Who is the best pitcher in baseball right now? For a long time — maybe since he won his first Cy Young Award in 2011 — the answer has been pretty easy: Clayton Kershaw.
The answer on June 29, however, may be Max Scherzer. Or maybe Chris Sale. Or still Kershaw. Bill James says it’s Scherzer. He has a formula on his website that attempts to answer this question, and right now Scherzer holds the slightest of edges over Kershaw, having passed him with a 10-strikeout gem on June 16. Since then, Scherzer has had two more dominant outings while Kershaw suffered the first four-homer game of his career. After giving up zero runs in six innings and striking out eight in his last start, Kershaw will try to stay on track in Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels.
James’ system rates the starter’s previous game more heavily than his next-to-last start, and that one more heavily than the one before. It doesn’t ignore the past. A pitcher’s last 23 starts count for 50 percent of his total, and what he did before that also counts 50 percent. Kershaw first topped the leaderboard in May 2013. Although Scherzer had a couple short stints at the top, Kershaw had led since July 7, 2015.
It’s hard to argue against Scherzer at the moment. He has a 2.06 ERA with just 65 hits allowed in 113 2/3 innings with 151 strikeouts. That’s 5.15 hits per nine innings, which would break Nolan Ryan’s record of 5.26 for a starting pitcher. The two-time Cy Young winner is pitching the best baseball of his career, in a season in which scoring has gone up. He has a 1.69 ERA over his past 11 starts while allowing a .148 average.
Kershaw, meanwhile, has already allowed a career-high 17 home runs. Yes, even the great Kershaw is giving up bombs in this year of the home run. It’s so perplexing that his ERA has risen all the way to 2.47. Yes, we’re about to nitpick a guy with a 2.47 ERA. That’s how good Kershaw has been. A small blip, and we freak out.
So I looked at all 17 home runs to see what’s going on.
April 3, Dodger Stadium: Ryan Schimpf (seventh inning, 0-0 fastball)
I’m sure Kershaw thought nothing of this Opening Day home run. The score was 12-1 at the time, he threw a first-pitch fastball, and Schimpf ran into a ball near the top of the strike zone and yanked it out to right.
April 8, Coors Field: Nolan Arenado (first inning, 2-2 curveball)
Kershaw was visibly disgusted with this one, shaking his head as he got a new ball, I think because he felt the pitch got too much of the plate. Dodgers announcer Orel Hershiser called it a hanger, pointing out that Kershaw hadn’t pitched at Coors Field in 2016 and that maybe that’s a pitch that breaks bigger at sea level.
April 8, Coors Field: Mark Reynolds (sixth inning, 1-0 fastball)
The catcher set up inside, but Kershaw left a fastball right over the middle of the plate and Reynolds hit a towering fly ball out a couple rows into the center-field bleachers, a two-run shot that gave the Rockies a 3-1 lead.
April 8, Coors Field: Gerardo Parra (sixth inning, 1-1 fastball)
Parra followed with another home run to center field, off another fastball down the pipe, the first time in his career Kershaw had allowed back-to-back home runs and just the third time he had allowed three home runs in a game (one of the others had also come at Coors Field). OK, no big deal at this point: A couple bad pitches plus Coors Field and these things can happen.
May 1, Dodger Stadium: Hunter Pence (first inning, 1-1 curveball)
This was a surprise. Pence is now 8-for-73 against Kershaw in his career, a .110 average, with one home run. This was it. Not a bad pitch, but Pence guessed right for once and hit it out to left field.
May 1, Dodger Stadium: Buster Posey (third inning, 2-1 slider)
Kershaw yelled in anger as this one left the park, a flat slider that stayed up and in, and Posey pulled it out to left for his third career home run off Kershaw. (Adam Dunn is the only player with four home runs off Kershaw.)
May 6, Petco Park: Ryan Schimpf (eighth inning, 1-0 fastball)
Late in the game, Kershaw may have been tiring a bit, and Schimpf hit a 90 mph fastball into the first row in right-center. Pretty good location on the pitch, however, right at the bottom of the zone (this is the lowest pitch hit off Kershaw for a home run this season). Kershaw also barked at the plate ump after this one, believing his first pitch should have been a strike.
One explanation for the home run barrage is that hitters, with their uppercut swings, are simply getting better at hitting the low pitch. Kershaw has been burned more often on low pitches this season. He has allowed 104 home runs since 2010, and here’s the breakdown by vertical location:
May 28, Dodger Stadium: Willson Contreras (second inning, 3-2 fastball)
This was an epic 12-pitch at-bat as Contreras fouled off six pitches with two strikes before finally homering into the first row in right-center. This looked like a missed location as Austin Barnes set up inside and the pitch was away.
May 28, Dodger Stadium: Javier Baez (fourth inning, 2-1 fastball)
This was a no-doubter to left field off a high fastball that was a little up and in. Note that every home run so far has come in a pitcher’s count or with the count even. One theory that has been floated through the years on how to beat Kershaw is to swing more at the first pitch to avoid getting into those curveball and slider counts.
So maybe batters are doing that, forcing Kershaw to throw around the edges a little more on his first pitch, and thus, he’s falling behind more often? Nope. Actually, batters are swinging less often on the first pitch:
He is falling behind 1-0 a little more often, but not that much more often:
Compared to his 2016 rate, that’s nine extra batters so far to whom he has fallen behind 1-0. I don’t think that explains the home run jump.
May 28, Dodger Stadium: Anthony Rizzo (fourth inning, 1-0 fastball)
Kershaw hung his head in shame when Rizzo crushed this one to right field. Once again, Barnes set up inside and Kershaw caught too much of the plate. So that’s another trend: Several of these home runs have come because Kershaw has struggled to locate inside (either to right-handed or left-handed batters).
June 2, Miller Park: Domingo Santana (seventh inning, 1-0 fastball)
Santana’s home run broke a 0-0 tie on Kershaw’s 95th pitch, although it was still a 93 mph fastball. He didn’t miss his location by much; Yasmani Grandal set up low and in, and while Kershaw kept it down, it wasn’t in enough.
June 7, Dodger Stadium: Ryan Zimmerman (second inning, 0-0 fastball)
Kershaw actually hit his location with this fastball, low and in, just off the plate, but Zimmerman hooked it down the line a few rows into the stands. We’ve seen disgusted and irritated Kershaw, but this was more a look of, “OK, he hit a good pitch there.”
June 13, Progressive Field: Roberto Perez (fifth inning, 3-2 fastball)
The light-hitting Cleveland catcher clubbed his first home run of 2017, a screamer out to left-center as Kershaw challenged him with a 93 mph fastball down the middle.
June 19, Dodger Stadium: Jose Reyes (third inning, 0-0 fastball)
With an early 7-0 lead, Kershaw was focused on throwing strikes. Grandal shifted inside for a low fastball, but the pitch was out over the plate and Reyes lined it into the left-field bullpen. Nobody expected the Mets to hit three more home runs in this game, but they would.
June 19, Dodger Stadium: Jay Bruce (fourth inning, 0-2 fastball)
The first home run to come in a pitcher’s count, Kershaw froze on his follow-through, knowing Bruce had hit it well, and it just cleared the fence in right-center. Not a bad pitch, but not quite enough on the black on the outside corner.
June 19, Dodger Stadium: Gavin Cecchini (fifth inning, 1-2 curveball)
Cecchini will always remember his first career home run, a two-run shot that also landed in the bullpen, sailing over the fence by a few feet. The ball was flying at Dodger Stadium on this night as the Dodgers also hit four home runs.
June 19, Dodger Stadium: Jose Reyes (seventh inning, 0-1 curveball)
From 2009 to 2016, Kershaw allowed just six home runs off curveballs. Reyes hit the fourth in 2017 as Kershaw allowed four home runs in a game for the only time in his career. Reyes certainly appeared to be sitting curveball and knocked Kershaw from the game on his 112th pitch.
So I just watched video of 17 consecutive home runs off Kershaw, and he sure looks terrible. Except he’s not! He’s 11-2 with a 2.47 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 123-to-18. There’s no doubt he missed his location on a lot of these home runs, but that’s the case with most home runs. We’re just not used to that happening to Kershaw.
Hitters certainly appeared to be jumping on the fastball in fastball counts, so maybe he’s not mixing in enough offspeed stuff at the right time. Some may point to the absence of A.J. Ellis, his longtime catcher, but his numbers with Ellis and Grandal in his career are nearly identical (1.97 ERA versus 2.03), so that’s not it.
Is this the new normal? Is Kershaw just another victim of the livelier baseball? He’s on pace to allow 35 home runs. While it’s certainly possible that peak Kershaw has passed us by, I think he’ll reverse this trend; just look at Scherzer, who allowed 31 home runs last season after some issues in the first half.
Like Scherzer, Kershaw is too good and too smart not to make some adjustments. Scherzer may be No. 1 right now, but the debate is far from settled.