May 4, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) reacts in the eighth inning during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. The Brewers beat the Dodgers 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Clayton Kershaw starts tonight against one of the better left handed pitchers in all of baseball in Madison Bumgarner, and people should be totally fine with that because Kershaw himself is the best starter in baseball. Thing is, people really aren’t fine with it, in fact, disappointment is a word people have used to describe his season. Which is understandable considering his magical 2014 season where he only posted a 7.71 K/BB rate, and the 14th best season by ERA+ in baseball history, yes, history!
This season hasn’t nearly been up to that standard, in 30% of the starts compared to last season he’s given up 61.5% of the earned runs, this is obviously a concern and while he’s going to pitch in more innings, he was better through 8 starts last season (3.17 ERA/1.99 FIP) than he has been in his 8 starts this season (4.24 ERA/2.69 FIP). You know the phenomenon, the longer he struggles, the more frustrated people become, and while the Dodgers seem like a safe bet to win the NL West, having a Kershaw who’s dominance is probably necessary for a late postseason run (cobbled together rotations with a dominating ace have win 3 of the past 5 world series).
His start this year has prompted many hot takes, many analysis think pieces, and many articles on how to react to Kershaw’s otherwise disappointing start, they mostly revolve around his peripherals, they revolve around his strikeout rate, his BABIP, and his HR/FB%. One of the most thorough examples is the piece that Daniel Brim of Dodgers Digest posted yesterday about him and his “contact problem”.
"StatCast and Inside Edge are both in agreement that Clayton Kershaw has been really good at generating weak contact this year. Baseball Info Solutions, and perhaps perception, think that he has been awful at it. I’d be more willing to trust the StatCast numbers since they’re collected quantitatively, which means that I’m inclined to say that Kershaw doesn’t have a contact problem this year. He has just been really unlucky. It’s the boring explanation, but sometimes the answer isn’t interesting."
Which is an adequate explanation, when a pitcher has the 6th highest split between his ERA and FIP in baseball while also being notorious for outpitching that particular statistic, his numbers are going to normalize especially considering that his pitch usage has remained largely the same:
The problem seems to stem from the kinds of pitches that hitters are swinging at:
Contrary to popular opinion, batters are actually laying off of his fastball, not necessarily attacking it more often, despite this relatively low swing percentage versus one of his best pitches, he’s allowed an uncharacteristically high .480 slugging against his 4 seam heater. This seems to resonate with the idea that hitters are being more selective with his fastball this season and attacking it when he misses command.
The answer to Clayton Kershaw’s problems is patience. Kershaw isn’t broken until he actually is, and given that he’s phsyically fine, Kershaw’s true talent isn’t suddenly that of a 4.24 ERA type pitcher who allows 35% of the balls that are put in play to go for hits. He will regress positively!
However the one thing that is somewhat being glossed over is the fact that Clayton Kershaw might have peaked. This isn’t so much of a physical peak, I mean even assuming that baseball players don’t really get better after their age 29 season, Kershaw is still well within that 25-29 range of his physical peak. But how shocked would you be if Clayton Kershaw never posted sub 2.00 ERA again? When he was probably jobbed out of a Cy Young award in 2012, anybody who knows anything would have signed up for his 2012 numbers. Kershaw saw a 2.53 ERA and a 2.89 FIP and followed with a 1.83 ERA and a 2.39 FIP in 2013. He then came back and despite an ill fated start in Australia and a mediocre first full month, he went on to post the best season since Pedro Martinez‘s 2000 season a 1.77 ERA and a 1.81 FIP. Each year his walk rate improved and his home runs allowed increased.
However, all the talk that he’s going to be fine seems synonymous with “expectations should remain the same”. I think that’s an iffy proposition, his home runs total at the end of the season is very likely to be inflated relative to his 2013 and 2014 numbers, his walks are on pace to revert back to his 2012 figures, these aren’t insignificant increases in numbers, maybe they’re fluky (the home run rate per 9 is definitely a bit fluky), but a question that we definitely should be asking is should we expect his 2014 to be his true talent level going forward?
Going back to the all time single season ERA+ leaderboard, there is a trend among the top 15 pitchers. Pedro Martinez’s 1999 and 2000 was magical, he totaled a combined 256 ERA+ to go along with a 1.79 FIP (in the steroid era!). Pedro followed up those campaigns with a 3 year stretch in which he totaled only a 202 ERA+ and a 2.08 FIP. Amazing? Of course. Not as otherworldly 1999-2000? Yep.
Greg Maddux had his best 2 (consecutive) season stretch in 1994-1995 in which he posted a 265 ERA+ paired with a 2.32 FIP. His stats over the next 3 years only read: 178 ERA+ and a 2.66 FIP.
Dwight Gooden only really had one all time great season in terms of run prevention, that was the classic 1985 season in which he compiled a 229 ERA+ and a 2.13 FIP and won the Cy Young, his next 3 seasons? 114 ERA+ and a 2.84 FIP.
Bob Gibson is largely the same as Gooden in that he only had one all time great season in terms of run prevention. However his 1968 might have been the best single season performance ever and to be fair, many pitchers nowadays don’t hit 304 innings pitched over the course of 2 seasons. Gibson’s 1968 of course was famous for his 258 ERA+ and 1.77 FIP, the next 3 seasons were merely great, as shown by his 137 ERA+/2.41 FIP split.
I have no idea what to do with Roger Clemens in this exercise, considering that he owns 3 of the top 15 seasons ever recorded by ERA+. The only problem is that they almost came in 3 separate decades, and never really sustained ERA+ figures greater than 200 for more than a season at a time. Oh and the whole steroids thing that will always (maybe unfairly) linger around him. He had an incredible run as a 27 year old in Boston, while posting a 211 ERA+/2.18 FIP split, but followed that up with a 143 ERA+ and a 2.86 FIP in the subsequent 3 seasons. Then as a 34 year old Blue Jay, he put up a 222 ERA+ to go with a 2.25 FIP at the height of the steroid era! 3 relatively underwhelming seasons followed (132 ERA+/3.71 FIP). Then finally as a 42 year old in Houston, he put up what might be the best old man season ever, a 226 ERA+ along with a 2.87 FIP. He played 2 more seasons with a 141 ERA+ and 3.54 FIP and then retired after his age 44 season.
Finally, Randy Johnson had 2 of his best seasons consecutively in 2001-2002, posting a 187 ERA+ and a 2.53 FIP. The next 3 years, he had a 132 ERA+ and a 3.12 FIP. Johnson never did crack the 200 ERA+.
And sprinkled into that list of best 15 seasons ever according to ERA+ are several others who were never able to replicate the magic they had in their all time great seasons. The Ron Guidry‘s, the Zack Greinke‘s, the Kevin Brown‘s of the world. They perhaps attest best to this idea, that all time elite performance is really really really hard to reach, let alone maintain.
Johnson nor Clemens appear to be good comparisons for Kershaw at this point in time because their best performance came during their supposed “decline” seasons. Kershaw is only 27 for crying out loud. But finding a comparison for Kershaw wasn’t the goal here, the goal was to illustrate how freaking hard pitching at an all time elite level really is. Kershaw isn’t as bad as his ERA says, nor is his FIP. But that doesn’t really mean anything compared to his 2014 season. The ways in which Kershaw could have improved from 2014 were so minute (his K/9, BB/9, HR/9 were all incredible), that his best bet was to just replicate an all time great season. And we know through the careers of Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, etc how difficult posting a transcendent kind of season really is. Kershaw isn’t done, he’s not suddenly a below average pitcher, but lets keep in mind that from 2013-2014 he had a 197 ERA+ to go along with a 2.12 FIP, if he never equals that we shouldn’t be disappointed, because he’s got a long way to drop before he’s even average.