From the annals of amazing but true baseball stories: Brandon Hicks homered on Sunday off Clayton Kershaw for the Giants, a two-run shot in the seventh as the Giants beat the Dodgers 7-4 in 10 innings to take three of four at Dodger Stadium.
The amazing part is it came on an 0-2 curveball. You may have heard that last year Kershaw didn't give up a home run against his curve, as batters went 14-for-146 (.096) in plate appearances ending in a curve, with 80 strikeouts and no walks. You also may have heard Kershaw had never given up a home run off his curveball in the regular season. (Matt Holliday homered off Kershaw's curve in the 2009 playoffs.)
It's true that Kershaw also didn't allow a home run off his curve in 2012, although he did give up two doubles as batters hit .083 against it. Over two seasons, batters had gone 24-for-267 (.090) with 151 strikeouts and no walks against Public Enemy No. 1, as Vin Scully labeled Kershaw's curveball.
So, congrats to Hicks (who had struck out on 0-2 curve earlier in the game). Now, as Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus writes, there's this interesting nugget:
Kershaw’s curve is so delightful that it’s tempting to cheat a bit; I’ve frequently seen it noted that, for instance, he struck out 78 and walked nobody with the curve last year, which sounds amaaaaazing except that he never once threw it on three balls; if anything, that fun fact is a knock on his curve, since he’s unwilling to throw it even once with three balls. (It’s not a knock. But if anything, it’s a knock.) Shoot, even today, when we’re mostly responsibly noting the Matt Holliday exception, we’re mostly not noting the Allen Craig exception, a 78 mph breaking ball that sure looks like a curve (but was classified as a slider) and was hit out in 2011.
Kershaw threw 236 pitches in 2013 with a three-ball count, encompassing 141 plate appearances. According to data from ESPN Stats & Information, in three-ball counts he threw 191 fastballs, 43 sliders, one changeup and one curveball. Sometimes the data on these things differ slightly between sources, depending on how the pitches are classified. The one curveball we have him throwing with three balls was on May 31, 2013, on a 3-2 count versus Nolan Arenado, a pitch Arenado chopped foul.
I'm at your service here, so I went back and checked the video. The pitch was 79 mph, and while it wasn't Kershaw's usual big breaker, the Rockies' color announcer did call it a curveball (unfortunately, the camera didn't show us the catcher flashing the signs). My guess is it was a curve since we don't have any other Kershaw sliders from 2013 registering less than 81 mph.
Still, the point is taken: Kershaw hardly ever throws his curve with three balls. In 2012, we also have him throwing just one curveball with three balls.
You do wonder why, considering how dominant the pitch is. You would think you'd see some curveballs at least on 3-2 counts, but Kershaw threw 108 fastballs out of 151 pitches on 3-2 counts last year. One theory is that the curveball isn't actually a strike that often, so batters would just take the pitch for ball four. There's some truth to that: Here's his curveball location for 2013:
We classify 42 percent of his curveballs as actually being in the strike zone.
Still, when getting to three balls, Kershaw walked 52 batters and struck out 26 in those 141 plate appearances, so he's walking guys anyway. In 103 plate appearances with a 3-2 count, he walked 28 and struck out 26 for a .412 OBP allowed -- but batters also hit just .189 with one home run off him on 3-2 counts. It appears that once Kershaw gets to three balls, he'll throw his fastball, but he's not going to give in; he'll walk you rather than throw a fastball over the middle of the plate. That still doesn't explain why he doesn't throw the curveball more on a 3-2 count, however.
Miller's piece mentions the home run Holliday hit in the 2009 playoffs and the home run Allen Craig hit in 2011. Holliday's home run did come off a curve, and we also classify Craig's home run as coming against a curveball. Here's the video of Craig's home run -- definitely looks like a flat 78 mph curveball.
ESPN classifies two other home runs off Kershaw curveballs -- Adam Dunn on Aug. 6, 2010, and Ryan Ludwick on June 9, 2010. I didn't check the videos on those, but considering the pitches were clocked at 82 and 81 mph, I'm guessing those were sliders since Kershaw's curve doesn't break 80.
So Hicks' home run wasn't the first off a Kershaw curveball. But it was certainly a rarity.