It’s hard to find faults in Clayton Kershaw the regular season pitcher.
He has been the most dominant pitcher of this generation putting up a 2.43 ERA/2.75 FIP/2.98 xFIP over 2,333.0 innings pitched. From 2009 to 2020 Kershaw has only once posted an ERA above 3.00 and that was a 3.03 in 2019.
The knock against Kershaw has been his failure to live up to the standard he set in the regular season when the calendar flips to October.
In 177.1 postseason innings he’s put up a 4.31 ERA/3.81 FIP/3.42 xFIP. His strikeout (26.9% in the playoffs and 27.5% in the regular season) and walk rates (6.6% in the playoffs and 6.4% in the regular season) are similar. The big difference has been in a ballooned homer rate that nearly doubles from 0.70 HR/9 to 1.37.
The reason why may be that his reputation precedes him. When you’re as good as regular season Clayton Kershaw is, sometimes you remain the best option in the manager’s eyes even late into the third time through the order.
Willy Adames, asked about Clayton Kershaw struggling in the postseason: "I wouldn't say he has some struggles, man. He just goes too far in the game."— David Laurila (@DavidLaurilaQA) October 19, 2020
The Tampa Bay Rays won’t be tasked with taking down peak Kershaw, but despite diminished effectively he’s still one of the best pitchers in the game.
Health issues have been a consistent problem, including this post season, with 2015 being the last time Kershaw threw 180 or more innings in a season. The quality has still been there, but back spasms have caused issues from time to time, and they forced his start to be pushed back two days in the National League Championship Series.
Kershaw has shown very limited splits during his career. He’s allowed a .251 wOBA to left handed batters and .258 wOBA to right handed batters. Kevin Cash likely will post his standard, balanced lineup.
Peak Kershaw averaged near 95 on his fastball. In 2019 that was down to barely above 90, but this year he’s been able to get that back near 92. As his fastball velocity has declined so has his fastball usage. During his first few years his fastball usage was at or just above 70%. In 2020 that was down to 40.87%. Despite the lack of premium velocity it still gets a reasonable 7.84% whiff rate.
One interesting observation is the velocity of his punch-out pitch, the slider.
The slider has always been his secondary pitch of choice. The usage has gone from about 25% to over 40% over the last three years. The velocity has increased from low 80s to 88.11 mph in 2020. That’s only a two mile separation between his fastball and slider. The movement has stayed roughly the same while becoming closer to a cutter in terms of velocity differential. This is his major swing and miss pitch posting a 23.09% whiff rate in 2020 which is in line with his career rates.
The pitch I always associate with Kershaw is the slow looping curveball. However looking at the stats it’s a pitch that he doesn’t lean on all that often. The curve sits in the mid 70s and over the last 5-6 years he throws it about 15% of the time. It’s also a pitch that doesn’t get very many whiffs. He posted a 11.48% whiff rate in 2020, but it’s peak was never much higher than 15%.
A typical outing against Kershaw might be a couple whiffs on competitive fastballs, a couple pitches out of the zone via the fastball or curve, and then a sweeping slider as the put away pitch.
Kershaw very rarely gets in trouble with walks so, to beat Kershaw, the Rays batters need to be more aggressive inside the zone than they typically are, and make contact to at least foul off fastballs they don’t square up.
The fastball is the pitch the Rays need to take advantage of when he throws them in the zone, and they should mostly disregard the curveball. The key will be whether they chase the slider out of the zone, but if the Rays batters can protect against the breaking ball, they’ll have a pretty good chance tonight.