Clayton Kershaw: Stupid-Awesome

Lost in the shuffle of what was probably the most exciting day of baseball in years Wednesday, was another good start Tuesday night by Dodgers’ left-hander Clayton Kershaw.  He wasn’t his typical dominant self, but still pitched into the seventh, striking out six, walking just two, and giving up just two runs securing the win for the Dodgers.

At just 23, Kershaw is already turning in his third outstanding season and as good as the previous two were 2011 has been a breakout, further establishing him as one of the best pitchers in baseball.  Despite this, Kershaw doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.  The Dodgers are not a good team and he fights for attention with other NL West aces like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ubaldo Jimenez.

But is there an argument to be made that Kershaw is very quickly turning himself into the best left-handed pitcher in the game?

At first glance, this seems ridiculous considering that C.C. Sabathia, Jon Lester, and Cliff Lee are all still great, but they are also much older; presumably, Kershaw is going to continue to get better over the next couple seasons.

The above graph depicts the ERA of Sabathia, Lester and Kershaw by age-season and as you can see (even though it is only ERA), Kershaw appears to be better than both and he ranks behind only them and Lee in WAR among southpaws since 2009.

This season, however, Kershaw has taken a leap forward.  He currently ranks fifth in WAR among all pitchers in baseball and behind only Sabathia among left-handers.  His BB/9 rate, once considered a problem, has dropped from 4.79 in 2009, to 3.57 last season, to just 2.36 this year.  He’s also posting a career-high strike out rate, groundball rate, and ERA.  Accordingly, his FIP is a career-best 2.39.

By every measure, Kershaw is blowing it up in 2011.  His Skill-Independent ERA (SIERA), which is an estimator of what a pitcher’s ERA would be with average luck, defense, and park factors, is just 2.57.  His tERA, an ERA estimator similar to xFIP that also includes batted-ball information such as line-drives, groundouts, and flyout-types, is just 2.45.

Kershaw also ranks seventh in baseball in infield-flyball rate, which allows him to keep a lower-than-normal batted-ball average and homerun rate.

So how exactly has Kershaw evolved?  Well, when he came up, his main secondary offering was his 12-6 curveball, a pitch that had scouts drooling and batters whiffing.  He threw the pitch 22.7% of the time in his 2008 rookie campaign, but had very little control over it, hitting the strike zone with it just over half of the time.

Since the start of last season, Kershaw has made his slider his main secondary pitch; a pitch he threw just five times in 2008, but has thrown over 23% of the time in 2011.  The results are obvious.  While Kershaw was getting a respectable 10.6% whiff-rate with his curveball in 2008, he is now making batters miss his slider almost a quarter of the time at 23.1%.  He also has far more command of his slider, throwing it for strikes over two-thirds of the time.  Mix in the odd curve and changeup and Kershaw is damn-near unhittable.  More than half of his opponents’ at-bats end in a strikeout, groundout or infield pop-up.

May I remind you again that Kershaw is just 23…23!

He may not quite be there yet, but if he stays healthy, Kershaw will very shortly become the best left-handed pitcher in the game.  And oh yeah, he’s just entering his arbitration years and is currently making just $500,000.

If Dodgers’ GM Ned Coletti has even half a brain (questionable, I know) he would be locking his young ace up to a long-term deal sooner than later.

Travis Reitsma is the fantasy baseball guru here at Getting Blanked, but you’ll find he sometimes writes on other subjects as well.  You can find more of his work over at Baseball Canadiana. You can also follow him on the Twitter.

Comments (15)

  1. AA needs to get on the phone! This is the guy you could throw half the farm system at, and come up with an ace of the staff.

  2. If only he had a dick of a father to mess up his situation in LA.

  3. He’s fantastic. You still have to take into account that the Yankees and Red Sox have more impact hitters than maybe the entire NL West combined, along with the fact most of the ballparks he plays in are pitchers ballparks (I believe SIERA takes that into account, though).

    While I don’t think he’s the best left-hander in the game yet (still CC), he should be within the next couple of years.

    Did you just call Madison Bumgarner an ace? I think that term gets bandied around too easily.

  4. @scott there is a fair bit if Giants obsession on this blog. I don’t think there is a sole person in the entire MLB who when asked about Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, says “never heard of him, but have you seen that bumgarner guy?”

  5. That sentence would have been far more relevant had it been talking about one of the studs in the diamondbacks organization like Ian Kennedy or Daniel Hudson, In that case I can understand how guys like Cain and Bumgarner may get more recognition.

  6. Um… could we just offer that crazy, bankrupt Dodgers owner a buttload of cash for Kershaw? I guess MLB wouldn’t allow that to happen, but maybe we could get it done during one of Bud Selig’s many naps.

  7. Trade $100 million for Kershaw. Then s

    Better investment than Boston spending $100 million on Dice-K.

  8. Trade $100 million for Kershaw.

    Better investment than Boston spending $100 million on Dice-K.

  9. All I meant was that Bumgarner pitches with Cain and Lincecum which gets him mentioned more often as part of a better rotation.

    And I would argue that Bumgarner is pretty damn close to an ace. 2.43 FIP, 3.06 xFIP, 3.15 tERA, 3.16 SIERA. A lot of it has to do with competition, but I don’t think he’s far off from being considered in that category.

  10. That’s a great list of AL West pitchers good thing he pitches in the NL west.

  11. AH, [Getting Blanked]. That took a while for someone to notice that. Thanks Mr. Fox. Also…how fantastic are you, really? What’s YOUR SIERA, hmmm?*

    *Probably a terrible joke

  12. Almost as fantastic as stealing Rasmus then perhaps flipping Snider to Houston for Brown from Phillie

  13. I really do wonder whether the offensive ineptitude in that division creates the fantastic pitching we are seeing or is caused by the fantastic pitching that we are seeing. I mean, all the starters have these great numbers and the hitters are mostly terrible.

    All in all, I would be hesitating to pick up either Ubaldo Jimenez or Kuroda at this deadline. Especially since Ubaldo does not have to face his own team, which seems to have the best offense in that division. (Coors Field isn’t quite the hitters paradise it used to be, either.)

  14. Any stray thoughts for a holiday Friday?

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