Player Profile: Clayton Kershaw

MLB: NLDS-St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers

After two years in the bigs, Clayton Kershaw looks like one of the best young pitchers in the game. With a 2.79 ERA in 171 innings in 2009, it seems as if Kershaw can do almost anything. It may be so, as no level to date has posed a challenge for the lefty.

Kershaw was drafted seventh overall out of Highland Park High School in 2006 by the Los Angeles Dodgers. After signing for a $2.3 million bonus, he debuted in the Gulf Coast League, where he wreaked havoc on all competition. In 37 short innings, Kershaw used “Public Enemy Number 1″ and his blazing fastball to post 54 strikeouts against just five walks. This utter domination was good enough to place him as the Dodgers’ second-best prospect and 24th-best in MLB. Not bad for an 18-year-old.

The 2007 season saw Kershaw open at A-ball in the Midwest League. Kershaw again wowed, registering a whopping 134 strikeouts in 97.1 innings—good for a staggering 12.39 K/9 rate. However, he also walked 50 batters, dragging down his K:BB ratio to 2.68. Still, this showing was more than good enough for the Dodgers to promote Kershaw to Double-A, where he finished the season with 24.2 innings of whiff-inducing, walk-centric ball. His 29 Ks were again very impressive. His 17 walks were reason for concern. Still, Kershaw’s raw stuff, his lean 6-3 frame, and his left-handedness made the Dodgers the envy of MLB, as Kershaw ranked as the best Dodgers prospect and seventh-best overall. The sky was the limit for the flamethrowing youngster as he set out for a repeat of Double-A in 2008.

Kershaw’s second stint in Double-A was another showstopper, as he once again showcased his excellent stuff in dominating fashion. Though his strikeouts were down somewhat at 8.66 K/9, his walks also dropped precipitously to 2.79 BB/9, which was a very exciting development. After these 61.1 innings, the Dodgers saw it fit to promote the 20-year-old to the majors. Once there, he proved why he was among the best pitching prospects in all of baseball, as he registered a 4.26 ERA and 4.08 FIP in 107.2 innings, to go along with 100 Ks—but 52 walks. For such a young pitcher, the results were tremendous, though, again, the walks bared watching.

Kershaw’s 2009 was another excellent campaign and a tremendous one for such a young pitcher. Through 31 appearances spanning 171 innings, Kershaw dominated major league hitters to the tune of a 2.79 ERA, 3.08 FIP, and 9.74 K/9. The walks reared their ugly face again and were problematic. However, he proved that he was among the best young pitchers in the league and that there was much to be excited about. Still, there are reasons to be skeptical of his 2009 performance.

Looking over his overall line, Kershaw has two primary indicators in his performance that point to a regression in 2010. The first is his low BABIP, at .274. While this is in some ways attributable to Los Angeles’ league-leading defensive efficiency rating (.714), a rate this low cannot be sustained. While it could still be lower next season due to L.A.’s great D, it is nonetheless due to fall back closer to .300. The second indicator is his miniscule HR/FB%, which sits at 4.1 percent. This rate is certainly unsustainable and contributed in a big way to his impressive ERA and FIP. Don’t discount the importance of these indicators. Together, they present a big challenge for Kershaw repeating his 2009 performance. Had the HR/FB rate been closer to league average and his BABIP been closer to that of his team’s defensive results, Kershaw would have been expected to post an ERA in the mid-3s. While this is still very good, it is a far cry from 2.79.

Still, there is no denying that Kershaw has some of the best stuff in the game—for any pitcher, at any age. He throws hard, with a fastball averaging 93.9 mph, has a knee-buckling bender, and mixes in a change-up. To top it all off, he even developed a slider this season, which could make him one of the toughest starting pitchers against lefties in all of baseball—if he isn’t already. His splits confirm this, as lefties hit a total of .173/.234/.252 against him in 2009, including just one home run in 139 at-bats and, wait for it … 72 strikeouts (51.79 percent strikeout rate) against just 11 walks. Those are other-worldly numbers. So, even if he becomes washed up by the age of 40, he should still have a career as a LOOGY. But that’s beside the point. His numbers against righties are very impressive as well, as they totaled a .208/.320/.291 line against Kershaw this past season.

Looking Kershaw over, there are three obstacles that stand in the way of him becoming possibly the best pitcher in baseball. First, he will have to “improve” against right-handers. It may sound like a silly thing to say about a group of batters who hit for a .611 OPS against him. However, if he is able to refine his change-up, he could combine a fastball-curve-change mix against righties that could be unhittable. While some have said that he has “flashed” a plus change-up in the past, it was by far his worst offering in 2009, registering at -1.78 wCH/C on the season. His low usage rate of the pitch (4.2 percent) suggests that he doesn’t have much confidence in it either. As a result, he will need to improve the pitch to step to the next level against righties.

The second item on the to-do list involves him solving his command issues. Pitchers who walk more than four batters per nine innings never reach the pinnacle of their profession. With Kershaw’s stuff, he will still be very good, a la Jorge de la Rosa. However, the free passes have a tendency to derail great pitchers and if Kershaw can’t solve this problem, he’ll never be more than very good. If he can shave one or one-half of a walk off his BB/9 rate in the next couple seasons, the results would be remarkable. This is a tall order, however, so keep your fingers crossed.

The third factor is that he will have to maintain his strikeout rate. This may not be much of an issue, as he has always had excellent strikeout rates in the past. However, his contact percentage of 76.7, while great, is not quite elite. His overall rates point to a pitcher who should have a K/9 in the low 8′s rather than the mid 9′s. Still, with the success he’s had in the past, the higher-than-expected strikeout rate could be due to any number of reasons—luck, extra called third strikes, or having such a great curveball for on strike two. While I would like to provide an answer, I cannot claim to have watched Kershaw enough to address this last point. However, while we are on the topic of regressed strikeout rates, it is worth noting that Kershaw’s expected walk rate is in the high-3′s currently, which indicates that he already has the command necessary to shave down the walk rate.

In the end, Kershaw is an incredible pitcher who is one or two tweaks away from being one of the best pitchers in baseball. Still just 21 years old, he has to be one of the best keeper league pitching prospects in all of fantasy baseball. On 2009 performance, he was among the better pitchers in fantasy, despite winning just eight games. For next season, Kershaw will have to improve his walk totals and maintain his strikeouts in order to better last season. In particular, hope for an improvement in his overall contact rate and performance of his change-up, as well as pitching later into games. If he can do this, he’ll be extraordinary. Nevertheless, expect his BABIP and HR/FB to level out, so the defensive efficiency of the Dodgers bears watching. In all, he should be able to again post high strikeout totals, a good ERA and WHIP, and again be one of the better pitchers in fantasy baseball. When it comes to Kershaw, expect great production, with the chance of an otherworldly breakout.

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Comments

  1. Troy Patterson said...

    I’m surprised you were so easy on the second item.  That in my opinion is the whole discussion with Kershaw right now.  If his BB/9 stays above 4.5 he is never going to equal these numbers again if he totals 200 IP.

    Also based on his xFIP he is actually around 4.00 if all his numbers regress.  I think 2010 is going to be a dissapointing year for Kershaw owners as to many overvalue him based on this season.

    Your right about his splits though.  A 1.51 K/BB against righties is dismal since ~80% of his batter faced are righties.

  2. Jeff said...

    Not to nitpick, but you didn’t just call Kershwa’s upside without improved control “Jorge De La Rosa”. Don’t get me wrong DLR is a nice pitcher to grab in the late rounds (assuming DLR’s IMPROVED control from last year holds up) but even without improved control and expected BABIP and HR/FB regression, Kershaw’s numbers will dwarf DLR’s. I hope I didn’t make too big a deal out of what may have been a throwaway comparison.

  3. Troy Patterson said...

    Actually they were very similar and De la Rosa even had a better K/BB and a better GB%.

    The bonus for Kershaw is he pitches in the NL West and Dodger stadium most of his games, which should keep his HR/FB down.  Other than that bonus if he can’t control his walks he would be very similar if not worse than De la Rosa.

  4. Rad said...

    I’m going to have to agree with Troy on this one. The fact that Kershaw pitches in the much weaker NL West and pitcher friendly Dodger Stadium brings his numbers down and makes him appear a better pitcher than De la Rosa when they are actually almost equals.

    That being said, very nice write up Mike. Keep up the good work.

  5. raygu said...

    Rad-they are equals?? maybe for 2009. Let’s not forget the humidor effect at Coors Field.
    Agree on nice write up. Thanks Mike.
    Nolasco next?

  6. raygu said...

    Rad-is this the Rad that I know?
    take a look at home and road splits for CK and JDLR….Kershaw still a respectable 3.83 ERA on the road, but so dominating at home with a 1.81 ERA. If he can bring down his walks a bit, CK will definitely pitch deeper into games in 2010, and his numbers could be even better. But then again,I am a Kershaw owner.
    You keeping JDLR in 2010?

  7. Troy Patterson said...

    Raygu,

    You just proved the point.  If his HR/FB isn’t helped by Dodger stadium this year he would have been near a 4 ERA pitcher this year.  His overall HR/FB% was 4.1% so even in LA I expect that to go up.

    Right now Kershaw is pitching like a slightly better Matt Cain.  He has a better K/9 to help him out, but both are sustained by the NL West parks.

  8. raygu said...

    Troy,

    not sure what you mean by:
    “He has a better K/9 to help him out, but both are sustained by the NL West parks.”

    what is sustained by the NL west parks? His k/9? If so, when does a ballpark determine how many guys a pitcher strikes out? HR/FB-sure, I agree the ballpark has something to do with HRs allowed.

    and how was he a 4 era pitcher this year? based just on HR/FB?

  9. Troy Patterson said...

    Both Matt Cain and Clayton Kershaw have similar K/BB, but Kershaw has a higher K/9 (obviously a higher BB/9 as well)

    Their ERA’s are maintained by their home park deflating their HR/FB rates.

    His xFIP was 3.94, which accounts for a normalized HR/FB.

  10. raygu said...

    Tim Lincecum-
    2008 HR/FB-5.6%
    2009 HR/FB%-5.5%
    No regression here

    does he regress in 2010?

    Greinke’s HR/FB IN 2009=4.5%
    Chris Carpenter HR/FB% in 2009-4.6%

    do they regress in 2010?

  11. Troy Patterson said...

    Sure, since they have no were to go but up.  HR/FB% is not a pitcher controlled stat.  It is controlled by park factors and the hitters a pitcher faces.  As long as Kershaw is in LA he can expect to be below the league average, like Matt Cain.

    On the other hand Cliff Lee won a Cy Young the same way Kershaw beat his xFIP this year and was doing it again this year with a low HR/FB, but now in Philly it has started to rise.

    DO you think Cliff Lee will have a HR/FB under 9% in Philly next year?

  12. Derek Carty said...

    Raygu,
    While we’ll occasionally see a guy like Lincecum post back-to-back above average HR/FB seasons, this kind of thing doesn’t mean as much as we might think.  Sure, these numbers mean *something*, but in projecting future HR/FB, there would still be a relatively heavy regression to the mean component because HR/FB is inherently unstable (comparatively speaking).  We’d need to see more than two years to really be able to say that a pitcher is capable of controlling his HR/FB to a significant degree.

    As to parks affecting more than just HR/FB, this is a little known effect that is actually very, very true.  David Gassko posted a great article here (http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/batted-balls-and-park-effects/) about parks affecting things like Ks, BBs, batted balls, etc, and I incorporated these factors into my CAPS analysis last off-season (http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/fantasy/article/introducing-caps-road-park-factors/).  One of the reasons I liked guys like Javy Vazquez and Dan Haren so much coming into the season.

  13. Andrew said...

    First off, Kershaw gets me as wet as any young pitcher.  I agree that there’s best pitcher in the game potential and with the overall assessment of this piece.

    For the people that said that Kersh pitches in the NL West and JDLR doesn’t….  De La Rosa actually does pitch in the NL West.  Obviously there’s a big difference in their home parks, and I realize that was your point, but I just wanted to nitpick an inaccuracy.

    I agree that Kershaw’s HR/FB% is unsustainable, but I’d also expect pitching so much in Dodger Stadium, Petco, and AT&T to help keep it below league average.

    One thing I take issue with is categorically saying that HR/FB% is completely out of the control of the pitcher.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Pitch F/X data started to refute the absoluteness of this assumption.  Similar to the hypothesis that GB pitchers would have higher HR/FB rates) it seems to me that pitchers that are particularly adept at moving the ball vertically within the zone, and who have pitches that diverge violently on the vertical plane (e.g. kershaw’s 4-seam fastball versus his ungodly curveball) would be better at inducing weak contact in the air.  If anyone knows of more research in this area, I’d be interested in reading it.

    If there isn’t, I’d think that someone like Barry Zito would be worth examining as a case study. 

    Obviously Zito has been greatly aided by ballparks that suppress both batting average and HRs, but I believe a large part of his success can also be attributed to inducing a lot of weak contact through the air.  Zito has a career IFFB% of 13.6% that is well above league average.  This is despite having a fastball that one would expect to limit his upside to that of a LOOGY at best.  Zito’s M.O. has always been to throw his fastball up in the zone to capitalize on that big rolling curveball (note again how the FB and CB are again used in conjunction here).

    I believe this ability to induce weak contact in the air helps explain what is an otherwise anomalous career BABIP for Zito (.275).  I also think it contributes (along with park effects) to how Zito was able to keep his ERA so far below what his FIP and xFIP would predict it to be.  He has only once had an ERA higher than his FIP, and that year corresponded with a career low IFFB%.

    I wish we had pitch FX data from his Oakland days as more objective evidence, but scouts and other observers have said that Zito’s curveball was different in SF from what it was in Oakland (e.g. less vertical movement).  With less vertical movement on his CB, and a fastball that had even lower velocity than before, I think it’s no coincidence that Zito’s IFFB% were by far the lowest of his career during his first two years in SF.  Correspondingly, his BABIPs were .305 and .290. Despite these scores being within the expected range for the majority of pitchers, both are above his career .275 career mark.

    If anyone has any additional thoughts on the subject, or if they can point me in the direction of more research in the area, I’d appreciate hearing/seeing it.

    As is, I expect that our predictive abilities will be refined even more as Pitch FX gets better and we get more and more data.  One of the conclusions I feel we’ll come to is that HR/FB% is indeed something that is at least somewhat under a pitcher’s control.

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