Steven Wright
- Drew Smyly
- Nate Karns
- James Paxton
- Jeremy Hellickson
- Kevin Gausman
- Doug Fister
- Josh Tomlin
- Chad Bettis
- Jhoulys Chacin
- Eduardo Rodriguez
- Shelby Miller
- Hector Santiago
- Jaime Garcia
- Anthony DeSclafani
- Tyler Duffey
- Tyler Wilson
- Luis Perdomo
- Miguel Gonzalez
- Patrick Corbin
- Derek Holland
- Jorge De La Rosa
- Justin Nicolino
- Bud Norris
- Mike Pelfrey
- Jeff Locke