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Clayton Kershaw: Very Good To Great, Graphically

It’s not news to say that Clayton Kershaw had a fantastic 2011, and we’ll know on November 17th if it was good enough for the Baseball Writers Association to hand him any hardware because of his efforts. What’s been so interesting to research is how Kershaw has evolved over the last four years from a very good 4-win player to an elite 7-win player.

Kershaw has been good pretty much from the moment he arrived Los Angeles, but even throughout very successful 2009 and 2010 campaigns, he had his limitations. His walks were out of control, he struggled against right handed batters, and because he pitched like he was trying to strike out every batter, his pitch counts kept him from going deep into games. It’s almost as if Kershaw systematically addressed every single one of his shortcomings in the off-season to become something of a superhero version of himself.

What follows is a graphical homage to his ability to adapt, and to just be freakishly good.

Looking at his splits relative to walks allowed, Kershaw was pretty consistent against left handed batters, but he managed to build upon the success from 2009 to 2010 which saw his BB/9 drop from 5.57 to 3.84 against right-handed batters. In fact, he actually walked fewer right-handers per 9 innings pitched than he did left-handers:

This is huge progress for Kershaw as walks versus right-handers was a major problem for him. Not only did the improvement in walks help him to be more effective, but it also allowed him to be more efficient. His average pitch-per-inning was considerably down in 2011, and the number of times he was able to pitch into the 8th inning of his starts shot way up as a result:

Kershaw also made strides in getting ahead of batters, posting a career high in first-strike percentage and he was one of only two starting pitchers to have a first-pitch strike rate above 64% that also had a swinging strike rate above 11% (Michael Pineda being the other). So while he was peppering the strike zone more, he continued to miss bats at a greater rate.

His strikeout totals were also a career high, and best in the National League at 248. This is in part because he was able to pitch so much deeper into games, but also because of an improved strikeout rate against right-handed batters where he went from pretty average in 2008 to pretty great in 2011 at over 9 K/9. You’ll notice that Kershaw’s strikeout rate against left handed batters actually fell over the last several seasons, and that very well may be attributed to an effort to throw more strikes and keeping pitch counts down — but an 11.63 K/9 rate is still nothing to scoff at (and best in the National League):

Lastly, perhaps recognizing that his slider was his most valuable pitch in his repertoire, he started to go to it far more often in 2011, using it 25.5% of the time and reducing his fastball usage from 71.6% to 65.3%. The result was his slider was the best in baseball based on runs above average at 27.6. The increase in slider usage can be almost entirely attributed to a change in approach versus right-handed batters as he increased his usage about six percent from 2010, and he was more effective with it as well — producing a 23.5% whiff rate in 2010 versus 17.8% in 2010.

From a fantasy baseball perspective, the question is almost certainly whether or not this performance is repeatable. There’s not much to suggest that he was the beneficiary of unusual luck as his FIP and ERA aren’t at odds at 2.48 and 2.28, respectively. His 2.52 tERA and 2.66 SIERRA also support this notion. Additionally, his .269 BABIP in 2011 isn’t far from his career average of .279. His value as a real-life and fantasy starter is likely wrapped up in his walk rate. Should he be able to keep it where it was at in 2011 (perhaps even improve?), he ought to continue to be successful. While it’s hard to say his ERA will be this low again, he is certainly capable of keeping it in the mid-two’s.

The combination of stuff and smarts can be lethal when you’re a starting pitcher and what we saw in 2011 was an evolved Clayton Kershaw, improving in virtually every area where he needed to. In the end, we have starting pitcher who will no doubt get serious consideration for the NL Cy Young, but will likely receive votes for MVP as well. If he’s on your fantasy roster, it may very well be that his value never gets any higher, but there’s little doubt he would be near impossible to replace. Deal him at your own risk.