If you could build a prototypical pitcher, what would he be? The scout in you might emphasize size, physical projection, raw stuff, athleticism, endurance, and what the heck, let’s make him lefthanded. The analyst in you might focus on bat-missing ability, batted-ball mix and ability to manage contact. If you were lucky enough, and this pitching prototype turned out be everything you wanted, he might be as good as Clayton Kershaw. Every era has its greats, its true pitching giants, and this one is no exception. With apologies to Felix Hernandez, his closest competition, the current big man on campus is Mr. Kershaw.
It is said that a single draft selection can fundamentally change a franchise, and this was never more true than the first round of the 2006 draft. The Dodgers picked seventh overall from a class that has turned out to be less than stellar. Of the six clubs picking ahead of the them, only the Rays, who tabbed Evan Longoria in the three hole, can refrain from thinking what could have been when surveying the outcome of that early first round. The Royals selected Luke Hochevar first, the Rockies followed with Greg Reynolds, and then the Pirates, Mariners and Tigers followed up with Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow and Andrew Miller, respectively, with the three selections immediately preceding Kershaw.
It didn’t take long for the Dodgers – and every other organization in baseball, for that matter – to see exactly what they had in the lean 6’3″ lefty from Highland Park HS in Texas. He steamrolled the rookie level Gulf Coast League to the tune of a 54/5 K/BB ratio in 37 innings immediately after signing, and then toiled less than two years – and 210 innings, featuring 261 strikeouts – in the minors before making his major league debut in late May 2008. To say the least, he hit the ground running.
Like many very young major league power pitchers, Kershaw struggled fairly significantly with his control in his early seasons, walking 4.2 batters per 9 IP over his first two and a half major league seasons, while striking out over a batter per inning. The scout in you surmised that this was only a temporary phenomenon, however. The athleticism was simply too good, the delivery too repeatable for this guy to be a walk machine over the long haul. Sure enough, Kershaw figured it out, maintaining and even enhancing his K rate while the walks went away in droves. Something to remember when evaluating amateur, minor league or even young major league pitching prospects – don’t sweat the walks, as long there is a foundation for strikethrowing present. That foundation is built upon athleticism, clean arm action and a fluid, repeatable delivery. Kershaw has always had each and every one of those boxes checked.
There are several pitchers in every era, who combine endurance, bat-missing ability and all of the other scouting and analytical measurables to a very high degree. It is exceedingly rare for any pitcher, however, to rank at the very top of the scale in every category. Greg Maddux‘ command was legendary, but he lacked elite bat-missing ability. Pedro Martinez was as great as a pitcher could be for a few seasons, but lacked the durability and endurance of other long-term greats. Perhaps Roger Clemens, fairly recently, and Walter Johnson, a very long time ago, come closest to top of the scale, across the board dominance. Don’t be surprised if Kershaw – with a clean bill of health and some luck – joins that pantheon before he’s done.
Exactly what might I be basing such a strong conclusion upon, you might ask. Well, let’s take a closer look at Kershaw’s 2013 and 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to see how he gets it done. First, the frequency information:
|FREQ – 2013|
|FREQ – 2014|
The 2013 version of Clayton Kershaw was pretty darned good. A K and BB rate percentile ranks of 90 and 24, respectively, are quite impressive, and provide significant margin for error with regard to batted-ball mix. 2013 represented the fifth consecutive season that Kershaw posted an above MLB average popup rate (76 percentile rank), and the first time in five seasons he notched a below MLB average fly ball rate (13 percentile rank). This allowed him to easily weather the first above MLB average line drive rate (78 percentile rank) that he had allowed in four seasons.
In 2014, he has made major positive strides in multiple categories. You cannot do better than a 99 percentile rank in K rate (34.7%), and a 1 percentile rank in BB rate (3.6%). Those numbers are borderline unfathomable. His K rate places him approximately four standard deviations above the MLB average K rate. Going back to 1901, I found exactly six individual starting pitcher seasons that met that criteria – three by Dazzy Vance (1923-24-25), two by Rube Waddell (1902-03), and one by Pedro Martinez (1999). As an aside, Vance would make an excellent article topic someday. On top of that incredible K-BB spread, Kershaw has become an extreme ground ball generator this season, with a fly ball rate in the 1st percentile and a grounder rate in the 99th. His liner rate has corrected back down to the 13th percentile, more in line with his 2010-12 percentile ranks which ranged from 8 to 15. Over a relatively brief period of time, Kershaw has evolved from a high K, high BB guy with somewhat of a fly ball tendency, into an overpowering, precise ground ball machine. Scary stuff.
Now let’s take a look at the production by BIP type allowed by Kershaw in 2013 and 2014, both before and after adjustment for context:
|PROD – 2013|
|Kershaw||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
|PROD – 2014|
|Kershaw||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||TRU ERA|
The actual production allowed by Kershaw on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, his actual ERA, his calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and his “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
While Kershaw’s K and BB rates weren’t quite as stellar in 2013, he compensated by managing contact better than any NL starting pitcher. He held hitters to an amazing 42 REL PRD on fly balls, adjusted upward only slightly to 57 ADJ PRD for context. He similarly allowed well under MLB average production on liners and grounders (69 and 80 ADJ PRD), which were also both adjusted upward for context toward MLB average, to 87 and 97, respectively. He posted an amazing 61 REL PRD – or unadjusted contact score – on all BIP, and a 79 ADJ PRD. Add back the K’s and BB’s, and Kershaw’s ADJ PRD is even better at 65, for a “tru” ERA of 2.52, which while exceptional, doesn’t match up with his actual 1.83 ERA.
This season has been a different story on balls in play. Kershaw has been very unlucky on fly balls, allowing a 243 REL PRD, adjusted down to 123 ADJ PRD for context. There’s a whole lot of variability in what is essentially a 30 fly ball sample size. He is allowing roughly MLB average production on liners and grounders, before and after adjustment for context. Kershaw’s unadjusted contact score is a slightly worse than league average 105, but it plummets to 84 once adjusted for context, mostly based on his poor fortune on fly balls to date. In 2013, significant limitation of batted ball authority, particularly in the air, drove his contact management excellence. In 2014, it’s been all about the batted ball mix, and the huge increase in grounders.
When you add back his K’s and BB’s – and their historic spread – his overall ADJ PRD of 48 is materially better than his 2013 mark. This gives him a “tru” ERA of 1.85, better than his 2014 actual 2.04 mark and his 2013 “tru” ERA.
A little more about Kershaw’s contact management history…….he has an average unadjusted contact score – equivalent to REL PRD in the above tables – of 73.6. That is an incredible number, the best in MLB history (going back to 1938) for a five-year ERA qualifier. Who’s second? How about Tim Hudson, and he’s not particularly close, at 77.0. Kershaw is obviously an elite bat misser, and this year has become an elite control guy. He is also an elite contact manager, and has become one by mastering both batted-ball mix and limitation of BIP authority. I will be giving a presentation at this year’s Saber Seminar, in Boston on the weekend of August 16-17 on the best contact managers in history, and Kershaw will be discussed. It’s for a great cause, the Jimmy Fund, and it would be great to see some of you there. End of shameless plug.
About that bat-missing……how does a 14.3% swing-and-miss rate in 2014 grab you? That is way higher than his previous career high of 11.4%, set last season. He has an incredible 32.0% whiff rate on his slider, and also misses a representative number of bats with his curve (14.5%). Then there’s his four-seamer, which gets a healthy share of the weak grounder contact he generates. It’s a lethal combination that legislates lefty hitters out of the game completely, and turns every righty hitter into Bud Harrelson.
There are other historically great pitchers in the game today, who are likely headed to the Hall of Fame. Most of them possess top of the scale endurance, bat-missing ability and command. Among that group, Kershaw has a career 73.6 unadjusted contact score. Felix Hernandez has a career 93.0 unadjusted contact score, pitching half of his games in Safeco Field. Justin Verlander has a career 89.3 unadjusted contact score. Kershaw does everything that they do – and then suffocates contact, to boot. Whatever worries any of us had about the big lefty after his DL stint due to an inflamed back muscle earlier this season have been allayed. They simply don’t make them any better than Clayton Kershaw, circa 2014.
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