Email Exchange: All Hail King…Kershaw?

Clayton-Kershaw-jpg

Today’s article: “Kershaw’s no-hitter most dominant ever,” David Schoenfield, ESPN

Cameron Seib:

I didn’t watch any of Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter last night, but in reading about it afterwards and this morning, it seems I missed out on some decent pitching.

The performance passes the eye-test, because, you know, the no hits allowed against the MLB’s second-leading offense thing. And because Kershaw struck out 15 Rockies en route to doing so. But the lanky lefty’s night was even greater than the headline’s might’ve suggested. Kershaw was a Hanley Ramirez error away from recording the 24th perfecto in league history. And using Bill James’s “game score” metric, it was the second-best nine-inning effort put forth by a pitcher in league history.

I think it’s time to reflect on Kershaw’s greatness.

As an M’s fan, this hurts, but there’s no denying Kershaw is the best pitcher in the Majors right now. He’s won the Cy Young two of the last three years, seasons in which he also led the National League in Ks. In those years, 2011 and -13, he recorded WARs of 6.6 and 6.5, respectively, both above Felix’s career-high. And I know ERA is quite flawed, but it’s still pretty nuts that Kershaw hasn’t recorded one above 3.00 since his rookie season.

What really just tickles my tummy, though, is that Kershaw’s only 26. Aside from Justin Verlander, he’s been the best pitcher over the last five years, and his age tells us he’s only going to get better. Which is a funny coincidence, because the numbers give us hard evidence that he is indeed elevating his game. He’s striking out almost three more batters per nine innings than he has on average through his career. He’s giving up fewer walks then ever, less than half of his career average. And his FIP and xFIP in 2014 are nearly half of what they were in his Cy Young seasons.

I’m not a Dodgers fan, but the main reason I watch sports is so that I can eventually tell mid-century teens that I saw the true greats, so I fucking love seeing Kershaw drop deuces on his competition. That said, in the wake of the M’s fuck-up last night, the Kershaw news only served to expedite my noose-knotting process. Felix just can’t get a damn break, from his teammates, or the rest of the league. Used to be that he was always in the shadow of Verlander as the league’s best hurler, and with the Tiger’s sub-parness this year, Felix had a perfect opportunity to migrate from his throne in Seattle to the one in the MLB kingdom. Kershaw’s now ruining that chance, and there’s a good possibility Felix goes his entire career without being the very best pitcher in the league at any point in time. Another fact that will unfairly prevent our King from getting the recognition he deserves.

Mike, after you weigh in on Kershaw’s night, I have two related questions:

1. Is Kershaw as good a pitcher as Mike Trout is an offensive player? How would you determine it either way?

2. I brought up WAR earlier, and I want to discuss in regards to Kershaw and Felix. Even among stat-heads, it seems consensus opinion that Kershaw is currently the best, and his FIP and xFIP are lower than Felix’s; yet, the King’s WAR/9 in 2014 is still a tad higher. How is this case, and why is someone like Dave Cameron willing to dub Kershaw the “aces of aces” even when Felix’s WAR numbers are better?

Michael Rosen:

Dang, I was prepared for you to come with the “Felix is better than Kershaw” argument; I had my Kershaw argument all lined up. But it seems we’ve both transcended our homerism to admit that Kershaw is just too damn good to say Felix is better.

If there’s a potential counterargument for Felix’s superiority, it’s in his durability. Since the start of the 2010 season, Felix has started just six more games than Kershaw, but has compiled 68 more innings. Their FIP and xFIP over that period of time has been essentially equivalent; Felix is just giving a little bit more of that extreme productivity.

Kershaw’s numbers are just mind-boggling to look at this year. 12.03 K/9, 1.12 BB/9, 0.55 HR/9 — that’s a Hall of Fame peak right there. And Felix is somehow keeping pace with that. I guess I’m going on a bit of a tangent here, but I think the fact of the matter is that it’s really hard to argue that anyone else belongs in the Kershaw/Felix tier.

Anyways, to your questions:

1.

Nah. I realize that Kershaw’s numbers right now look like they’re from someone playing MLB: The Show on rookie mode, but the pace he’s at right now is unsustainable. Even though his HR/FB and strand rates look pretty normal, I just refuse to believe someone can run a 12/1 K/BB ratio for an entire season. Trout has put together back-to-back 10 WAR seasons at ages 20 and 21 – ostensibly pre-prime – and appears to be on pace for yet another 10 WAR season. Over the past 15 seasons, there has been one pitcher to surpass 10 WAR in a season: Randy Johnson in 2001. Also, holy crap, Randy Johnson put together three +9.5 WAR seasons over four different seasons. Anyways, point is, Kershaw is not yet at the level of overwhelming dominance. Not to mention TROUT ISN’T EVEN CLOSE TO HIS PRIME YET!!! I know it’s said all of the time, but we don’t appreciate how crazy Mike Trout is. It ought to be a national law for American citizens to devote five minutes of their day to studying Trout’s Fangraphs page.

2.

I think that it has to do with Kershaw’s strikeout numbers and raw stuff. Only recently has Felix been getting that four-seamer up into that 93, 94 range. Kershaw sits there. Felix’s changeup is a subtle type of filth; Kershaw’s curveball knocks the wind out of you with its sweeping beauty. Aesthetically, Kershaw just looks more ace-like, and his strikeout numbers reinforce that assertion. Felix has been able to keep pace with a historically low HR rate, which just feels less stable than Kershaw blowing people away with 96 MPH fastballs and visually shocking breaking balls.

Also, fun fact: remember former Red Sox pitching prospect Daniel Bard? He was just released by the Rangers today, after putting up a 121.51 BB/9 in Single A.

CS:

First the Kershaw vs. Felix debate, then onto Kershaw vs. Trout.

Are you saying that Felix’s slightly superior WAR/9 in 2014 (0.350 to Kershaw’s 0.337) is a product of his low HR-rate? I’m not entirely sure how pitcher WAR is calculated, but aside from the home run numbers, Kershaw has been better than Felix in every apparent way. But the King has actually been quite a bit better than his Dodger counterpart in this area, and I’m guessing that’s why the better WAR numbers.

I think your aesthetic comparison goes a long way in explaining why almost no one would argue Felix over Kershaw. As he’s aged, Felix has become more crafty than over-powering, his dominance more a result of subtleties. He can still bring out classic filth, no doubt, as was evident last night when he struck out Seth Smith to end the 3rd on an Uncle Chuck; Smith hasn’t felt that insecure since middle school. But, nowadays, I believe he’s getting most of his Ks with his changeup, and a dude who thrives on mixing speeds just doesn’t look as dominant as a guy like Kershaw, who may as well be throwing a Wiffle ball the way he spins the rawhide. That being said, WAR is meant to be a catch-all statistic of a player’s overall worth, so you would not be devoid of support were you to argue Felix is currently more valuable.

It’s a toss-up, really, and the only way to settle those is via brawl. Despite Kershaw’s length, I’d take Felix in a showdown between the two. If you look at the World Star record books, no one with a neck tattoo has ever lost a fight.

Kershaw against Trout now. I think my question was a bit unclear. A superstar hitter is inherently more valuable than a superstar pitcher, because the batter gets more chances to produce, which means we’d always expect Trout to have the higher WAR. But what I meant to ask is, relative to other pitchers, is Kershaw better than Trout is relative to other offensive guys? I think the answer is probably still “no,” but I’m wondering how you’d go about answering such a question.

Fun fact numero dos: “bard” is a noun that can mean “a slice of bacon placed on meat or game before roasting.” Daniel’s ancestors were either the early equivalents of slam poets, or they were slices of bacon. That were placed on meat or game. But, either way, always BEFORE roasting.

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