Dodgers’ Kershaw Threw Perfect Pitch Imperfectly

People have talked about it ad nauseam for going on 18 months now. It’s been one of the things that has defined Los Angeles Dodgers left-handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw. The go-ahead home run he gave up to Matt Adams of the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the 2014 National League Division Series is still one of the most incredible postseason feats in recent memory. But for reasons most people wouldn’t pick up on.

You see, it wasn’t just Adams hitting a home run off of Kershaw that made it such an interesting thing to look back on all these months ago. It’s the fact that it was a curveball thrown by one of the best curveball pitchers in baseball to a hitter who had trouble hitting curveballs off of left-handed pitchers. When you start to dive into everything, it’s a story about the perfect pitch being thrown at the perfect time to the perfect hitter and it went imperfectly.

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On October 7, 2014, Clayton Kershaw threw a curveball on an 0-1 count to Matt Adams. At the time, it was the bottom of the 7th inning in a game that the Dodgers led 2-0. The Cardinals had runners on first and second with nobody out, and Kershaw was getting ready to throw his 102nd pitch of the game. He was nearing the end, but he still wanted to get Adams. You can’t blame him, either. He’d retired Adams the prior two times in that game.

Prior to the 2014 playoffs, Adams and Kershaw had only faced each other a grand total of eight times during their history. Adams was just 2-for-7 with 2 strikeouts and a walk. One of the hits was a double. Nothing really stood out as far as they were concerned. That was all about to change on one pitch, though, and it’s something that still is quite spectacular to this day.

Prior to October 7th, which is when Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS took place, Kershaw had thrown 2636 curveballs in his career. Of those 2636, 502 were thrown to left-handed batters. That’s what Adams is — a left-handed batter. Out of those 502 curveballs thrown to left-handed batters before that evening, 61 were put into play, 55 were whiffed on, and 44 were fouled off. Essentially, batters had nearly an equal chance of missing the pitch completely as they were of putting it into the field of play.

Yet, none of those 61 curveballs put into play resulted in a home run. And only 18 resulted in hits at all. Left-handed batters, prior to that night, had a batting average on balls in play of .295 when facing a Clayton Kershaw curveball. While that’s higher than his .272 career average on all balls put into play, it’s still a ridiculous number to hold batters to. For instance, Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays held batters to a .295 average on balls in play this past season alone. Not for one pitch, but all of them.

Stephen Dunn-Getty Images
Stephen Dunn-Getty Images

It’s even more ridiculous when you factor in the count at play. It was an 0-1 count, and that benefits the pitcher. On 0-1 counts to left-handed batters in his career, Kershaw had thrown 106 curveballs. Of those 106, batters swung at 22 of them. They put 13 of those 22 into play and completely whiffed on five of them. The other four were foul balls. Batters registered five hits on those 13 balls in play, but only one extra base hit.

On the flip side, Matt Adams had faced 96 curveballs from a left-handed pitcher in his career prior to October 7th. Of those 96, he swung at 42 of them. However, he swung and missed at 22 of those 42. That means that he whiffed on just over half of the curveballs from left-handed pitchers that he’d ever swung at prior to his encounter with Kershaw in the 7th inning that evening. In fact, he’d only even put 11 of those curveballs into play. Then again, two of those 11 put into play resulted in a home run.

But when you narrow it down to count, which was 0-1, you start to get even more astonished at the results for Adams. For instance, Adams had seen just 16 curveballs from a left-hander on an 0-1 count in his career prior to this game. He swung at half of them. He completely missed five of those eight. Of the remaining three, two were fouled off and one was put into play. It wound up being a hit. It wound up being a home run. And it wound up winning the Cardinals that game, as well. Eerie, right?

The setting was July 7, 2014, and the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates were locked in a 0-0 game in the bottom of the 9th inning when Adams stepped to the plate with one man on and one out. It was an 0-1 count, and the pitcher was left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. Like Kershaw, Wilson had never given up a home run to a left-handed batter on a curveball in his career prior to throwing that pitch to Adams. That all changed when Adams swung.

We’re talking about two left-handed pitchers who had never given up a home run to a left-handed batter on a curveball throughout the entirety of their careers prior to meeting Matt Adams at Busch Stadium on an evening in 2014. Yet here were Wilson and Kershaw, joined together in history through the unlikeliest of occurrences. It’s quite amazing, really.

Kershaw, who had only given up three hits to a left-handed batter on his curveball in 2014, wound up giving up the fatal blow to the Dodgers’ season that very same year. He’d given up zero home runs to a left-handed batter in the 502 instances he’d thrown a curveball to them prior to this game, and it still didn’t matter because the postseason is a vindictive creature that knows no bounds. He had struck out 72 left-handed batters on a curveball in his career and only given up three extra base hits, but it still didn’t matter.

The best left-handed pitcher in the game — nay, the best pitcher in the game — gave up a crucial home run to a batter who had only had two career hits off of a curveball from a left-handed pitcher prior to that very game. With all things considered, it was the perfect pitch to throw to the perfect batter at the perfect time in a game. It just wound up being imperfect. And that’s the playoffs for you.

At no given time can we even expect to see what we’re about to see when it comes to baseball’s postseason. The Kansas City Royals, the reigning world champions, were down by four runs and were a mere six outs away from being eliminated in the American League Division Series by the pesky upstart Houston Astros, and then the Astros just couldn’t finish the job.

It has nothing to do with luck, or misfortune, or anything like that. It’s simply just the way the game goes. You are entitled to your 27 outs, and until all 27 outs are gone you are still left with a heartbeat. The Dodgers’ heartbeat was snuffed out by a guy who had no prior major success against curveballs from left-handed pitchers, but it still didn’t mean he was incapable of running into one. Especially one located where Kershaw threw it.

Clayton Kershaw Matt Adams pitch plot

But Kershaw wasn’t alone here in having a misplaced curveball. It also happened to Wilson a few months earlier, as noted. It’s hard to get away with a hanging curveball in the middle or upper portion of the strikezone no matter how good you happen to be. A misplaced pitch is a misplaced pitch.

That doesn’t take anything away from the absurd nature of the fact that Matt Adams, a guy never really known for making left-handers pay for their transgressions on the mound, still hit a very crucial home run in a crucial series that helped propel his team to a win. Some of the most iconic home runs in postseason history have happened against a pitcher’s best pitch. It’s just the way it goes.

Still, let’s also not forget where Wilson threw his curveball that Adams deposited into the Busch Stadium night. It was thrown a little harder than Kershaw’s, but didn’t really end up in a different spot in the strikezone. For instance, Kershaw threw his curveball at 74.5 miles per hour while Wilson threw his at 81.4. The difference in speed did not matter one iota. Kershaw’s had far more vertical break while Wilson’s had far more horizontal break. It didn’t matter. Look where Wilson’s ended up.

Matt Adams Justin Wilson

While Kershaw’s curveball ended up split right down the middle as far as horizontal location goes, it was still located roughly six inches up in the strikezone. And anything located up in the zone is bound to be hit. But look at Wilson’s. His was just about middle of the zone, as well, and it was located about two inches above the center of the zone. Those are two incredibly poorly placed curveballs to a hitter who struggles with them.

So, while the pitch from Kershaw — and also from Wilson, let’s not forget about him here — was the perfect pitch to throw at the perfect time to the perfect hitter to throw it to, the fact remains that the imperfection of the location led to the end result here. It doesn’t take away from the overarching theme, though. One pitch can lose you a game just as much as one swing can win one. It’s all in the realm of unforeseen circumstance.

Jon SooHoo — Los Angeles Dodgers
Jon SooHoo — Los Angeles Dodgers

There are no luck factors at force here, but rather the fact that things are beyond the control of data and things of that nature. We can accurately say that a left-handed batter hitting a curveball for a home run against Clayton Kershaw had never happened before, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again. It just happened to transpire at the game’s biggest moment, and it’s all anyone remembers about it. Such is the way the playoffs go.

Remember all of this as you watch the Dodgers go through their 2016 season and try to win a world championship for the first time since 1988. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how well you perceive a situation to benefit you, or anything that has to do with sheer logic. Sometimes, just sometimes, for a few weeks in October we are beholden to the order of chaos, where anything and everything is possible.

A place where bunting is somehow seen as smart, where aces aren’t the end-all be-all we think they are, and the best pitcher in baseball can throw his best pitch at the best time to a hitter who had almost no chance of touching it only to see it play out in far different ways. The playoffs are indeed a crapshoot. And, for some, they’re far crappier than we’d like to admit. It’s a place where perfection can be imperfect.

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