By Jon Weisman
As if the guy didn’t have enough weapons …
Clayton Kershaw is baseball’s top pickoff artist, and it isn’t even close.
Kershaw picked off nine baserunners this year, three more than the two next-closest pitchers, teammate Brett Anderson and former teammate Joe Beimel, now with Seattle.
This isn’t a new skill. Kershaw led the National League in pickoffs for three consecutive seasons (2010-12) and has been in the top 10 every year since 2009.
“He’s always had that in the back of his pocket,” said Dodger coach and baserunning guru Davey Lopes. “He’s utilized it quite a bit — guys trying to stretch their leads, and he’s been picking them off.
In the past seven seasons, Kershaw has been credited with 55 pickoffs. Next on the list among big-league pitchers are Mark Buehrle (42) and James Shields (28).
No other MLB pitcher since 2009 has even half as many pickoffs as Kershaw.
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Kershaw said his pickoff ability is “pretty much the same it’s always been,” but that if anything has evolved, it’s his knowledge of when to use it.
“Kind of knowing when guys are running,” Kershaw said. “Donnie (Mattingly) gets some credit there, too – he calls some of them, too. So maybe all those things combined.”
Given that Kershaw doesn’t allow that many baserunners to begin with, his ability to dispose of this many has to be extra frustrating for opponents.
“If I was against him,” Lopes said, “doing what he’s doing at this rate, I would take the baserunners or maybe the whole team and say, ‘Listen, this is what he’s doing. Watch this move, because this is what you’re going to get in the game. So be careful. And if you have to shorten your lead, shorten your lead. If you have to wait a beat longer, wait a beat longer.’ ”
But while Kershaw’s move to first has long since ceased being a secret, there’s no shortage of ballplayers falling for it, which is kind of amazing — especially since Kershaw is more interested in keeping baserunners from overstepping their leads than actually seeking outs.
“I don’t think Kershaw’s is made to pick people off — it’s more just to keep people from running,” said Adrian Gonzalez, who as Dodger first baseman has the best vantage point for Kershaw’s pickoff prowess. “It’s only deceptive if you haven’t seen it and you’re not focused.”
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It is true that Kershaw is mostly picking off low-hanging fruit. Of the nine players that Kershaw nabbed this year, Houston second baseman Jose Altuve (who led the AL in steals with 38) was by far the biggest threat. Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison was the only other Kershaw victim who stole at least 10 bases this year.
The remaining seven — a group that included two pitchers, Miami’s Tom Koehler and Arizona’s Archie Bradley — combined for 12 steals in 2015.
“If you look back at the people he has picked off, they have been maybe a pitcher, maybe a slow runner who thinks he’s comfortable,” Gonzalez said. “He hasn’t really picked off basestealers. It’s more the young kid that comes up and forgets that he’s got a good step-off.”
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Twice in this past month, Kershaw picked off two runners in a game: September 2 against the Giants (Buster Posey and Kelby Tomlinson) and September 19 against the Pirates (Harrison and Jordy Mercer).
“Sometimes, guys that you don’t think you’re gonna pick off are the guys you get — the slower guys,” Kershaw said. “Or even pitchers sometimes. But then the basestealers too, you’ve got to throw over there just to keep ’em honest, and sometimes you get them, just ’cause they’re going (on your) first move.”
That’s something Lopes has picked up on.
“A lot of times, what a lot of guys do, they just go on first movement,” Lopes said. “And if I’m teaching somebody, that’s the last thing I’m going to resort to, because that tells me I can’t find anything, so I’m just going to rely on him being really slow and deliver it and take a shot. That doesn’t work very often, not against a guy like him. But, teams seem to have a tendency to run early against him.”
Does Kershaw push the envelope? He was called for three balks this year, which actually represented a career high, though a tiny percentage of the league-high 127 throws to first he made. You might see some occasional squawking from opponents, but essentially Kershaw’s move is accepted.
“It’s not a balk move at all,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not deceptive. The one where he steps to me, it’s pretty cut and dry. It’s really effective because he always slide-steps, so when he slide-steps, if somebody’s thinking, ‘I’m gonna get a cheap one,’ then they have to cheat. … So they start getting a little bit more out there, and that’s when he picks them off.”
Kershaw himself said he doesn’t worry about balks being called. Lopes, a baserunner to his core, talked about the risk at length.
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“Being left-handed helps him a lot,” Lopes said. “Left-handers have always seemed to have the benefit of the doubt, through my career, anyway, and I’ve been involved a long time.”
“If you watch him, he’s way up high, and he starts to lean and comes to first base. Technically, he’s moving towards the plate and throwing to first base. Now, you can do it to a point — in Spring Training years ago, they drew a line from the pitcher’s mound, and left-handers could not pass that plane.
“And you know what? They were probably not balks, in all honesty, on either side. If I was on the other side, I don’t think I would have been able to call it. They’re not (arguing). But I’m sure the first-base coach is saying a few things to himself about what happened: ‘I told you he had a good move – be careful.’
“But until you actually see it, you really can’t get a real feel for it.”
The bottom line is if anyone gets to first base, no one is better than Kershaw at keeping them there. In the past four seasons, covering nearly 900 innings, there have been 25 successful steals against Kershaw – with 29 baserunners being thrown out.
“It’s a weapon,” Lopes said. “He knows when to use it.”