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Clayton Kershaw is struggling this season, but it isn’t entirely his fault

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Clayton Kershaw has either won or finished second in the Cy Young award voting in each of the past four seasons, but with a 5-5 record and a 3.33 ERA in 15 starts, that streak could come to an end.

But it isn’t all his fault.

Kershaw is striking out 11.8 batters per nine innings, the highest mark of his career. He is also setting a new career mark for swinging strikes at 15.4 percent of his pitches. Plus, batters are making less contact on pitches in and out of the strike zone than ever before.

So why the down year?

Pitchers can’t control everything on the baseball field. After the ball is on its way to the plate the outcome is left to the batter, the defense, and sometimes, even luck. That’s why metrics like Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing, and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, which uses the league average home run to flyball percentage, were designed.

This season, Kershaw’s ERA is higher than both his 2.76 FIP and 2.18 xFIP, indicating that his pitching is not fully being reflected in his results.

There are two reasons for this, starting with a higher rate of  balls in play that have become hits. Opposing batters are hitting .297 on balls put in play, which is right at the league average but much higher than we have grown accustomed to from Kershaw.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, more of these hits are leaving the yard: Kershaw is giving up one home runs per nine innings, more than double the past two seasons and his highest mark ever in the bigs, a function of his home run-to-flyball rate skyrocketing to 18 percent.

Only one of the 11 home runs allowed was classified by ESPN’s home run tracker as “no doubt,” meaning the ball cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and landed at least 50 feet past the fence. Seven others had a true distance of less than 400 feet. One of those, a home run to Hector Gomez in May, would have left the yard in just 12 of baseball’s 30 parks. Another, by Matt Szczur, was deemed in need of help from “wind and/or temperature” to make it over the fence at Wrigley Field.

Despite the early struggles, Kershaw’s outlook is bright. According to the updated Steamer projections, only the Nationals’ Max Scherzer is expected to produce more wins above replacement than Kershaw by season’s end, which could see him back in the Cy Young race before too long.