MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Starting Pitchers, Part 1

The Dodgers used 24 pitchers this year, so I’m going to need to break this down a bit. There were six starters who were more prominent than the others, so that’ll be our first group, split among today and tomorrow.

Clayton Kershaw (A)
2.91 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 4.4 WAR

Well, let’s see. Kershaw pitched nearly 30 more innings than he did in 2009, yet walked 10 fewer batters. The improved control not only helped him set a career low 1.179 WHIP, but it helped him overcome the only thing really stopping him from taking that next step – working deep into games. In 2009, he averaged about 5.7 innings per start, but in 2010 that improved to almost 6.4. He also finished 10th in MLB in K (212), 7th in K/9 (9.3), 5th in batting average against (.217), and had – by one measure – the 2nd most valuable slider in baseball.

Oh, and he doesn’t turn 23 until next March. So yeah, even though we had high expectations for Kershaw before the season, he still deserves that A and even that might not be enough. Since 1900, there’s only been 24 seasons in which a Dodger pitched threw enough innings to qualify for ERA title despite being 22 or younger; Kershaw’s 2009 and 2010 campaigns rank 3rd and 6th in terms of ERA+.

The funny thing is, there was actually panic in some corners about Kershaw earlier in the season. Though it wasn’t always smooth (eleven walks in his first two starts), he didn’t allow more than three earned runs in any of his first five starts. Then he had an outright disaster on May 4 against the Brewers, getting just four outs while allowing seven earned runs. This led to perhaps the most hilarious tweet of all time, by Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Heyman:

kershaw may be regressing faster than billingsley. not sure. close competition. #howcanbradpennybebetterthanboth?

That’s the same Brad Penny who’s been on four teams in the last three years, and managed to get into only nine games for St. Louis this season, by the way. Heyman wasn’t the only one who raised concern, but the hand-wringing was patently ridiculous:

It’s one start, people. Yes, it was one unbelievably horrific start, but I defy you to find a pitcher, no matter how great, who hasn’t tossed out a stinker like that from time to time.

Kershaw made 26 starts after that Milwaukee game, and he allowed more than three earned runs all of four times. His line in those 26 games? 2.54 ERA, 176/57 K/BB, .580 OPS. So yeah, I think he was just fine.

In fact, since so many of these reviews have been so negative, let’s bask in some of Kershaw’s greatest hits….

May 9:

After 30 pitches in the first inning, Kershaw then needed just 77 pitches to breeze through the next 7 innings. And breeze he did; Kershaw’s Game Score of 84 is tied for the 9th highest of any game this season. In fact, he was so dominant that no Rockie even hit the ball out of the infield until Clint Barmes flew out to Matt Kemp to lead off the 8th. On the day, he struck out 9, and after allowing the 2 walks and a hit in the first inning, he allowed just one more of each for the rest of the day – even getting one back when he picked Young off first base.

July 9:

The number most people are going to see next to Clayton Kershaw‘s name tonight is “12″, the number of strikeouts he had. Me? I’m far more interested in seeing that nice round “0″ next to walks, because we’ve always known he was going to strike people out. The only thing that was going to hold him back from becoming a superduperstar was the wildness, because not only would the troublesome walks allow more men to reach base (obviously), they’d inflate his pitch count to the point where he struggled to get out of the 6th inning.

Tonight? No such worries, since we saw one of the best outings of his young career – 8 innings, 12 K, 0 BB, and while he did give up a two-run solo homer to Alfonso Soriano, that ball was hit so hard that it was almost enjoyable to watch.

Going back to his last start, Kershaw has now struck out seventeen batters since last walking anyone, and this makes two of his last three starts where he didn’t allow a single free pass. In fact, only twice in his last thirteen outings has he allowed more than three walks.

September 15:

The best start of Clayton Kershaw‘s career was also the 4th-most-valuable game any starting pitcher has had this year, based on WPA (Win Percentage Added):

Rk Player Date Opp Rslt IP H R ER BB SO Pit WPA RE24 aLI
1 Edwin Jackson 2010-06-25 TBR W 1-0 9.0 0 0 0 8 6 149 0.880 4.934 1.758
2 Roy Halladay 2010-05-29 FLA W 1-0 9.0 0 0 0 0 11 115 0.842 4.570 1.226
3 Mat Latos 2010-05-13 SFG W 1-0 9.0 1 0 0 0 6 106 0.841 4.661 1.348
4 Clayton Kershaw 2010-09-14 SFG W 1-0 9.0 4 0 0 0 4 111 0.832 4.661 1.338
5 Jake Peavy 2010-06-19 WSN W 1-0 9.0 3 0 0 2 7 107 0.825 4.440 1.809
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/15/2010.

In case you’re wondering why Kershaw ranks above “better” games like Dallas Braden‘s perfecto, it’s because WPA takes into account the game situation, so Kershaw’s performance with a razor-thin 1-0 lead was worth more than Braden holding down a 4-0 lead.

Last night’s outing tops his previous WPA score of 0.628, which he got by tossing 8 shutout innings against the Cardinals in July of 2009. Since allowing six runs in six innings against Washington on August 6, Kershaw’s torn off seven solid games in which he’s allowed 10 ER in 48.2 IP, striking out 48 against just 15 BB. The Dodger record in those games? Just 3-4, thanks to lousy offense, though last night’s one hit was certainly the worst.

And people say the Dodgers “don’t have an ace”…

I can’t imagine that there’s any question now that they do, and one who still has room to improve thanks to his youth. It’s why I’ve put signing him to a long-term deal while the price is still reasonable high on my offseason to-do list.

Chad Billingsley (A+)
3.57 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 8.0 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 2.5 WAR

Billingsley gets a higher grade than Kershaw not because he was better (though his FIP was slightly lower), but because there was so much uncertainty about him headed into the season. You haven’t forgotten the way his 2009 ended, right? In much the same way Jonathan Broxton heard an endless stream of irrational crap about his mental fortitude after melting down this year, Billingsley was the recipient of all of that garbage last year. As far back as my 2010 plan last October, I was imploring people to knock it off:

8) Leave Chad Billingsley alone. I can’t believe this is even an issue, but the people who are on the “dump Billingsley” train are absolute fools. Yes, he was terrible in the second half of the season, I can’t deny that. But just remember the facts, here. We’re talking about a 25-year-old guy who’s shown all the signs of being a stud, who had a 2 month slump. In addition, he was fighting leg injuries for much of the time, and came back from a September trip to the bullpen to take a no-hitter into the 6th inning against Washington and then allowed just one hit into the 6th against San Diego, before getting hit in both cases.

So sure, he’s got issues to work out. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe his off-season broken leg put a cramp in his conditioning, maybe it’s mental – who knows. It’s just that the idea that a bad slump should kick him from “future ace” to “not worthy of employment” is insane.

Also, don’t forget, the two “aces” that everyone wanted to go get this summer? Cliff Lee was so bad in his age-28 season that he got sent to the minors. Roy Halladay was so bad in his 4th major league season that he got shipped back out to the minors, too. How do you think Blue Jay fans would feel if they’d given up on Doc in 2001? Exactly how we’d feel if Billingsley was moved now. Just leave the kid alone, and let him pitch. Jesus.

Billingsley repaid that trust by allowing six earned runs in his second start and getting just nine outs in his third, leading me to jokingly play to the masses by asking what should be done with him. He quickly regained his form, of course, and for a while the only worry was whether he’d be able to overcome his supposed “curse” of not going further than six innings – though it soon became apparent this was more of a Joe Torre problem than a Chad Billingsley problem:

I love that Chad Billingsley was able to pull it together and get the win after his rough first inning the last time out. But he was clearly upset when leaving the mound, and I don’t blame him. He’d thrown only 90 pitches, and while he certainly wasn’t Kershaw-level dominant, he was also up 4-1 when he left. Yes, he had put two men on base. But when you hear nonstop that Billingsley never works into the 7th inning… well, it’s pretty hard to do that when Torre apparently requires a no-hitter to be active before letting Billingsley get that far.

Still, he was sailing along just fine despite hitting the DL with a minor groin strain in June, enough so that I gave him a B+ in our mid-season reviews:

Oh no! Run! Chad Billingsley doesn’t have “it”, the undefinable existential quality that all great pitchers have! Trade him! Cut him! Kill him! Oh, what’s that? By many standards, he’s having one of the best seasons of his career, because 3.2/9 is his lowest walk rate ever, and his 3.40 FIP is comparable to his 3.35 2008 mark when he won 16 games? Nah, facts bore me. I’d rather indiscriminately say that he’s got mental problems.

Billingsley had a bad first start after the break – 7 ER, 10 H, 0 K – in St. Louis, but followed that by not allowing a run over any of his next three starts. In fact, he got better as the season progressed; in 14 starts after that poor outing against the Cardinals, he had a 2.45 ERA with a .201/.280/.276 line. If his 12-11 record doesn’t seem that impressive, well, you know where the blame goes for that (this was from 9/15):

Lest anyone still argue the value of wins and losses for pitchers, note that his ridiculous 11-10 record includes losses or no-decisions in games in which he allowed earned run totals of one (4/25 @ WSH), two (6/28 @ SFG), one (7/4 @ ARI), zero (7/30 @ SFG), two (8/11 @ PHI), one (8/16 @ ATL), zero (9/3 @ SFG), and one (tonight).

That was followed by a game in Arizona on 9/26 where he struck out 13, allowed one run, and got a no-decision. Billingsley’s record could have easily been somewhere in the neighborhood of 17-5 this year with even the slightest bit of help, and I’m betting people would be looking at him a little bit differently were that the case.

If he’s not quite Kershaw, he’s also not as far behind as you’d think. Billingsley’s only just 26 himself, yet he was 11th in FIP, ahead of some names you might recognize – names like Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zack Greinke, C.C. Sabathia, and David Price. It’s a credit to him that he was able to overcome all the trash tossed his way in the media last offseason, and he’s only slightly behind Kershaw on my list of “guys who need to be signed long-term right now-ish.”

Hiroki Kuroda (B+)
3.39 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 2.4 WAR

Kuroda came into the season with nearly as many questions as Billingsley, though his were less about performance and more about his physical condition after an injury-riddled 2009. Kuroda finally stayed healthy and responded with a career year, setting new marks in innings pitched and K/9. He even finished 16th in FIP, giving the Dodgers three starters in the top 16; no other team had even two.

He started off his season by pitching 8 shutout innings in Florida, and had allowed more than three earned runs just once in nine starts (3.03 ERA) before going into Colorado and allowing seven runs (five earned) and ten hits in four innings on May 29, which led some to wonder if it was time to start worrying about him. It wasn’t; Kuroda kept on chugging along, despite Torre’s terrifying decision to send him back out after a rain delay in Cincinnati in June:

What you absolutely do not do, under any circumstances, is run your 35-year-old starter with a history of injuries back to the mound after he’d been down for well over 2.5 hours (the delay was 2:24, but the Dodgers were batting before and after).

So Kuroda went back out for the fifth, and predictably loaded the bases on two hits and a walk. He managed to get out of it without allowing a run, but not before needing 27 pitches to do so and nearly letting the Reds back into the game.

Letting Kuroda go back out, at an enormous risk, bought the Dodgers… well, what, exactly? He pitched just one inning after the delay, so the argument that Torre wanted to save the bullpen for this week’s gauntlet doesn’t fly. No, the most likely scenario is also the most terrifying one: Torre wanted Kuroda to qualify for the win. You know, a “win”, an utterly meaningless statistic, but even less meaningful to a manager whose only responsibility here should be to get his team out of this game without any major injuries.

It’s almost unspeakably reckless.

Though Kuroda was fine his next time out – two ER, nine K in Boston – he got hit hard in each of the following three outings, giving up four, six, and four earned runs, allowing 26 baserunners in 14 innings. It’s hard to know if the outing in Cincinnati had anything to do with it, but it certainly wasn’t a worthwhile risk on Torre’s part.

Fortunately, it didn’t have any long-term effects, as he had a 2.87 ERA and a .550 OPS in his last 14 starts, even taking a no-hitter into the 8th inning in August, and rounding out what was generally a very effective top three with Kershaw and Billingsley.

Kuroda’s a free agent (I mistakenly said he was arbitration-eligible; he’s not, though I wouldn’t have offered anyway) and he’ll be 36 by the time next season starts. There’s still been no word on whether he plans to return to Japan, or if he’d like to continue pitching in the bigs. Despite his age, there’s a big payday out there if he wants it, which would likely price the Dodgers out of the market. Unless he’s willing to come back on a one- or two-year deal at a sizable pay cut from his previous deal, it’s unlikely he’ll be back, and Ted Lilly‘s deal makes it even less likely.

And if that’s true, it’s too bad. It hasn’t always been smooth for Kuroda, who’s had his share of aches, pains, and scares. But when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best, and it’s been a pleasure to watch him.

******

Next! John Ely starts a mania! Vicente Padilla is never boring! And Ted Lilly comes to town! It’s starting pitching, part 2!

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  1. [...] hardly need me to revisit all the ways in which Kershaw is awesome; I did just that already in his 2010 Season in Review piece. He had a two-month stretch last season in which he was basically the best pitcher in baseball, and [...]

  2. [...] hardly need me to revisit all the ways in which Kershaw is awesome; I did just that already in his 2010 Season in Review piece. He had a two-month stretch last season in which he was basically the best pitcher in baseball, and [...]