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Scouting Pitchers: Clayton Kershaw

James Benkard

James Benkard

James Benkard writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

(Statistics as of 10/04/08)

For my last column of 2008, let's look at the NL's top young pitcher. If David Price staked his claim as "Baseball's Top Pitching Prospect" with his postseason coming-out party, Kershaw wasn't far behind - although technically he isn't prospect after throwing 107.2 major league innings in 2008. Kershaw ranked tenth among all rookie pitchers in strikeouts (100), and his 8.36 strikeouts per nine innings trailed only Joba Chamberlain (10.58) and Clay Buchholz (8.53).

If not for a couple of bad outings by teammate Chad Billingsley and a home run by Matt Stairs, Kershaw might have made the World Series and faced off against Price. One can argue that Joe Torre underused Kershaw in the NLCS, where he threw just two innings despite Billingsley's struggles.

80 Outstanding (96+ MPH fastball, 88+ MPH slider, 82 MPH curveball)
70 Well above average (94-95 FB, 86-87 MPH SL, 80-81 MPH CB)
60 Above average (92-93 MPH FB, 84-85 MPH SL, 78-79 MPH CB)
50 Average (89-91 MPH FB, 82-84 MPH SL, 75-77 MPH CB)
40 Below average (86-88 MPH FB, 79-81 MPH SL, 73-75 MPH CB)
30 Well below average (83-85 MPH FB, 76-78 MPH SL, 71-72 MPH CB)
20 Poor (80-82 MPH FB, 71-75 MPH SL, 69-70 MPH CB)

Los Angeles selected the left-handed Kershaw (6-3, 220, Born 3/19/1988) with their first-round pick (seventh overall) of the 2006 draft out of a Texas high school. He was selected by USA Today as the High School Player of the Year. Kershaw spent most of 2007 in the Low-A Midwest League, where he struck out 134 in 97 innings and went 7-5, 2.77 in 20 starts. Baseball America interviewed him in July. The Dodgers moved him up to Double-A in August, and he responded with a 3.65 ERA in five starts.

Kershaw's buzz built early in 2008, as new manager Joe Torre indicated to MLB.com he wouldn't hesitate in promoting to the majors. Kershaw did his part in camp by fanning 19 hitters, second on the staff, and allowing one run in six relief appearances. Los Angeles played it safe and sent him to Double-A Jacksonville, where he posted a 2.28 ERA in 10 games.

Kershaw made his major league debut on May 25 and pitched well, although he didn't pick up his first win until July 27. Yahoo's Jeff Passan profiled him a week before his debut in an excellent extended piece. Kershaw was wild in June (17 walks in 23.1 innings), was farmed back to Jacksonville for three weeks in July, and resumed his place in the rotation on July 22. He hit his stride after his return by allowing just five runs in five starts from July 27 to August 17, and was the youngest player in the major leagues all season.

Clayton Kershaw: (G/F 1.64)

		Rating:  %Thrown:
Fastball	70		60
Curveball	80		35
Slider		N/A
Changeup	45		5
Control	50
Delivery	65
Composure	60

Kershaw's two-pitch arsenal of a 93-97 MPH fastball and a 71-77 MPH curveball rivals anyone's. His fastball has some late life and natural run, and Russell Martin ends up backhanding some balls that come across the plate. Kershaw can break his curveball straight down or give it a slider's movement. He'll be even tougher when he can do this at will. Left-handed hitters hit just .115 off him at Double-A and .250 in the majors, and they have a hard time laying off his devastating curve. Kershaw also has a mediocre 84-86 MPH changeup that he disguises well but doesn't throw much.

Kershaw doesn't mind pounding right-handers inside with his fastball, especially when he gets in trouble. He locates the outside corner pretty well already and isn't predictable with his pitch selection. Kershaw works quickly, which is an asset more often than not. For someone with such a devastating breaking ball, he doesn't overuse it. The Dodgers are a good organization for developing a young pitcher, as they protect their arms and play in one of the best pitcher's parks in the majors. If you had your choice of organizations to bring along a 20-year-old, Los Angeles would be right up there.

Kershaw has a compact motion where he stays low and gains a lot of drive from his legs, giving his breaking ball a lot of torque. The challenge for him has been to keep a consistent release point, given his explosion when he comes out of his crouch. Most of the time, Kershaw has little problem throwing strikes, yet he goes through periods when he leaves his fastball up and falls behind in the count. His control can suffer out of the stretch, and his repertoire is not deep enough to out-guess a hitter. That isn't a problem most of the time, as at this point Kershaw basically throws closer stuff for six innings.

Los Angeles might encourage Kershaw to work on a cutter or a two-seam fastball, although Billingsley seems to have lost velocity since he started throwing so many cutters. (For more on this issue, see my column on Brett Myers. There is something to be said for commanding a 95 MPH four-seamer well, at least early in one's career. He could work his changeup more into his game. These are pretty high-class problems for someone not three years out of high school.

Kershaw will be a monster. He will deal overpowering stuff in a huge ballpark with a nice motion. Health permitting, I don't see any reason he can't be one of the best pitchers in baseball within a couple of years.

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I'd like to heartily thank all the readers of this column and Rotowire as a whole. See you all after Christmas!

In January: AL East: Toronto Blue Jays' bullpen: B.J. Ryan, Scott Downs, Jesse Carlson, Jeremy Accardo, and Brandon League

 

Article first appeared 11/23/08