What's the most impossible thing Clayton Kershaw has done in 2016? Maybe this: He has walked just seven batters in 115 innings. And two of those pitches called Ball 4 appeared to be strikes:
Clayton Kershaw has walked seven batters ... but two of the ball fours were strikes: pic.twitter.com/oJANEZjbdT— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) June 26, 2016
That's not necessarily the most amazing part of his control. Since the live ball era began in 1920, Kershaw owns the fourth-lowest walk rate among pitchers to throw at least 100 innings. If you add together the strikeout rates of the three guys ahead of him -- Carlos Silva in 2005, Hal Brown in 1963 and Bill Fischer in 1962 -- it wouldn't come close to matching Kershaw's 34.1 percent K rate. Of course, maybe that's not so surprising considering Kershaw currently owns the seventh-highest single-season strikeout rate for pitchers who have thrown 100 innings. In other words, you have a pitcher putting together one of the best strikeout seasons of all time who also just so happens to never walk anybody. His ratio of 20.1 strikeouts for every walk would shatter the record for starters (Phil Hughes' 11.6 for the Twins in 2014).
Did we mention batters are hitting .172 against him?
The Los Angeles Dodgers have needed every bit of this excellence from Kershaw, who starts against the Pirates on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball (8 ET). Kershaw is 11-1 with a 1.57 ERA in his 15 starts, and the Dodgers are 14-1 overall in his starts, which means they're 27-34 when he doesn't pitch. Without Kershaw, they've basically been the Padres or Brewers; with him, they're currently in a wild-card position. Kershaw's brilliance has masked what otherwise has been a mediocre, disappointing team, especially considering they run the sport's largest payroll by a considerable margin. Their $253 million Opening Day payroll was about $82 million higher than that of their rivals to the north -- and the Giants are no cheapskates, running the fifth-highest payroll.
What's remarkable is the best pitcher in the game has managed to raise his game to an even higher level. We saw some of this last season, when he struck out 301 batters in 232.2 innings, raising his career-best strikeout rate from 31.9 percent in 2014 (the first time he'd been over 28 percent) to 33.8 percent. His slightly higher ERA -- all the way up to 2.13 after sitting below 2.00 in 2013 and 2014 -- masked some of that new dominance, and he finished just third in the Cy Young voting. This year, he has simply decided to stop walking batters to go along with all the strikeouts.
Of course, it's not quite that simple, just not walking batters. Kershaw is making adjustments to what batters have tried to do against him. In order to try to avoid those two-strike counts when Kershaw can throw his nearly unhittable curveball or nearly unhittable slider, batters had started being more aggressive against him early in the count. Here is the percentage of first-pitch swings against him over the previous five years:
2011: 30.6 percent
2012: 30.0 percent
2013: 31.4 percent
2014: 40.5 percent
2015: 41.1 percent
So Kershaw's adjustment in 2016: Throw fewer fastballs on his first pitch. When he won his first Cy Young Award back in 2011, he threw a first-pitch fastball 87 percent of the time. In 2014, he threw it 86 percent of the time. But look at what he's done in 2015 and 2016 on the opening pitch:
Fastball: 86.0 percent
Slider: 12.4 percent
Curveball: 0.7 percent
Fastball: 77.7 percent
Slider: 19.3 percent
Curveball: 2.7 percent
Fastball: 72.5 percent
Slider: 26.6 percent
Curveball: 0.7 percent
As a result of throwing the slider more often, batters are swinging a little less often at the first pitch -- down to 38.9 percent -- while his overall rates of foul balls and chasing pitches out of the strike zone have gone up slightly. It's a little thing that results in a few more 0-1 counts than last season.
It's also possible he's throwing the slider more because it's become such a wipeout pitch. While his curveball was once his primary offspeed offering, he now throws the slider more often. No wonder: Batters are hitting .119 against him in plate appearances ending in a slider, compared to .177 last year and .151 in 2014. He also throws it in the zone more often, up from 45.3 percent last year to 51.3 percent. So it's a difficult pitch to take, knowing it's just as likely to be in the zone as out of it.
All this is tied to his mechanics -- both in the deception of his unusual delivery and the ability to repeat that delivery and release point, no matter what pitch is coming. The deceptive element comes when he raises his right leg to its apex and then begins to lower it; at this point most pitchers begin moving forward with their drive leg, but Kershaw's remains fairly straight at about 140 to 150 degrees. This pause undoubtedly upsets a hitter's timing -- they're not used to it -- and helps hide the ball as well. When he does begin pushing with his drive leg, his front side starts opening up, again different from most other pitchers, whose front side is more closed off.
Stuff, smarts, mechanics. It's adding up to Kershaw's best season yet. When we talk about the best peak pitching seasons ever, we talk about Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000, Greg Maddux in 1994-1995, Dwight Gooden in 1985, Bob Gibson in 1968 and maybe a dead ball era pitcher of your choice. We can start thinking about adding Clayton Kershaw in 2016 to that list.