Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw entered the 2018 season with a lot to digest. Not only was the left-hander coming off his first career World Series appearance, but he will eventually need to make a decision on whether to exercise an opt-out clause and test free agency this winter.
The 2018 season marks Kershaw’s 11th in the big leagues and first since joining the 30-club. Back injuries have plagued the three-time Cy Young Award winner in recent years, but he quickly put an end to any of those concerns with 21.2 scoreless innings in Cactus League play.
Now four starts into his regular season campaign, and Kershaw still looks like his usual self. To date, he has posted a 1.73 ERA, 3.02 FIP and 0.89 WHIP over 26 innings with 31 strikeouts to just three walks.
Kershaw is currently allowing more home runs than ever before, as evidenced by his career-high 1.4 home runs per nine innings. But he is still generating plenty of swings and misses while maintaining control of the strike zone.
That’s despite Kershaw seeing a noticeable velocity drop on all of pitches. His four-seam fastball is down from an average of 93.1 mph during the World Series to 91.9 mph in April.
As a result, Kershaw has begun to rely less heavily on his fastball in favor of his trustworthy slider. Last April, Kershaw utilized his four-seamer roughly 51 percent of time, compared to 28.8 percent for his slider.
Those numbers have drastically shifted just one year later. Kershaw is only deploying his fastball 40.8 percent of the time now, in comparison to his slider’s usage of 41.5 percent.
In his most recent start against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Jackie Robinson Day, in which Kershaw was honored to take the mound for, he allowed just one run on two hits over seven innings and struck out 12 batters without issuing a walk.
That effort earned Kershaw his first win of the season, and helped the Dodgers snap an 11-game regular-season losing streak against their divisional rival.
Kershaw registered a season-high whiff rate of 26.3 percent when throwing his slider against the Diamondbacks. He immediately had a good feel for the pitch and registered his second of 12 strikeouts on the day by getting Paul Goldschmidt to chase out of the zone in the first inning.
“[Kershaw] threw a really good one to [Paul Goldschmidt],” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Arm side, backdoor slider. He just started to get in his rhythm right there in the middle of his outing.
“He was shaping his slider; making it shorter when he needed to, making it bigger when he needed to. Working both sides of the plate. Austin [Barnes] did a great job back there. They were synced up today. Can’t say enough about that outing and how much we needed it.”
All-in-all, Kershaw generated a swing percentage of 60.5 when deploying his slider against the Diamondbacks. Over two-thirds of the opposing hacks went for misses, as Kershaw produced a whiffs per swing percentage of 43.5 with his slider.
“The slider was better today,” Kershaw said. “I made some shapes on it, threw it to the arm side a little more today. We’re going to face the Diamondbacks, like, four times within the first two months, and same thing with the Giants.
“You can’t be predictable. I was fortunate to get through seven. We needed a win today, so it was good.”