Category: Ode To A Pitcher

Ode to a Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw can still twist you into knots

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Clayton Kershaw just passed the great Sandy Koufax in career strikeouts. Rarefied air.

I’ve been doing this series since January (Pedro Martinez at the ’99 All-Star Game was the first). Every week. Lots of fun breakdowns and all manner of pitching nerdery, and yet somehow I have never covered Clayton Kershaw. You know, three-time Cy Young winner. MVP. Definite Hall of Famer.

Never covered. Sigh. It’s a stain on my career.

That ends today.

I can remember a young Kersh tantalizing prospect watchers way back when, and boy oh boy did he ever deliver on that promise. Kershaw’s peak is basically otherworldly. You’d feel weird having this kind of run in MLB: The Show. (Are my sliders out of whack? Am I accidentally playing on Easy?).

Check this. From 2011-14, Kershaw threw 895 innings to a 2.11 ERA. He struck out 948 and walked just 200. That’s … wow. That’s unreal. Tons of punchouts, barely any walks, incredible ERA over nearly 900 innings thrown. That’s an all-time peak. Promise delivered.

And the thing with Kershaw is, he’s a painter. Kershaw had ridiculous stuff, but he wasn’t a Roger Clemens or Max Scherzer type, beating you into submission with high velocities. Kershaw could dial up the heat, no doubt, but he dominated more with pinpoint control and breathtaking movement. Kershaw at his peak was a marvel. His curveball, in particular, was a work of art.

Age never loses, and Kershaw isn’t the pitcher he once was, but dude, that’s a long slope down to the bottom. He’s still great; 117 innings, 146 ERA+ in 2019. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Let’s take a look at his recent work in the third inning against the Washington Nationals.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Young pitchers, study Zack Greinke and learn something

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Zack Greinke is a legitimate pitching savant.

I’ve probably listed seven or eight different big league pitchers as my favorite. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, maybe even Jacob deGrom. Those guys are great. Really. But my heart has settled on Zack Greinke. (For now.)

Oh, Zack.

There’s something about Greinke, my dudes. He manipulates batters with every trick in the book. He messes with timing — how about I just hold this leg lift here for a few extra beats? — and spins 70 MPH curveballs. He pitches to every inch of the strike zone and can work any batter in any count.

He’s a pitcher’s pitcher, even at an age where his raw stuff isn’t what it once was. Greinke in his prime was extraordinary; he’s still quite good, but in a different way. His pitching intelligence might be unmatched across the sport, even among coaches. Greinke is a savant. He can read batters and make adjustments that seem unattainable to mere mortals like myself.

(Side note: Zack Greinke is probably a worthy Hall of Famer. More on this later. Some of you just slammed your coffee down. I don’t care. He is. Peak matters and Greinke’s best years are stellar.)

Let’s watch Zack cook the Milwaukee Brewers in a recent start. I talk a lot in these Ode to a Pitcher breakdowns about sequencing, tunneling and messing with timing. Well, Greinke is the master. This will be fun.

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Ode to a Pitcher: As free agency looms, Gerrit Cole strikes out the world

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Chances are it’s a heater and you probably won’t touch it.

You like strikeouts? We got strikeouts.

Well, Gerrit Cole does, anyway. He gets it done with raw power, right in your face. The Houston Astros righty leads Major League Baseball in strikeouts per nine innings; he throws the second hardest average fastball among starters. He throws that 97 MPH fastball almost 55 percent of the time, challenging hitters over and over with it.

This stat kind of blew me away. Hitters whiff against Cole’s fastball almost 38 percent of the time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that’s the value of velocity and spin rate coming together. Cole’s fastball is dominant.

I’ve profiled some awesome, creative pitchers in this Ode to a Pitcher series. Take Dodgers lefty and possible NL Cy Young favorite, Hyun-Jin Ryu, for example. Ryu gets outs with deception. He moves the ball around the zone, cuts it and runs it, changes speeds. He uses everything at his disposal to get outs.

Cole doesn’t work quite that way. Maybe once his fastball loses its edge, but not now. Cole does work throughout the zone, but almost everything he throws is harder than 90 MPH. Cole forces the batter to contend with hard velocity on every pitch, be it a fastball, slider or changeup. You won’t get an eephus from Gerrit Cole.

It works. Cole has been an ace for the Astros since they acquired him before the 2018 season, and he’s lining himself up for a big payday this winter. Cole is fourth in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement, behind only Max Scherzer, Lance Lynn (!!!) and Charlie Morton. Good company.

It’s remarkable how effortless it looks with Cole. He doesn’t have the long whip delivery of an Aroldis Chapman, for example, or even the classic style of Justin Verlander. Cole just … throws. Visually he doesn’t seem to strain or exert, and yet, he’s pumping gas past big-league hitters.

Let’s take a look at how Cole fared in the bottom of the seventh inning in a recent start against the Los Angeles Angels.

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