The curious case of Clayton Kershaw's "demise"

MLB Whiparound: 'This Is the Same Old Clayton Kershaw'
By Positive Residual
The Cauldron

When the 2015 All-Star Game participants were announced on Monday, a familiar name was conspicuously missing from the National League roster. Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, the reigning Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award recipient, fell short of the midsummer recognition that he had earned over the previous four seasons. He can still make the team through the Final Vote, but it's not a guarantee, especially with three other pitchers on the ballot.

Based on traditional metrics, Kershaw's exclusion should hardly be controversial. He has a losing record (5–6) in 17 starts. His 3.08 earned run average is solid, but ranks just 29th in the Majors — and 3rd on his own team. Perhaps even more disturbingly, he has already allowed more home runs this year (11) than he did all of last year (9).

But, for every one of these blemishes, there are counterpoints that shed a far more favorable light upon Kershaw. Indeed, one can make the argument that he's off to the second-best 17-outing start of his career.

Let's begin with overall pitching performance in its purest form. While Kershaw's ERA is his highest since 2009, his 2.55 fielding independent pitching (or FIP, which eliminates the role of defense, luck, and sequencing) trails only his magical 2014 run. The same goes for his 2.02 xFIP, a similar metric that corrects for the instability of home run rates (more on this topic below).

And while Kershaw's 2015 numbers might be good by his standards, how do they compare to those of his peers? Excellent, actually. When we account for park and league factors, we see that his FIP- and xFIP- are 31% and 43% better than average. The FIP- figure is the third best of his career, and it's just two percentage points below his second best mark in 2011 — a negligible difference. The xFIP- figure is clearly second best.

Given all of the acronyms, it might be tempting to dismiss Kershaw's accomplishments as the product of arcane sabermetrics, but the analytics are supported by outstanding fundamental pitching. Here's a sampling, all of which are the second-best of Kershaw's career:

  • He's throwing a first-pitch strike 65 percent of the time this season, and 49 percent of his pitches are in the strike zone.
  • Opponents swing at 34 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone.
  • When opponents swing at his pitches (whether outside or inside the zone), they make contact only 69 percent of the time.
  • He has a 32 percent strikeout rate and just a 6 percent walk rate.

In other words, Kershaw controls the strike zone, keeps hitters uncomfortable, and misses plenty of bats. Classic ace material.

If Kershaw's fundamentals remain dominant, then how do we explain the home runs and subpar record (with notable losses coming against the rival San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals)? This is where we invoke the vicissitudes of baseball.

Although Kershaw's 25 percent flyball rate is the lowest of his career, the proportion of these balls that leave the yard is at a staggering 16 percent — over 9 percentage points above his normal mark. Such a discrepancy strongly suggests bad luck. As the research shows, when a pitcher's peripherals are otherwise strong, his fortunes are liable to turn for the better. As such, Kershaw has a very good chance of escaping the home run funk.

As for his record, it's wise to remember that he plays a team sport where defense and offense factor heavily into winning. His .301 batting average on balls in play is the highest of his career, and, according to Fangraphs, wins and losses say more about fielding and luck than they do about pitching — even though it reflects relatively poorly on Kershaw. Moreover, he receives just 3.6 runs of support while he's in the game, which ranks 83rd out of 136starting pitchers, giving the lefty very little margin for error.

In the end, Kershaw is as worthy of an All-Star selection this season as he's been at any point in his career, but untimely strokes of abnormal misfortune are tainting his candidacy. If voting fans can focus on his core body of work, justice will be served. And even if Kershaw ends up missing the Midsummer Classic, another Cy Young bid in the second half of the season is not nearly out of the realm of possibility.

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