NEWS OF HIS DEMISE . . .
NEWS OF HIS DEMISE . . .
In case you missed it, I have a bit of an obsession. I may enjoy baseball maybe a little too much. Due to my obsession, I read a whole lot about the game (and even write a little bit, too).
Because of how much I watch and read, I am privy to scads of information that the casual observer is not. I am not sure if this is good news or bad; but it does make me seem a whole lot smarter than I actually am. Further, it always requires me to step back and remind myself that not everyone I see in the stands or who I speak with at the grocery store has listened to every Buster Olney podcast this season, or read Jayston Stark’s latest column, or seen Tim Kurkjian break down home and away splits. Most people have too much else going on in their lives to be bothered or to care. In some ways, it just may be easier to get a short explanation from the knucklehead who has wasted his time reading 5000-word blog posts and listening to multiple 45-minute interviews with baseball insiders.
One of the results of this fixation is that my view of Clayton Kershaw’s season tends to be a little different than most outside the sphere. I truly wish I had a dollar (or an advertiser) for every time someone has asked me, since Opening Day, a variation of the following question: “What do you think is wrong with Kershaw?”
Since the beginning of the season, I have had two answers to that question: (1) nothing, he is and will be fine; and (2) his excellence over the past four years has set a bar so damned high that it is nearly impossible to raise it or even meet it for yet another 6 months. As the season has worn on – even before the month of July – I communicated to the naysayers and concerned citizens of Los Angeles that if you look at the stats, Kershaw is actually having a better year than year’s past, with one notable exception: BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play, for the uninitiated).
For baseball purists, wins and losses (and ERA) remain the cornerstone of any pitcher’s worth. However, we are in a new age of baseball analytics, wherein wins and losses are considerably less important than WHIP, FIP, BABIP and, still holding strong after all these years, ERA. Case in point, Felix Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young Award after going 13-12. You read that right; he won the award with 13 wins – the lowest total in history (not including shortened seasons, as I am sure you all recall Fernando Valenzuela’s 1981 Cy Young season when he went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA and 180 Ks in 192 innings).
So Kershaw’s W-L record is of little value is analyzing the quality of his pitching. But, the above-referenced statistical categories, plus K/9, are pretty damn good measurements. Let’s take a look – including his pre-July run, which we will get to in a minute:
Does anything jump out at you? To my eyes, not much. Leading up to the period in time in which he became unhittable (or at least unscorable), his WHIP was slightly elevated; his FIP was perfectly in line with past performance; his K/9 was the highest of his career; only his ERA was out of whack. And why was that? Well, let’s look at the fifth column: BABIP.
Fangraphs explains BABIP as follows: “[It] measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit. A ball is ‘in play’ when the plate appearance ends in something other than a strikeout, walk, hit batter, catcher’s interference, sacrifice bunt, or home run. In other words, the batter put the ball in play and it didn’t clear the outfield fence.” According to the baseball statistical cognoscenti, there are three important variables that can affect BABIP: (1) defense, (2) talent level, and (3) luck.
Let’s start with defense. In 2011, the Dodgers ranked 3rd in the National League in total team defense; in 2012, 5th; 2013, 12th; and in 2014, 9th. This season, they are #1. So it can’t be the defense that is doing him in (unless, of course, by some crazy coincidence, the defense is awesome 4 out of 5 days, and just plain sucks when Kershaw takes the hill).
How about talent level. By all accounts, this season the Dodgers have the most talented club they have assembled in years, so it does not seem that having a rejuvenated lineup and considerably better defense up the middle – at all four positions – have adversely affected Kershaw. (Editor’s Note: There is an argument to be made that there has been no upgrade at catcher, as A.J. Ellis continues to act as Kershaw’s personal receiver, but you get the point with Rollins, Kendrick, and Pederson.)
That takes us to luck. Ah, the almighty, ever-present, undefinable, unknowable concept of luck. Could it be that Kershaw has just been unlucky this season? It sure seems that way. If he is striking out more batters than he ever has; if he has the best up-the-middle defense he has ever had; if he is getting run support about on par with what he has received the last seven seasons (down only about 3.5% or .15 runs/9 innings vs. the past 7 seasons); then how else can we explain it? Well, take a look at his BABIP (again, this statistic just shows how often balls that are put in play actually become base hits vs. outs).
|League Avg. BABIP||Kershaw BABIP||Kershaw Percentage is Better Than League Avg.|
This season Kershaw is still better than league average in every category, including BABIP. However, over the first four months, his BABIP is only 3.1% better than league average, compared with nearly 15% better in 2013 and more than 10% better in 2012. This stat tells us that more duckfarts that were caught before are falling in; more six-hoppers are slipping through; more swinging bunts are hanging on the chalk rather than rolling foul. Is this the pitcher’s fault? By all accounts, no. Is this just dumb luck? By all accounts, yes. And more cheap hits means more baserunners means a higher WHIP and potentially a higher ERA. Kershaw is still the best pitcher on the planet, it’s just that he has not been as lucky this season as in season’s past.
But you cannot keep a good man down. No, you can’t.
Since Kershaw’s seven inning, one run performance against the Mets on July 3rd (atrocious, I know), this is what Kershaw has looked like:
So, for the past month, opponents are getting on base once every 2 innings and he is 23.5% better than league average on BABIP. That is more like it. Lady luck looks to be shining back on Ol’ #22.
To bring this full circle, I may have been wrong in my assessment that Kershaw has set the bar too high. It just may be that a black cat scampered in front of him back in Dallas; maybe he walked under a ladder on his way out of the clubhouse at Camelback Ranch; it’s possible he picked up a tails-up penny as he ambled through the parking lot at Chavez Ravine. Who the hell knows how and why the Baseball Gods do what they do. But whatever the reason(s), they certainly don’t mean the end is nigh, despite any news of any demise.
Don’t believe me, just ask MVP Mike Trout:
As a final note, I fully acknowledge that by posting this, I have jinxed Kershaw into giving up a seeing-eye single followed by a bomb in the top of the first Friday night against the Pirates.